June 23, 2019 Abdul Haqq

‘Jack the Lads?’ Or is there something we are choosing to ignore?

Click here to listen to podcast version 

Definition of ‘Jack the lad’: “A conspicuously self-assured, carefree and brash (young) man; a ‘chancer.’”[1]

At this point in time, Boris Johnson appears to be even more impervious to controversy than Tony Blair. Blair earned the nickname ‘Teflon Tony’ due his ability as PM to emerge unscathed from poor government poll ratings on a number of fronts at one stage. He even managed to increase his own popularity ratings at the same time.[2] In Boris’ case, controversies – including the recent domestic altercation with his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds[3]– fail to diminish his own approval ratings. It could be argued that he personifies the ‘Jack the lad’ definition highlighted above. Indeed, many seem to concur with this view:

Charm is politics’ deadliest weapon. It is not charisma, the authority to lead through an electrifying presence. It is a subtler, more intangible quality, possessed by Boris Johnson. He may be blatantly unqualified as Britain’s next prime minister, but…he is still odds-on favourite.The basis for this lies in his disposition of charm.

Johnson is the darling of the polls. He mesmerises punch-drunk Tories and disillusioned Labour voters alike. He emerges from his biographical record as incompetent, lazy, dissolute and a liar, yet the public’s response is that he is “our kind of liar”.[4]


Birds of a feather flock together or is it a case of flies to ordure?

It came as no surprise that [P]resident Trump publicly endorsed Boris to become the next PM.[5] His admiration  for him has been evident for some time now:

I like him. I have always liked him. I don’t know that he is going to be chosen, but I think he is a very good guy, a very talented person…[6]

Their mutual admiration is borne out of undeniable similarities as it relates to socio-political ambitions and beliefs. Added to this dimension are their abilities to offend and entertain in equal measure. Johnson’s racist and Islamophobic outbursts are as well established as Trump’s.[7] The National Review rightly observes:

The two men share several obvious qualities. Both make an art out of chaos, packaging dishevelment and disarray into box-office entertainment. Both hold a strange outsider status, as men born to wealth railing against the very establishments in which they’ve spent their lives. And both have remarkable heads of hair. (The most frequently seen comment on Johnson’s YouTube appearances is that he looks like Trump’s English cousin.)

Trump and Johnson are proof that voters warm to a politician who speaks his mind — even if he does not always understand what he is saying. The former’s well-documented Twitter account is a mixture of hilarious outbursts and incoherent ramblings. Politicalspeak is replaced by spontaneous thought, leaving critics and followers enraged and enthralled. Johnson’s eloquence is a match for any British swot, but he too can be made to look remarkably inept. A 2017 policy interview with the BBC saw the charming campaigner reduced to a bumbling mess.[8]


‘Born to wealth’ & the reality of White Privilege

Undoubtedly, wealth coupled with white privilege enable Trump, Johnson and other contemporaries to rail against the very establishments from where their respective prosperities emerged. However, this cannot be said in relation to non-white minorities, regardless of the latter’s relative affluence that may have been attained on a similar stage so to speak. The explanation for this is rather straightforward and obvious:

The fact is, White supremacy defines our current reality. It is not merely a belief that to be White is to be better. It is a political, cultural, and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not White. That subjugation takes on an infinite number of forms and is enforced with varying degrees of physical violence, mental abuse, and robbery. White supremacy is the voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people. White supremacy establishes, upholds, and normalizes hierarchy based on the premise that the less Black you are the closer you are to God.[9]


Jihadi Jack

The above reality can also be emphasised when referring to another, less financially well-off – but all the same, privileged – case of Jack Letts, the ex-ISIS fighter currently detained in Syria.[10] He is white, British and middle class, and has been afforded more favourable media coverage than other non-white counterparts who are in a similar position. Shamima Begum is a case in point. When contrasting media and society’s treatment of Jack Letts with others like Shamima Begum, the vilification and calls for him to be stripped of British citizenship (he has dual Canadian nationality) are largely absent. Instead, we read affable accounts of his childhood as a “…popular kid growing up. A class-clown who gained friends by cracking jokes and making them laugh.[11] A bit of a – I dare say –  ‘jack the lad’. His parents were recently convicted and received suspended sentences for funding terrorism as a result of financially supporting him abroad.[12] The following tweet summarises the extent of privilege afforded to him despite claiming to be a self-professed former terrorist: “Want to join ISIS and keep your British Citizenship? Just be white and middle class!”[13]

While the Letts family had to concern themselves with the prospect of possible custodial sentences, palpable fears resonated across immigrant communities regarding the emergence of a two-tiered/second class citizenship for 2nd.and 3rd generation – non-white – Britons following the government’s inept handling of Shamima Begum’s case.[14] It would be difficult to argue against these fears being justified in view of the recent travesty surrounding descendants of the Windrush.[15]


‘Black history didn’t begin with slavery; it was interrupted by it…’

The uncomfortable truth that allows unsavoury and unfit characters to assume positions wielding such sweeping authority are the structurally racist apparatus our western societies are built upon. These have existed for centuries and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because we continue to facilitate a flawed notion that:

Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born into an already written script that tells us what to expect from strangers due to their skin colour, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded as white.”[16]

This is an unfortunate state of affairs that continues to cause societal – as well as global – imbalance when considering another stark reality:

black people predate white people, but the label ‘black’ has only existed for as long as there have been white people around (even before these people called themselves white). How? Because there’s no way that ‘pioneering’, globetrotting Europeans saw themselves as ‘white’ until in direct contrast to all the dark faces they encountered in places far from home. In the seventeenth century, ‘pioneers’ from countries including France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and, of course, England, would have had to have had the concept of being ‘white’ explained to them.[17]

