The politicians other politicians envy are so popular with the public that millions of people think they are on first-name terms with them, even though they do not know them and would not like them if they did. Just as Kylie Minogue is simply “Kylie”, so Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is “Boris” and Kenneth Robert Livingstone “Ken”.
Johnson and Livingstone (I won’t call them by their first names because although I know them I don’t particularly like them) appear to be leaders for the 21st century. They understand that the old party loyalties have collapsed, and with them the old tolerance of machine politicians. In the world of Big Brother and The X Factor, they too are celebrities who receive a mandate from the amused public which allows them to escape from the constraints that bind their contemporaries.
David Cameron and George Osborne are upper-class men uneasy about their origins and uncomfortable in their own skins. They hide their backgrounds and pretend to be middle-class for fear of inciting the prejudices of the masses. Johnson is their opposite. A convincing explanation not only for his pushiness but the pushiness of the entire Johnson clan is that they had little inherited wealth and no established position, but compensated by acquiring the haste and ambition of the parvenu.
Rather than emphasising that he is not the toff he seems, however, Johnson rubs the voters’ noses in his privileges. Instead of rejecting an Old Etonian who went to Oxford, joined the Bullingdon Club, became president of the Union, and moved on to Conservative newspapers and Conservative politics, the voters warm to him in a way they have never warmed to Cameron or to any other contemporary Tory. The more public school slang and Latin tags Johnson deploys, the louder the audience cheers. In the public eye, Johnson is barely a politician at all, but that stock English character, the amiable Wodehousian gent.
As for Livingstone, virtually all his Labour colleagues abandoned left-wing politics in the 1990s. As the markets boomed and globalisation seemed secure, their task became to imagine what middle-aged, middle-class swing voters in middle England wanted and give it to them. Or, as a shocked but still sardonic Alistair Darling put it to me on the night after the Lehman Brothers crash had ripped through the City, “All my life people have been saying to me: Alistair, stop being so left-wing, move towards the centre ground, become more moderate…Now they want me to nationalise the fucking banks!”
Livingstone, according to popular perception, has stuck to left-wing ideas all his life. Far from rejecting him, as political orthodoxy predicted they must, the voters saw him as a rare man of principle who defended the common people against the lies and machinations of the manipulative new elite.
The one unforgivable crime in the old politics was to run against your party. Livingstone ran against Labour to be Mayor of London — and, even more unforgivably, won. He pretty much endorsed Islamic Forum Europe, an offshoot of the extreme — Right Bangladeshi party Jamaat-e-Islami, as it fought Labour in London’s East End. Instead of renouncing the turncoat, London Labour Party members voted overwhelmingly to put him forward as their official candidate for the May 2012 mayoral fight with Johnson.
It is fitting that the only two mayors of London have been Johnson and Livingstone. Elected mayors are almost Bonapartist in their disdain for the old checks and balances of liberal democracy. In London, the members of the assembly are not an effective legislature with the power to hold the executive in the form of the mayor to account. The only power they have is to amend the mayor’s budget. They cannot do even that unless two thirds of members agree. Nor is the mayor constrained by his party. Prime ministers in parliamentary democracies are hedged and, on occasion, deposed by their colleagues. A directly-elected mayor can ignore all around him. He is not a primus inter pares but an elected dictator. He appoints his own cabinet of placemen and bureaucrats, who have no electoral bases of their own. He can do what he wishes until the viewing public votes on whether to throw him out of the Big Mayoral House or let him stay for another term.
Matthew d’Ancona described recently how “what might be called ‘referendal’ politics” was leaving conventional politics behind. “Direct democracy, plebiscites, e-petitions, the ‘occupy’ protests around the world, even the culture of phone voting in television shows: it is here that the impetus and the energy lie, uncoordinated and multidirectional though the phenomenon may be.” If you can forgive d’Ancona the ugliness of his neologism, you can see his point. The modern world wants to deliver instant verdicts with a click of a mouse. It values authenticity and raw emotion, and hates artifice, compromise and complication. From their different political traditions, Johnson and Livingstone seem to be the only British politicians who can make us hit the Facebook “like” button. With the endearing plain speaking of a Bertie Wooster, Johnson bumbles out an attractive version of modern Conservatism far removed from the PR stunts of Cameron’s spin-doctors. With the irreverence of a Cockney cheeky chappie Livingstone irritates the establishment and tells truth to power.
