TCS Daily


Beyond the Fringe

By Val MacQueen - March 21, 2005 12:00 AM

After a typically brief absence, London Mayor Ken Livingstone is back in his natural habitat: the headlines.

This time, the man who famously referred to President George Bush as "the greatest threat to life on this planet" had made an offensive remark to a Jewish reporter who works for a paper much loathed by Livingstone (The Evening Standard, which is proud to count itself his mortal enemy).

Livingstone had been emerging from a party typical of the coterie with which he surrounds himself: the 20th anniversary bash of former socialist minister Chris Smith coming out as the first gay MP. Smith was also praised for having admitted a few days previously that he has suffered from HIV for the past 18 or so years. Whether he actually outed himself or someone was about to do it for him, we will never know, but the conviviality flowed on until the mayor made his departure. A reporter from The Evening Standard "doorstepped" him, media slang for dogging him on the steps of the building, as he left. Here is the transcript of the exchange between reporter Oliver Finegold and Mayor Livingstone:

        Oliver Finegold: Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did tonight go?

        Livingstone: How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?

        Finegold: How did tonight go?

        Livingstone: Have you thought of having treatment?

        Finegold: Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?

        Livingstone: What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?

        Finegold: No, I'm Jewish, I wasn't a German war criminal and I'm actually 
        quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?

        Livingstone: Ah right, well you might be, but actually you are just like a 
        concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, 
        aren't you?

        Finegold: Great, I have you on record for that. So, how was tonight?

        Livingstone: It's nothing to do you with you because your paper is a load 
        of scumbags and reactionary bigots.

        Finegold: I'm a journalist and I'm doing my job. I'm only asking for a comment.

        Livingstone: Well, work for a paper that doesn't have a record of supporting 
        fascism.

There was a roar of outrage in the media, blogs and the correspondence columns. Livingstone apologists leapt forward to claim he had not known the reporter was Jewish and indeed, hadn't even been referring to the reporter, but to the Associated Newspapers group. Nothing seemed too far-fetched to explain this lapse in political correctitude in one whose entire career was built on beatifying groups outside the mainstream.

Given that Livingstone has never seen a minority or politically correct cause he didn't want to put aside for a rainy day, his behavior in the face of all the criticism was baffling. Comments such as "hoist with own petard" flew around like deranged bats.

Less deranged was journalist Barbara Amiel, who wrote in The Telegraph with greater originality, "Welcome, Ken, to the gulag you helped create," jumping in with a killer lead paragraph: "This past week has been something of an epiphany for the politically correct. The Commission for Racial Equality ... took time from its ethnic monitoring scheme ('collect, store and analyse data about people's ethnic backgrounds to highlight possible inequalities') and asked the Standards Board (investigating those 'failing to treat people with respect') to look into the behaviour of Ken Livingstone."

Livingstone, however, stuck to his guns with an air of mild bemusement and, a few days later, issued a defiant je ne regrette rien statement in, of course, The Guardian. Was this an inexplicable faux pas from so seasoned an operator?

I doubt it.

The smiling, emollient persona variously known as Cuddly Ken, Red Ken and the Cheeky Chappie, among other things, camouflages what is probably the most astute political operator in Britain -- or Europe. Indeed, for sheer cunning and effrontery masked in self-effacing charm, he leaves Jacques Chirac at the starting gate with a straw in his mouth.

Livingstone does nothing by mistake. And never has, since the days when he was a towering figure, and eventually leader, of the public trough known as the Greater London Council -- a vast, roiling vat of jobs for fellow traveler boys and girls and pinko parasites of every description, patronage and what P J O'Rourke has referred to in another context as "the wild, venal jobbery of politicians". Organizations, if that is not too strong a word, receiving money from London taxpayer funds via the Greater London Council under the baronetcy of the Cheeky Chappie were Babies Against the Bomb, the English Prostitutes Collective, the Union of Turkish Workers, the Homosexual Memorial Project, the Colonial Liberation Movement, and the Women's Peace Bus. Ken, you will have gathered, was heavily into banning the bomb.

Livingstone, a former laboratory technician, began his ascent up the monkey pole of British socialist politics when he took the first step so many ambitious leftists choose as a starting point: he became a teacher in the state school system. Next step, a council member for the lefty Lambeth council. Within the council, he held the post of vice chair of the Housing Committee. Later, he took a lateral step to become a member of Camden Council, where he became chair of the Housing Committee. Lots of patronage opportunities in public housing.

He was elected leader in 1981, and in 1982, he invited a Sinn Fein official to the GLC.

His national reputation was growing and inexplicably, he came second after the Pope in a BBC poll as Man of the Year. At the same time, popular London tabloid The Sun dubbed him "the most odious man in Britain." People who don't vote in BBC polls tended to agree with The Sun.

After she attained power, Margaret Thatcher shut down the whole reeking edifice of communists and moonbats by abolishing the GLC with a stroke of the pen in 1986, and sold the huge building, on prime real estate on the banks of the Thames (as the UN sits on the East River), to a Japanese development company. The unstoppable Ken switched to the national scene, becoming the Labour Member of Parliament for London's Brent East constituency and holding posts on the National Executive Committee. He was fairly low profile during this time, being known mainly for his liking for newts, which he collects and about which he is famously knowledgeable.

