Three reasons why Boris Johnson was wrong

He identified the wrong target, misrepresented Liverpool's history and was unjust to Mr Bigley
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The Independent Online

The inhabitants of Liverpool have many qualities, but they do not include a thick skin. Their reaction to the editorial in last week's Spectator was predictable. In clear and powerful prose, the magazine had deplored the mawkish excess of the public response to Ken Bigley's death, especially in Liverpool. It went on to argue that the city's moral fibre had been destroyed by welfare-ism and self-pity.

So far, so provocative, and for Boris Johnson's to claim that he was stunned by the city's response strains credulity. He had applied a blow-torch to the blue touch-paper. He must have expected to be able to view the fireworks from a safe vantage point in Doughty Street. He may have been stunned, however, by an attack in his rear from an unexpected quarter, his leader. A different Tory leader might have been less concerned with The Spectator's slurs on Liverpool. After all, even on the most optimistic assessment of the party's electoral prospects, it has no target seats in the city. Another leader might merely have brushed the whole matter aside, saying that Boris will be Boris.

Not Michael Howard: there is no more ardent Scouseophile in British politics. Mr Howard twice fought a Liverpool seat, and developed a lasting affection for the place and its people. He discovered the Beatles before they were famous and he is a passionate supporter of Liverpool Football Club. During the evening when he became the leader of the Tory party, I heard, erroneously as it transpired, that Liverpool had been defeated. I told Mr Howard, adding that this was perhaps a good moment for his side to lose, when there were so many compensations. He emphatically disagreed. "There is never a good time for Liverpool to lose".

He has now ordered Boris to apologise: a cunning ploy. Boris does a good apology; a cross between Bertie Wooster caught with his hand in the headmaster's biscuit tin and an old English sheepdog being told off for chasing the postman. Even Liverpool may not be immune to the charms of his bumbling monosyllables and goofy stoicism. Though the Liverpudlians may start the day angry, it is more than possible that by evening they will be sending him off on a wave of exasperated affection.

Yet amidst all the apologising, there is a danger that important points will be overlooked. The Spectator leader should be criticised on three grounds. It identified the wrong target, it misrepresented Liverpool's history, and it was unjust to Mr Bigley.

We should all deplore the current tendency to sentimental indulgence in public expressions of grief. Far too often, the stiff upper lip has been replaced by the quivering lip, while the hearts of oak seem to have become bleeding hearts of mush. But this is hardly confined to Liverpool. The cult of St. Diana did not originate there, and few of the thousands of devotees who disgusted their more dignified fellow countrymen by wandering around the royal parks weeping and holding flowers would have come from Liverpool. It is not only Liverpudlians who ought to brace up, for, as Alice Miles put it in last week's Times, "if we wear our hearts on our sleeves, they are easy to shoot at". The reaction to Mr Bigley's death may have encouraged Britain's enemies to believe that we are a people who will buckle under pressure, but Liverpool is not solely guilty for creating that false impression.

Nor is the Liverpudlian psyche responsible for the city's economic misfortunes. That is squarely the fault of the Labour movement. Liverpool used to be a great imperial trading city, and there is no reason to believe that its peoples' entrepreneurial instincts went into decay. Unfortunately, the modern city had depended for its prosperity on the car industry, shipbuilding and the docks; all industries in which it was easy for militant trade unionists to seize control. They did so, and kept their boot on the employers' windpipe for many decades, with predictable consequences. Liverpool's Labour movement knew as little about job creation as Boris Johnson did about the city's sensitivities. The blame should be put where it is deserved.

So should the praise. The Spectator implied that Ken Bigley was the author of his own misfortunes, in that he had gone to work in a dangerous region. That is unfair, and it is a further misreading of Liverpudlian history. For every merchant prince who returned to endow it with the glories of Victorian architecture, there were many Ken Bigleys, working and living in danger on the fringes of the known world, often for little reward. A lot of them ended up in unmarked graves, after a death fully as grisly as Mr Bigley's.

We should be saluting Mr Bigley as part of Liverpool's great tradition. We should also welcome the fact that the real British response to his death is not sentimental bilge. It is the likely decision to put some of our troops under American command, so that the US can send forces into Fallujah to hunt down Ken Bigley's murderers. The death of his killers would be an appropriate monument. Boris Johnson's apology is an amusing distraction.