Analysis: There'll be fresh thinking in London after Ken Livingstone's defeat

London's Jewish community lacked the muscle to counter Livingstone's anti-Semitic remarks.

boris johnson 88 (photo credit: )
boris johnson 88
(photo credit: )
London had managed to shuffle along quite happily down the ages without a mayor until eight years ago, when Labor's Ken Livingstone won the newly created post. And so its importance has often been derided. But the mayor controls an £11 billion budget ($22b.), and has a decisive role in overseeing public transport and police and fire services for a capital that is home to more than 7 million people - an Israel-sized population, that is. He also helps set the tone for the city. In that light, this weekend's election to the mayoralty of the Conservatives' Boris Johnson, a controversial but ultimately good-hearted figure, thwarting the bid for a third term by Livingstone, sends an encouraging message about voters' sensibilities in the English capital. Livingstone is a divisive figure who rightly acknowledged this weekend that he had only himself to blame for his defeat. An articulate populist and a demonstrably skilled political operator, he is also a frequent critic of Israel, which he has accused of "ethnic cleansing." In a 2005 Guardian article, he termed then-prime minister Ariel Sharon "a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office," and charged Sharon with organizing terrorism against the Palestinians. As mayor he hosted a notorious Islamist cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who reportedly supports the destruction of Israel, suicide bombings and the execution of homosexuals. Livingstone also has an offensive record where Jews are concerned. He compared a London journalist who happened to be Jewish to a "concentration camp guard," and refused to apologize for so doing. And he notoriously suggested that two (non-Iranian-born) Jewish businessmen with whom he'd fallen out, David and Simon Reuben, should "go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs." Pressed to withdraw that remark, he declared: "I would offer a complete apology to the people of Iran to the suggestion that they may be linked in any way to the Reuben brothers." Johnson has caused his share of offense down the years as well, but sometimes in misguided attempts at humor, and frequently with profuse apologies afterward. He branded the city of Portsmouth, for instance, as being "arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labor MPs." He compared British political leadership contests to the purported "orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing" in Papua New Guinea. (In a glorious mea culpa, he then declared his certainty that the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea "lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.") Something of a figure of fun until his campaign for the mayoralty gathered pace, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (to give him his full name) might best be described as a young fogey - being a public school-educated, bicycling, posh-talker who seems, on first contact, to have emerged straight from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse... and from Bertie Wooster territory rather than Jeeves's. But his disheveled, bumbling exterior masks an endearing capacity for self-deprecation, keen intelligence and a capacity for independent thought. When he visited Israel as part of a Conservative Friends of Israel delegation in late 2004, Johnson added his own personal tour stops to an already crowded itinerary, so that he could see as much of the Israeli and Palestinian sides of our reality as possible. He told me during that trip that the chaps in the pubs of his Henley parliamentary constituency - "the ones who'll tell you that 'I served in Palestine, old boy. Jolly fine fighter, the Arab'" - consider that Israel invaded Palestine, and is now building settlements as a land grab. If Johnson tried to tell them that Israel has been desperate to make peace, another of the visiting Conservative group chimed in at that point, "I don't think he'd get out of the pub in one piece." London's gradually shrinking Jewish community lacked the muscle to effectively counter Livingstone's anti-Semitic remarks. The Labor mayor, after all, even defied his own party leader, prime minister Tony Blair, in refusing to apologize for his "concentration camp guard" slur. It is highly unlikely Johnson will cause the capital's Jews similar grief. It is certain that he will take more responsible positions should the need arise to discuss Israel. And his defeat of Livingstone may signal that some Londoners, at least, are starting to rethink its orientation. Tellingly, in his acceptance speech in the early hours of Saturday morning, Johnson said he had spent the campaign "violently disputing the meaning of multiculturalism" with Livingstone. An urgent reinterpretation of Britain's approach to multiculturalism is indeed essential to the well-being of that country, and most urgently to London, which Johnson hailed as the "greatest, most cosmopolitan, multiracial, generous-hearted city on earth." His election might just help keep it that way.