Despite his whiny south London accent, his Cuddly Ken camouflage has served him well. He has a certain arcane charm and is famously quick-witted. In 1989, this hater of all things military claimed that fellow Labour MP Gerald Kaufman "has crawled so far up the backside of NATO that only the soles of his feet are visible." But by and large, he was quiet.

Tony Blair decided to revivify a clone of the London County Council by creating the position of mayor of London, hoping to engineer a Labour majority in the capital. (The City of London, the square mile of the original London and the chief financial district of Britain and Europe, has had a Lord Mayor for several hundred years, but this is a ceremonial position and is limited to the Square Mile.) Blair appointed one of his henchmen as the Labour candidate. But he reckoned without Red Ken, who promptly stood as an Independent and won. I believe Livingstone is the only Labour politician who has ever had the will and the nerve to face down Tony Blair and win.

Ken was back.

And so was the jobbery and the catering to useful minorities. He has since hosted a dinner of honor for Britain's chief Saddam fan, George Galloway, and praised NION. Last summer, he paid homage to Islamist cleric Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, who was visiting London to establish the International Council of Muslim Clerics. He was hosted by Red Ken.

Yusef al-Qaradhawi is one of those nutters who think little girls should have part of their clitorises sliced off, is of the opinion that wifebeating is "sometimes" permissible, thinks women are sometimes to be blamed for being raped, and that homosexuality is not just a "perverted act" but is a depravity which should rightly attract the death penalty.

In the face of all this intolerance, one would have expected the London mayor to adopt the minority modality and protest in the strongest terms, but instead, he called a press conference at which he released a report defending Al-Qaradhawi's visit and demanded that the British media apologize for being so boorish as to condemn it.

Also penciled in, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, is Fidel himself -- although, with a shattered knee, Castro may have to send his regrets.

So why has Red Ken refused to apologize to Oliver Finegold?

Even given that he was probably "tired and nervous" (British media code for drunk but ambulatory) after the Chris Smith party, he is undeniably a sufficiently accomplished political performer to have found a way to recant the following morning after the Alka-Seltzers kicked in. He has made ill-considered comments before when departing other parties in a tired and nervous state and has always defused them effortlessly.

He claims that his ancient loathing of Finegold's employer, the Associated Newspapers group (The London Evening Standard and nationals The Daily Mail and The Sunday Mail), stems from some editorials their original proprietor wrote vaguely supportive of Hitler before Hitler's international ambitions became clear 60 or so years ago. It may indeed be so, although it does strike an odd note that this template of modern moral conscience should have accepted the Evening Standard's tainted shilling for the four years he forced himself to be their restaurant critic (1996-2000). I understand that such was the contempt in which the Livingstone family held The Standard that his ex-wife also worked for them for a period of time.

If the mayor is so outrageous, why was he re-elected in 2004? Well, partly because he is outrageous and entertaining; partly because some of the programs he has instituted have been effective. He introduced a rush hour congestion charge for vehicular traffic (copied from Singapore and pushed through against the popular will) which has reduced the stress of drivers who are prepared to pay to get into central London during the morning rush hour. He has lowered public transportation rates and, more controversially, introduced "bendy" buses -- long buses with a bend in the middle for going around corners. So he's made traveling in the capital either cheaper, on public transportation, or easier, if you're willing to pay to take your car in.

The Londoners who don't like him, and they are legion, do not necessarily turn out to vote against him, because to date, he has run against singularly unappealing Labour and Conservative opponents.

Finally, there is the Olympics. For an ego as big as the Ritz, what better stage to strut on than the Olympic Games? What a prize to land for London -- although most Londoners can barely suppress a yawn at the moment, but they'll lighten up as the going gets tighter -- and it should be awarded in around two years' time, around the time the Cheeky Chappie comes up for reelection.

London's Jewish population numbers approximately 220,000. The Muslim population numbers around 620,000, which means they comprise around 10 percent of the capital's population.

From The Housing Corporation publication, "Muslim children are almost three times more likely than the rest of the population to live in overcrowded accommodation.

"Muslim Housing Experiences, by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, draws on statistics from the 2001 national census to show that 42 percent of Muslim children are affected by overcrowding as opposed to just 12 percent of the wider population. "In London the problem is more serious, with the relative figures increasing to 53% and 18% respectively." In other words, Muslims are much more likely than Jews to be supplicants for public housing, thus much more likely to be clients of the socialist state.

Given that Jews, by and large, are fiercely self-supporting, I think we can judge which is Red Ken's natural constituency.

In addition, how many in the IOC favor Israel over Palestine? Given the climate today, probably none. Livingstone makes no secret of his dislike for Israel. He's been quoted in The Guardian and TechCentralStation as saying: "Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison not in office". I would venture a guess that this may play well with the IOC.

Of course, he could be wrong. He is given to making gigantic generalities, many of which do not support reflection in the cold light of day. One example of Red Ken's wit, wisdom and heroic lunacy is, "I think socialism's time is still to come."

"Every year, the international financial system kills more people than World War II did" is another Ken pensée.

On the other hand, sometimes he lets in a little shaft of light. As in, "If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."

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