Boris Johnson’s speech on Wednesday night to the Centre for Policy Studies is receiving attention for his comments on cornflakes. In a robust defence of free market capitalism, the London mayor argued that it is the only way to ensure cornflakes, a metaphor for humans, can “rustle and hustle their way to the top”. As ever, it is a rollicking read, perhaps the best recent defence of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. As ever, on display is a rare example of honest vibrancy in a politician’s language. And as ever, Mr Johnson shows a tendency to come empirically adrift on a sea of his own loquacity.
It is not only the claim that Thatcher took on Neil Kinnock in 1983, or some odd statistics about IQ, or the idea that social mobility is declining, or that America is a particularly socially mobile society, or that his claim that the top 0.1 per cent of people pay 14 per cent of “all taxation” refers only to income tax, or the assertion that new overseas-backed developments constitute “hundreds of thousands of new homes” when they make up at best a few tens of thousands.
Rather, in a peroration imagining what Thatcher would do today, it is Mr Johnson’s chutzpah to laud grammar schools’ supposed influence on social mobility without mentioning the current renaissance of London schools. (As mayor, Mr Johnson has little control over education but if that were a criterion for his interventions we would all be poorer.) Leaving aside whether grammar schools were indeed catapults of justice, what is happening now in London is a far more relevant and interesting trend.
A similar blind spot is housing. Predicting that Thatcher would have built hundreds of thousands of homes, there is little reflection by Mr Johnson on why London has consistently failed in meeting its targets to increase housing supply. The mayor is right to take the inconsistency of those who scapegoat foreign investors who are building new properties but why, one wonders, has he (like his predecessor) so far struggled on housing?
Then there was this fascinating line, buried in a section calling for more powers to be devolved to other regions: “a London effect is noticeable as people flee the high costs of the capital and start dynamic new businesses in tech and other sectors.” Of course, high costs are not a simple bad thing – they reflect the demand for businesses to come to London in the first place – but I still found it strange that the mayor would see this is as only a good thing, rather than something he might want to look at.
The argument of Mr Johnson’s speech is that London is Thatcher’s city. Yes, but it is also his. It would have been enlightening to hear more about it.
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