Or that is the story that millions believe. Two new books show that a vertiginous gulf separates the image from the reality of Britain’s celebrity politicians. Sonia Purnell has produced a meticulous and quietly devastating Life of Johnson (Just Boris, Aurum). Meanwhile, in what looks like being the publishing flop of the year, Faber & Faber has presented Ken Livingstone’s autobiography to readers. It is so verbose, unselfconscious and petty that I fear I may be the only person to read it from cover to cover — certainly the failure to cut and tighten suggests that the eyelids of Faber’s copy editor drooped long before the end. I found it worth the pain, however, because Livingstone unintentionally reveals how he and the worst elements of the British Left have turned rancid and become a negation of their younger and better selves.
Allow me to take on Johnson first, as he is the incumbent and, for the time being at least, presents the larger target. Bertie Wooster’s only ambition was to avoid his aunts and marriage to Madeline Bassett. He didn’t even scheme to be elected to the committee of the Drones Club.
I accept that it is not an indictment of Johnson to say that he is more ambitious than he appears — one cannot achieve anything in public life without ambition. Nor will anyone but the naive be surprised to discover that he pre-tousles his hair before appearing in public and rehearses his “off the cuff” quips.
Rather it is the lack of political purpose behind the ambition that shocks. The closer you look at Johnson the less there is to see. The point about him is that there is no point. Students at Oxford in the 1980s were the first to notice that there was nothing behind the Wodehousian façade, and it has taken the rest of Britain a long time to catch up. He ran for the presidency of the Oxford Union as a High Tory, relying on the Etonian old boy network to see him through. He lost. And to make matters worse he lost to a state school boy called Neil Sherlock, who mocked Johnson’s sense of entitlement.
In 1985, he tried again and won, but the new Johnson bore no relation to the old. He was no longer any kind of Tory. His arguments against the first-past-the-post electoral system and the extremism of the Thatcher years made the voters assume that he was a social democrat. Sherlock was amazed, and has continued to regard Johnson with amazement ever since. Most politicians have a mission, a belief that brings them into public life and drives them forward, he told Purnell. Johnson has no core beliefs and “without those passions, it’s not obvious why he would want to pursue a political career”.
The pattern he set at Oxford determined his life. Johnson became the Telegraph‘s correspondent in Brussels in the early 1990s, and developed a brilliant polemical line of attack on the European Union.
He was the first journalist to paint the EU as a nest of sinister bureaucrats overseen by bombastic Germans, cunning Frenchmen and oily Italians who outmanoeuvred the limp-wristed Brits. His tales of the EU punishing the rubber industry for making undersized condoms or ordering the straightening of bananas, or insisting on fishermen wearing hairnets were not always entirely accurate, but they had an enormous impact. British eurosceptics said that the articles inspired them to break with the Conservative Party and found UKIP. The Foreign Office set up a special unit to respond to Johnson’s critiques. In May 1992, as Danes were preparing to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, Johnson ran a puffed-up story under the headline “Delors Plan to Rule Europe”. It claimed that the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, intended to scrap the rotation of the EU presidency between countries and assert central control. Danish eurosceptics translated the article and used it in a successful last-minute propaganda effort to persuade Danes to vote the treaty down.
Johnson had changed the result of a national poll, and become a feared and admired writer. Not bad for a journalist still in his twenties. But you can make a convincing case that his private convictions were one thing and his public poses quite another. His father was an EU bureaucrat who brought up Johnson among the Brussels salariat. David Usborne, the Independent‘s man in Brussels at the time, said, “I always assumed he didn’t believe that stuff. He could do. But he played the Telegraph game brilliantly [and] compromised his intellectual integrity to get on. I assume that he has done that in the rest of his career.”
When he entered parliament in 2001, Johnson was a liberal rather than a right-wing Conservative. Chris Cook, an aide to David Willetts, told Purnell: “He was clearly not on the right wing, but actually quite europhile in Tory terms. He liked to come into our office to gossip and bitch about the right-wingers he thought had screwed up the party.” Johnson ran from the Left to beat Livingstone in the mayoral race of 2008. In power, he advocated granting an amnesty to half a million illegal immigrants —a policy Conservatives reviled when the Liberal Democrats proposed it during the 2010 general election, while quietly forgetting that their own standard-bearer in London supported it too. Johnson’s London has not been noticeably different from Livingstone’s London. He has been as keen on vanity projects as Livingstone was, and focuses on the centre of town at the expense of the outer boroughs just as obsessively as his predecessor did.