The terminology to define Black and White developed out of constructs to differentiate on the grounds of commerce and commodities; black(s) being the commodity of white(s) at the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.[18]Nevertheless, there are emerging indications of positive change occurring across societies alarmed by the apparent regression of socio-political and cultural climates, driven by a privileged minority intent on maintaining the status quo. As Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin state in ‘How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance’:

“…the encouraging reality is this: Black people are working each day to inch us closer to collective freedom. We contain multitudes, and we are hammering at issues as varied and intersectional as police violence and body image and reproductive justice and lack of inclusion in the technology sector.[19]



Boris should be cautious of allying himself too closely to Trump in view of the latter’s inability to redress past misdemeanours which may catch up with him one day. His girlfriend’s cries of  ‘get off me!’ during the recent altercation, while not as alarming as Trump’s grabbing women in particular parts of their anatomy, are still a cause for concern; especially if he is to become the next PM:

The question of Boris Johnson’s character – the way he does things and who he seems to be – is now of first order of importance for the future of Britain.”[20]

One other, equally important reason to maintain a healthy distance from Trump is due to his contempt for the truth. Such behaviour is consistent with arrogant megalomaniacal characters (and Boris also apparently possesses similar, if not the same traits). In support of this assertion is Trump’s recent insistence that he maintains his original position, from 30 years ago, to return hanging as capital punishment in order to deal with the Central Park 5 – five young men who were wrongly convicted in 1989 for a brutal rape. Despite the real perpetrator coming forward to confess years later, providing precise details of the crime, the 5 men’s convictions being overturned and them receiving official apologies alongside compensation, Trump refuses to alter his original stance.[21]

To conclude, we must return to the jovial phrase ‘Jack the lad’ that may be attributed to the aforementioned characters by their adoring supporters and note:

If Jack were an actual historical figure the most obvious candidate would be the celebrated Jack Sheppard, the 18th century thief who was caught and imprisoned five times but escaped four times, in the process becoming a popular hero. He certainly had the credentials to be a real Jack the lad, having made audacious escapes and recklessly carefree robberies. Unfortunately for him, he was guarded day and night during his fifth incarceration and was hanged at Tyburn in November 1724.”[22]

Boris would do well to avoid a similar fate to Jack Sheppard by ending up politically hamstrung as a result of his present cavalier approach. As for Donald Trump, he should be careful what he wishes for.


*Podcast edition is available here: https://anchor.fm/a-h-baker/episodes/Jack-the-lads–Or-is-there-something-ominous-we-are-choosing-to-ignore-e4e6na 


[2]Travis, A: ‘‘Teflon Tony’ defies mood of crisis’, The Guardian, 22ndJanuary 2002: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/jan/22/uk.polls

[3]Martin, A-M; Shadwell, T & Murphy, N: ‘Police called to Boris Johnson’s home over reports of ‘loud altercation’, The Mirror, 21stJune 2019: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/breaking-police-called-reports-loud-16678886

[4]Jenkins, S: ‘Boris Johnson may be an incompetent liar, but charm is his secret weapon’, The Guardian, 13thJune 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/13/boris-johnson-tories-labour-voters

[5]The Telegraph: ‘Donald Trump backs Boris Johnson to be next prime minister as Nigel Farage ‘banned’ from meeting president,’ 1stJune 2019: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/06/01/donald-trump-backs-boris-johnson-next-prime-minister-nigel-farage/


[7]Heffer, G: ‘Boris Johnson called a ‘racist’ as his past remarks are read out in commons,’ Sky News, 21stJune 2019: https://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-called-a-racist-as-his-past-remarks-are-read-out-in-commons-11744991

[8]Handa, S: ‘Boris Johnson’s Trumpian Path to No. 10’,  National Review, 23rdMay 2019: https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/05/boris-johnson-political-career-donald-trump-brexit/

[9]Solomon, A & Rankin, K: “How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance”, Hatchett Book Group, Inc. 2019: http://amzn.eu/7PK7rE8

[10]Ensor, J: ‘Jihadi Jack: The OCD teenager who took a football to bed with him who grew up to be a terrorist,’ The Telegraph, 21stJune 2019: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/06/21/jihadi-jack-ocd-teenager-took-football-bed-grew-terrorist/


[12]Dearden, L: ‘Jihadi Jack: Parents of British ISIS fighter spared jail for funding terrorism’, 21stJune 2019: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/jihadi-jack-parents-trial-sally-lane-john-letts-syria-terror-funding-a8969141.html

[13]Owen Jones: https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/1142412655879081984?s=17

[14]Addley, E: ‘Shamima Begum: decision risks ‘creating second class of citizenship’. The Guardian, 22ndFebruary 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/22/shamima-begum-decision-risks-creating-second-class-of-citizenship

[15]BBC News: ‘Windrush Scandal: ‘No cap’ on compensation claims’, 3rdApril 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-47802125

[16]Eddo-Lodge, R: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, Bloomsbury Publishing

[17]Boakye, J: ‘Black, Listed,’ 2019: http://amzn.eu/dpBxHzk

[18]Mbembe, A: ‘Critique of Black Reason’, Duke University Press, 2017

[19]Solomon, A & Rankin, K: “How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance”, Hatchett Book Group, Inc. 2019: http://amzn.eu/7PK7rE8

[20]Toynbee, P: ‘Boris Johnson’s character should be an issue for the whole nation’, The Guardian, 22ndJune 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2019/jun/22/boris-johnson-character-issue-nation?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[21]Morin, R: ‘They admitted their guilt’: 30 years of Trump’s comments about the Central Park Five’, USA Today, 19thJune 2019: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/06/19/what-trump-has-said-central-park-five/1501321001/


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