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The news that Sadiq Khan (the Muslim son of a Pakistani bus driver) has been elected Mayor of London hasn’t exactly gone down well with the British people. Here is a representative reaction cropped from the comment section of a popular right-wing newspaper:
“Bye Bye London. It was nice knowing you. Can’t believe what’s happening to this country.”
Here’s another – “We’re doomed. This is the end. We knew it was coming. Shame on those who did nothing to stop it. I used to love visiting London as a kid. I won’t bother doing that now. Tragic.”
And here’s one more – “Hardly surprising. There are no English people left in London. It’s part of Pakistan now. Used to be such a lovely city.”
It would be easy – and conventional – to label such responses hysterical and exaggeratedly doomly. That is exactly how they are being framed by the liberal press. But are they really an overreaction? The answer is complex.
As Mayor of London, Mr Khan will have very little political power. The position of Mayor is almost entirely bureaucratic, with the functions of the office largely confined to issues like transport, museum fees, rubbish disposal and recycling. Despite that, few positions are more symbolic than the Mayoralty of our Capital.
When the man or woman who replaces Barack Obama visits London, he or she will be required to meet with Khan as a matter of tradition. There is no way around it. For the President to refuse this meeting would be loudly condemned by both ends of the spectrum of political acceptability. And this applies to all foreign leaders who visit the UK, including the premiers of China, France, Israel, Canada and India.
Mr Khan will often be the first living thing a foreign leader will encounter upon visiting the United Kingdom. He is the welcome mat; the red carpet; our best Sunday suit. This is one reason to be worried, for being an official representative of a major nation provides Khan with enormous ‘soft’ power.
Should Donald Trump enter the White House this coming November, he will be expected by his electors to follow through on promises he made over the election season. And most notable among these promises, at least for people of our political persuasion, was the promise to close the borders of the United States to all practitioners of the Muslim faith. While this policy was and is enormously popular with the American public (and the British public, for that matter), it will be very difficult to enact without setting off an organised wave of condemnation from leaders across the world. As to whether this makes any difference to President Trump depends to a large extent on how influential Muslims are in other Western countries. It matters little or nothing if the Sultan of Brunei decries the President from his little, irrelevant fiefdom. But it does matter if a certain Mayor lobbies the UK government to bar the US President from London, a city which hosts a massive proportion of the world’s economic and political get-togethers.
As Mayor, Mr Khan will have high-level access not only to the government, but also to the monarchy. The Queen herself will be expected to meet with Khan on occasion to discuss all manner of topics, ranging from economic matters to the status of foreign leaders. While the Queen, like Mr Khan, occupies a largely ceremonial position, it is nevertheless invested with considerable emotional importance. The Queen’s viewpoint (expressed, for example, in the annual Christmas Day speech) is taken a million times more seriously than the view of a commoner. Will Khan seek to influence the Queen? It isn’t exactly far-fetched to predict that he will.
Finally, we must also consider the effect that a Muslim mayor of London will have on our national-cultural identity. London is the most important site in the British Isles – the place where the economic, political and cultural elites reside and make their decisions. Though citizens of other areas might begrudge the idea, London still leads the way in setting the cultural tone for the rest of the United Kingdom. In what way will having a Muslim mayor change London’s cultural self-concept? Again, we don’t know, but this must be considered.
I do not personally believe the election of Sadiq Khan means Britain has succumbed to Islam. It is simply a sign that London’s British identity is slipping further into the multicultural gunge. I’d love to suggest a way of halting this decline, but I’m not entirely sure there is one.