As revealing as the shifts in policy is his power-worship. Throughout his career, Johnson has looked for men who could help him. He has treated them with the necessary servility and then dropped them when they could no longer serve his purpose. When Conrad Black was a media mogul and in a position to give him the editorship of the Spectator, Johnson never allowed a word of criticism to pass his lips. The moment that a financial scandal engulfed Black, Johnson turned on his former patron. He ran a piece by Peter Oborne denouncing Black for his “stolidity, clumsiness and provincialism”, “hairy knuckles and paddle-like hands” and “fondness for ceremony and dressing up that was pre-modern in its profound lack of irony and unabashed vulgarity”.
Like many others on the Left, I criticised Black when he was in his pride and pomp, although I hope with slightly more elegance than Johnson and Oborne managed. The difference between them and us is that left-wingers did not take Black’s money, flatter him to his face, accept his promotions, break bread at his table, laugh at his jokes and reject him only at the moment of his disgrace when he could no longer offer us preferment. We at least understood that it is one thing to criticise a man when he is on the up and another to kick him when he is down — a distinction they apparently no longer teach on the playing fields of Eton.
To say that this is standard behaviour for a politician is to fall into a lazy cynicism. As Johnson’s old opponent Neil Sherlock said, most people are in politics for a reason. They want to fight the European Union, balance the budget, defend the National Health Service or redistribute wealth. The irony of Johnson’s career, which the uncomprehending media have missed despite all the coverage they have given him, is that he is far more of a calculating careerist than the tired politicians from the analogue age he and his kind are meant to have supplanted. And the old politicians know it. Alone among the power elites of Britain, they could see him for what he was.
While Johnson charmed and conquered Eton, Oxford, the press and the BBC, the one institution his brand of celebrity Conservatism failed to impress was Parliament. “The Commons sees through you in a way that other institutions don’t,” said Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail. “It could see through the accent, and the fact that he was trying to ventilate false anxieties about matters in which he wasn’t really very interested. The reaction was quite often silence. You see, Boris isn’t angry. You’ve got to be angry: you’ve got to feel things as an MP, but there is no soul, no church in him. No belief. Most people don’t just go into politics out of vanity, but maybe he has.”
Johnson has recently tacked again and is posing as a right-winger, as he manoeuvres to become the next leader of the Conservative Party. If I were a Tory, I would believe in Father Christmas before I believed in him.
On the rare occasions when journalists challenge Johnson about his flexible behaviour, he cites as his role models Disraeli and Churchill, who notoriously changed their minds and, in Churchill’s case, changed his party. Both were indeed great politicians. But the flexible politician may be a man who recognises changing circumstances and resolves to change with them, or the man who will do anything to maintain his position. As I finished Purnell’s exhaustive biography, I wondered why the British think him worth the attention and why Time magazine described him as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. What has he achieved? What great or even good book has he written? What principle has he promoted beyond his own self-advancement? Far from following Disraeli or Churchill, Johnson takes his lead from an altogether less inspiring predecessor. As he shifts and plots to remain the centre of attention, I can hear him singing to himself:
And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
The best one can say about Johnson is there are no grounds to fear him. Former mistresses and colleagues pay him a tribute of sorts by remaining loyal and affectionate, even after he has exploited them. He may be a chancer, but he is an entertaining and charming chancer without a trace of the sinister in him.
One cannot say the same about his opponent. In the 2008 mayoral campaign I went to a press conference where Livingstone had lined up speaker after speaker to say that Johnson and the Conservative-supporting London Evening Standard were engaging in racism when they levelled accusations of corruption against a black Livingstone aide.
“Are you saying that Boris Johnson is a racist?” we asked. Livingstone thought for a moment. He lacked the nerve to accuse Johnson of racism directly — even he knew that Johnson was free of that vice. Instead, his face fixed itself into a mask of pained piety as he constructed a sly reply. Although he could not know what went on in Johnson’s mind, he said, he could state with confidence that the Johnson campaign appealed to racists.
