A London divided against itself
London voted for its mayor last week and voted, narrowly, for Boris. Boris Johnson was the Conservative incumbent, a 47-year-old upper-middle class, Eton- and Oxford-educated former journalist, a classics-conversant, high-IQ prankster with a streak of political intelligence and ruthlessness that reportedly has Prime Minister David Cameron worried for his job.
Boris beat Ken (Livingstone). In London, the two main contenders for the mayor’s seat are known, with or without affection, as Boris and Ken, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they are seen, still, as not quite serious people. (The London mayoralty doesn’t have much power, and nothing like that enjoyed by Michael Bloomberg in New York, who isn’t universally called Michael.) Indeed, they are not seen as entirely serious by themselves. Both have deserved reputations as comedians. Ken used to appear on comedy quiz panels, Boris wrote witty columns for the Daily Telegraph.
Ken Livingstone is a 66-year-old Labour veteran, a working-class-born ideologue of the left, by far the most experienced figure in London politics. He ran the Greater London Council from 1981 till its abolition in 1986 and held the mayoral seat from its creation in 2000, for two terms, until 2008 – when, with Labour’s stock diving, he was beaten by Boris. Experience didn’t count enough this time, though. Everywhere else in the UK, the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies in government were pounded, losing hundreds of local government seats. Labour surged back. Except in the capital.
Even allowing for election hype, London is one of the world’s great cities, though great cities have great problems. But before we come to its deficiencies, it should be said that London is beautiful in parts, and it has no peer in England. It’s the political, financial and media center of the country. It has the fifth-largest city-GDP in the world, with an estimated $565 billion in 2008, a sliver ahead of Paris, behind Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. As Britain stagnates in a double-dip recession, the London Chamber of Commerce says its city is beginning to boom.
And it has the Olympics, coming on July 27. The new mayor won’t have a honeymoon – political leaders in European states don’t get honeymoons anymore, life is too uncertain and frightening for that – but the Olympics will serve as a global stage upon which to celebrate a large part of Boris’s (second) first hundred days. The event will mask the sheer difficulty of forcing change in places as complex, as full of well-protected groups with so many overlapping layers of democratic and appointed authorities, as is London.
And the Olympic Park, the central venue for the games, has masked, to a degree, London’s blemish: the arc of poverty and deprivation that still besets its eastern districts, the vast, largely working class (or out-of-working class) area that enfolds the once-huge docks on the Thames. This was once a river – the river – of mercantile supremacy, naval superiority and imperial muscle. Now, with all of these diminished, the trading moved way downriver to container ports near the river’s mouth, leaving behind the splendid Greenwich naval college as well as acres of warehouses and factories. The best of these are now chic apartments, the unsalvageable have been left to molder.
Even the creation of Canary Wharf, London’s second financial district – a wholly new city built on the site of the decayed West India docks, finally closed in 1980 – has only relieved the area’s decline a little. Its gleaming new offices and luxury housing, behind a wall that separates the area from the public housing projects around it, serve largely to underline the difference. It has provided some 7,000 jobs to the locals, mainly in service sectors. But most of the workforce of 90,000 live in the new apartments, or travel in from other parts of London on the Docklands Light Railway, which whizzes past the skyscrapers to the concrete and steel stations under the office blocks and shopping malls.
The east London boroughs – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham – are among the poorest areas in the UK. Tower Hamlets is the most ethnically diverse: Whites account for around half of the 200,000-plus population, with Asians – mainly from Bangladesh – making up some 30 percent. Poor when they came, most remain so, living in large families in the housing projects and the divided and sub-divided 19th century houses that line the streets. With the Olympics has come another splurge of prestige building, although the older East End residents, cynical after decades of stasis, question how much will be left when the athletes, visitors and tourists move on.
More than a century and a half ago, another clever Conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, a would-be party leader and prime minister who – in spite of his Jewish birth – became both, wrote a bad, rambling, fascinating novel, Sybil, or the Two Nations. It’s a moral tale, contrasting the languid, moneyed world with the squalor of the factories and mines, that posits an alliance between the aristocracy and the workers, cutting out the rapacious middle classes and the tyrannous trade unions.
Introducing the novel, Disraeli wrote that the passages of material and physical degradation he described were true, but not the whole truth. “For so little do we know of the state of our own country that the air of improbability that the whole truth would inevitably throw over these pages might deter many from their perusal.” Disraeli wanted to introduce one British nation to the other, while censoring the extreme misery of the other. The wealthy, often aristocratic, men and women should meet the desperately poor whom he had observed with sympathy. He would later create, through that sympathy, a “one nation Conservatism,” which claimed its right to govern on the care it showed for the working classes.
His “two nations” subtitle has passed into common parlance. Now, though, in London, we have a tale of two cities. In one, you can’t get someone to do a job for you for love or money: in the other, you can’t get a job. London, an urban jewel, is also an urban nightmare, with homelessness, joblessness and racial and religious tension held in check, but with increasing effort and decreasing hope that things will get much better soon. London is also a sign of what great cities are now: unimaginably rich in both a material and a cultural sense, with many thousands of places to occupy the mind and the body and the senses – but also places of daily struggle against poverty, against noisy or threatening neighbors, against bosses who know their power and your lack of it, against religious intolerance and political indifference, or weariness.
The mayor, who claims he is a one-city Conservative, will have to fight hard to make his protestations real. London may be doing better than most areas in the recession, but even it can’t escape. Nowhere in the Western world can. In a New Yorker review last month, Nicholas Lemann cites the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman as saying that economic stagnation has produced “deep, bitter social fragmentation; people try to protect what they have against perceived attempts by others to take it away, and this defensive mistrust becomes a central theme in politics … none of this bodes well for a politics aimed at alleviating inequality.”
As the West’s middle class stagnates, the islands of wealth in the great cities contrast ever more vividly with the hinterlands of poverty. Politicians everywhere in the West, left or right, try to persuade the rich to pay more (or evade fewer) taxes, and to persuade the poor to have their wages frozen or cut and accept fewer state benefits. It’s a thankless, grinding task when no one trusts you and everyone is clinging on hard to what they’ve got. But we need to discover some sense of being one city, one nation, even one world, because divided, we all fall down.
PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (L) shakes hands with London Mayor Boris Johnson at City Hall in central London, May 5, 2012. Johnson, whose popularity is largely due to his comic talent and colorful past, won a second four-year term as mayor of London on the same day that his Conservative Party suffered heavy losses in nationwide local elections. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Handout