A leading Worcestershire Conservative faces internal investigation after repeating Boris Johnson’s ‘letterbox and bank robber’ jibes about the niqab and the burka in a series of Twitter posts.
The comments of Councillor Ken Pollock, a long serving Worcestershire County Council Cabinet member, have been condemned as “shameful” by Worcester Muslim Welfare Association.
An official complaint has been made to the county council about his conduct, which has automatically triggered formal complaint procedures. The complaint will be looked into ahead of deciding if it warrants being referred to the council’s Standards and Ethics Committee.
Councillor Pollock decided to show his support for Boris Johnson by tweeting “I am Spartacus!” before repeating the key points made by the controversial MP in a newspaper column.
In the tweet he wrote:
It triggered a series of negative responses questioning his motives for posting the tweets. He suggested the comments were on a par with poking fun at men in kilts and bishops in gaiters.
I mentioned the gaiters and kilts. If we can’t even mention these things, we’ve lost free speech. Why so timid? Did you support the Danish cartoons about Mohamed? Would you rather we all stayed silent like the authorities in Rotherham – too scared of being called racist?
— Ken Pollock (@CllrKenPollock) August 10, 2018
I was supporting Boris in saying anyone can wear what they like. I am also allowed to comment on what it looks like. Free speech. Bishops in gaiters look ridiculous but saying that does not mean anyone should take it to mean they can persecute them!
— Ken Pollock (@CllrKenPollock) August 13, 2018
But one of the respondents, @tpiotr74 – Tom Piotrowski, from Worcester – confirmed he had officially complained about the original tweets.
Speaking today he added: “I am fed up with politicians saying stupid things that potentially have and in fact do have harmful effects on innocent people. That’s why I complained.”
His detailed complaint claims Councillor Pollock has breached the council’s Code of Conduct for members, and contradicts the Public Sector Equality Duty, as defined by the Equality Act 2010.
It includes the following: “I believe Councillor Pollock’s deliberate choice of words shows a clear and reckless example of showing no respect for Muslim women choosing to wear niqab, burka or hijab as an expression of their adherence to cultural and religious beliefs and values.
“This apparent and glaring show of insensitivity comes at the time when the local Muslim community in Worcester is being targeted by the far right group EDL (English Defence League)….the last thing that an elected politician should be doing is making those kinds of inflammatory statements at this very difficult time.”
Mr Piotrowski added today: “We can a have a debate about free speech and I would be happy to debate Ken Pollock on this at his convenience, but one thing which strikes me is that he confuses freedom of speech with the dehumanising narrative used by some politicians, both past and present, to prey on minorities in order to score political points.
“This kind of language is closer to the Munich beer halls of 1930s Germany or pre-civil war Yugoslavia, where Muslim Bosnian men were also vilified and ridiculed, than to free speech…Ken Pollock is not a comedian, he is a politician.”
Last night Mohammed Iqbal, General Secretary of the Worcester Muslim Welfare Association, based at the city’s Central Mosque, said the comments were “irresponsible and offensive.”
“Boris Johnson’s remarks have left negative vibes and have opened opportunities for the far right to exploit this so-called ‘gaffe’, giving them more oxygen to go out and commit more Islamophobia and race hate crimes.
“I find it shameful that Councillor Pollock, a local councillor and Cabinet member, is supporting Boris Johnson when he should be coming out in support of the local Muslim community, by condemning him or keeping quiet.”
He added: “Words like Boris’s will not help but create more tension in the community and could lead to more negativity and trust issues between politicians and the general public.”
“I Am Spartacus!”
Councillor Pollock’s reference to “I am Spartacus” was intended, it seems, to trigger a wave of supportive messages from other Boris-backing Conservatives – but it appeared to fall flat. By the end of Monday, three days after the initial tweet, no other Conservatives had joined the Spartacus protest.
The phrase ‘I am Spartacus’ originates from a classic 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas as a rebel slave leader. When a Roman general insists slaves must identify Spartacus or they will all be crucified, they each stand, one by one, to declare they are all Spartacus. It was revived in a viral Twitter campaign in 2010 over the conviction of a man for making a groundless ‘joke’ tweet about blowing up an airport.
Today a spokewoman at Worcestershire County Council said: “We can confirm that a complaint has been received, which will be reviewed in line with our procedures.”
Councillor Pollock is a member of Cabinet of Worcestershire County Council, responsible for Economy and Infrastructure (including highways).
He also sits on the Ethics and Standards Committee, and on the council’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education.
He lives in Cheltenham but represents the area of Tenbury.
Response to Boris Johnson’s column
The Muslim Council of Great Britain has written to the Prime Minister urging action against Johnson, and said it was “hopeful” that the party “will not allow any whitewashing of this specific inquiry currently in process”.
The Muslim Council previously said the support shown to Mr Johnson from Tory MPs had “shone a light on the underbelly of Islamophobia” within the party.
The Conservative Party launched its disciplinary investigation after receiving dozens of complaints about Mr Johnson’s remarks.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis have called on him to apologise. So far Johnson has added nothing to his original comments.
His comments have generated strong support from across the political and religious sphere, including some prominent Muslims, comedian Rowan Atkinson and leading Tories, who see the barrage of complaints and the Conservative Party inquiry as an attack on freedom of speech.
What did Boris actually say?
In his Telegraph column, discussing a planned ban on wearing of the burka and niqab in some countries, Boris Johnson wrote:
“If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you.
“I would go further and say that is it absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
Mr Johnson said he did not support a burka ban in the UK as this would give a boost to radicals who said there was a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West, and could lead to a “general crackdown on any pubic symbols of religious affiliation.”
But he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when speaking to him at his MP surgery.
Disclosure: I was among those who tweeted responses to @CllrKenPollock on my personal Twitter account, which is @janerockhouse The Twitter exchange triggered by the councillor’s initial tweet can be viewed by Twitter users by clicking here.