I will use the same form of words to describe Livingstone’s attitude towards Jews. I cannot say that he is an anti-Semite — for how can I know what animates his mind? But if you were an anti-Semite he would be your preferred candidate. I hope that readers who trouble to buy You Can’t Say That (a self-pitying and self-dramatising title for Livingstone to fix on, by the way, when no one has ever stopped him saying anything) will notice that he is a politician with Jews on the brain. At one point Livingstone stops the narrative for a long and barely comprehensible discussion of the ramblings of an obscure American Marxist-Leninist from the 1980s. Livingstone hurries him on to the stage because he carried on a tradition the Stalinists began of alleging that Jews collaborated with the Nazis so they might break free from the glorious future Communism offered and use Nazi persecution to justify the creation of Israel.
The left-wing anti-Semitism 20th-century Marxists endorsed was not so different from far-Right anti-Semitism. The conspiracy theories and the obsessions about a tiny group of people were the same. But when the magnificent German socialist August Bebel first denounced his comrades for falling for the “socialism of fools” in the early 20th century — “Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle” — he was defining a phenomenon that to this day allows leftists to make tactical alliances that fascist groups rarely consider. First, and most obviously in the 21st century, Livingstone and all those like him want to shuffle away from the anti-racism they once professed. If Jews are Nazis or the collaborators of Nazis, then they have no claim on left-wing sympathies. It pleases them, too, to turn Israel into a state created by the Nazis’ stooges rather than the victims of fascism. But the point that hardly anyone notices is that Jews are not the only victims of the Left’s double standards. Most pertinently and most disgracefully, der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle allows liberals and leftists, who in normal circumstances deplore the smallest breach of anti-sexist or anti-racist etiquette, to ignore those in immigrant communities and Muslim-majority countries who want the rights that they take for granted and ally themselves instead with life-denying, freedom-hating misogynists, homophobes and racists.
True to form, Livingstone presents Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual guide for the Muslim Brotherhood, as a man attempting to “reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights, in particular women’s rights”. He does not mention Qaradawi’s fatwas in favour of the genital mutilation of girls, wife-beating, and the murder of gays, Jews and apostates. Nor does he discuss why a supposedly left-wing leader is “engaging” with the front organisations for Jamaat-e-Islami, a group that Bangladeshi liberals and leftists see in much the same way as British liberals and leftists regard the BNP. Worse, in fact. For, say what you will about the BNP, no one has accused its leaders of committing war crimes. The leaders of Jamaat, on the other hand, are facing charges of aiding and abetting the Pakistani army’s massacres of civilians during Bangladesh’s war of independence.
Livingstone is justifiably proud that he faced down the hatred of the right-wing press when he stood up for the rights of women, blacks and gays in the 1980s. This book confirms what we already knew: he is now prepared to forsake his best instincts and ally himself with Islamist clerics who make the Mail hacks of the Thatcher era seem like pussycats. In the process the self-appointed tribune of the Left turns his back on all the Bengalis, Punjabis, Indians, Arabs and Iranians in London who want to enjoy the liberties Britain offers without being menaced by the supporters of religious reaction.
As with Johnson, the media failed to understand what they were covering. His opponents in the press presented Livingstone as an unreconstructed left-winger, and did not notice that when in office he was the City’s poodle, who opposed Alastair Darling’s modest plans to tax foreign financiers living in London. Meanwhile his admirers in the liberal press still think of “our Ken” as an iconoclastic challenger of the status quo, and avert their eyes from the darkness in him — perhaps because in some cases the same darkness resides in them. We are a long way from the bright, wired world, are we not?
Twitter, Facebook, celebrity game shows, e-petitions and Occupy the London Stock Exchange are not producing a more open breed of politicians, but allowing cunning charlatans to hide their true natures. You have only to look at the forthcoming London mayoral elections to see the new politics and its discontents. The men who play the game do not think its prizes worth winning. In his autobiography, a wistful Livingstone thinks of what might have been. He carefully records the names of everyone who said in the 1980s that he might be leader of the Labour Party one day, and — who knows? — prime minister as well. Being mayor of London was second best for him. Johnson feels the same. When he was at Oxford, he told his contemporaries that he would be in the Cabinet by the time he was 35. He’s pushing 50 now and isn’t even in the Commons.
As for the fickle viewers, I wonder if they will welcome the 2012 rerun of the “Boris ‘n’ Ken Show”. Will they treat yesterday’s celebrities as an exhilarating alternative to conventional politics? Or will they regard them as they now regard Big Brother: a reality TV format that once diverted the nation but now feels exhausted?