Walker's World: A tale of two cities

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  April 23, 2008 at 11:16 AM
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LONDON, April 23 (UPI) -- London is one of the world's greatest cities, and to be its mayor is a grand title. It is, however, misleading. Britain is a highly centralized state, with almost all executive power vested in the national government that also controls the purse-strings. The elected mayor has a bully pulpit but a very limited role, and so it should come as little surprise that the two main candidates for next week's election have more entertainment value than solid political credentials.

The incumbent seeking a third term is Ken Livingston, an old '70s-era socialist from the days when he was known as a leader of "the loonie left" that ran the short-lived London Council until Margaret Thatcher abolished it. He constantly demanded that London be a nuclear-free zone, sought twinning arrangements with the anti-American Sandinistas of Nicaragua and liked to tease conservatives by flying red flags and proposing subsidies for gay and lesbian minority groups.

But Red Ken was always well-liked by the public for his cheek, his quick wit and flashing one-liners and his curious habits like breeding newts, small amphibians usually found in garden ponds. He was a rebel, a foe of Thatcher in the 1980s and of his own Labor Party, which tried and failed to stop him from standing for mayor as a loose cannon who would not take orders from Tony Blair. Londoners liked that. Even after eight years in office as the new mayor, there is still a great deal of affection for him, buttressed by some real achievements like the congestion charge to cut traffic. And his jokes are still funny.

"The only big decision my opponent ever faced was where to go for lunch," he said the other day of his rival, the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson, a rumpled and rumbustious journalist and now a member of Parliament for the wealthy of Henley.

But Boris is best known as a TV comedian, star of a popular show called "Have I got news for you!" where his upper-class accent and his instantly recognizable mop of blond hair combines with his jokes and disheveled appearance to produce a political star. But Boris' appearance, and the tabloid press stories of his adulterous entanglements and his beloved bicycle, conceal a very sharp brain. He was educated at Eton, grandest of private schools (to which he won a King's Scholarship), and at Oxford University's exceedingly cerebral Balliol College.

He sounds like a character from P.G. Wodehouse, using antiquated slang terms like "Cripes!" and "Crikey!" and yet fought one campaign promising that voting for his party would "make your wife's breasts get larger and increase your chances of driving a BMW." He delights in ridiculing political correctness, refers to black children in racially tinged language and generally infuriates the joyless ideologues of the left while getting grins and chuckles from most Londoners (including many of its blacks).

Just to add to the carnival atmosphere of this election struggle, there is a third candidate from the Liberal-Democrats, a gay former police chief. Against all the odds, Boris holds a narrow but enduring lead in the opinion polls, probably because of widespread irritation with the Labor government, a feeling shared by Red Ken, who hates being associated with Prime Ministers Blair and Gordon Brown. Part of Ken's charm is that the voters tend to see him as one of "us" against the "them" in power in Downing Street.

Londoners, with that folk memory of the realities of power that has grown in the 2,000 years since the Romans founded the city, have always understood who really rules London. They have few illusions about the restrictions on the newfangled post of mayor that Blair devised a mere decade ago when he was prime minister. Their mayor has nominal authority over transport and congestion, housing policies and urban planning, and a nominal role in chairing the police authority and helping to set the budget of the police and fire brigade.

London's total budget is a modest $22 billion, just over a third of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget in New York, and less than 10 percent of spending can be decided by the mayor. But this election is important because the next mayor will have a highly visible and influential role in London's biggest-ever sending spree and construction project, the run-up to the London Olympics in four years.

Moreover, despite London's prosperity and eminence as a global financial center and as a cultural magnet, not all is well with the city. Britain's best-selling tabloid, The Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch), put it this way: "London is not just a wonderful city. It is one of the world's greatest capitals -- bursting with vitality, business know-how and great talent. Yet after a decade of unprecedented prosperity, its roads are clogged, its streets are dangerous and public transport can be terrifying after dark. Shockingly, London today is less safe than New York."

And that is the curious point. By almost any measure, New York and London are the two most important cities in the world, and probably the two most open to all the immigrant talents that the global economy can offer. And yet the Big Apple has become a byword for decisive and imaginable leadership from a crime-buster such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a budget-controller like Bloomberg. And London, with no real leadership, not much of a budget but with a great fondness for jokes and eccentrics, somehow bumbles successfully on, as it has done for centuries.

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