Dull moments end in London


LONDON - After a millennium or so of alternatively warring with and wooing kings, queens and the occasional Bible-banging religious jack, London is having a go at this democracy gig. It promptly elected as its first mayor a man who keeps newts for pets, thinks the Boy Scouts are too "militaristic" and wants to lock capitalists in stocks and throw rotten fruit at them.

At first glance, picking the unreconstructed socialist that is "Red Ken" Livingstone suggests that perhaps the citizenry of "The Smoke," as Britain's historic old capital is known, haven't quite gotten the hang of this mayor business. Then you look at the alternatives and you may understand why I stayed home on voting day, watching "Star Trek" re-runs.

Red Ken's main opponents were a serial adulterer and Frank Dobson, who believes gays should be allowed to have sex in public as long as they do it in a dark corner. Behind them lurked another half-dozen candidates, any one of whom upon entering a room would leave you convinced there was one less person there than before.

Mr. Livingstone, Mr. Dobson of the Labor Party and Steve Norris (the Conservative candidate who somehow managed to keep five mistresses on the string at the same time) were the main players in what was billed as the first truly American-style political contest in Britain's long history.

In fact, their candidatures appeared more appropriate to another venerable American custom - that of a barrel of tar, a bag of feathers and a swift ride out of town on a rail.

Before Mr. Livingstone's election, London never had a mayor as such. It had - and still has - a Lord Mayor, a ceremonial position confined to the square mile that is known as the City of London (the financial district). It had been run by a loose confederation of 32 semi-independent and certainly disparate boroughs.

There's a Lord Mayor's parade every November, in which the new Lord Mayor semi-dresses in 16th century hat and ceremonial chains. But it's not a position of authority. It's more like a Rotary Club. The Lord Mayor is chosen by a committee and represents the city for a one-year term, and they go through the whole rite again the next November.

In any event, Londoners had their chance at last to engage in the thrust and parry of slime politics in the fashion of every other nation that calls itself a democracy. They opted for Mr. Livingstone, who once refused public funds for the Boy Scouts on grounds they were too "militaristic" and donated the money instead to the English Collective of Prostitutes.

That was in his previous incarnation as chief of a now-defunct form of local government called the Greater London Council. Other Livingstonean feats of generosity from the public exchequer included $40,000 to buy buses for lesbian mothers and $2,500 to an outfit called Babies Against the Bomb.

Londoners are either very forgiving or very forgetful.

When anarchists rioted in Seattle and disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organization, Red Ken applauded and allowed as how when he became mayor, he would invite the WTO only if he could put the delegates in punishment stocks "so we can throw stuff at them in an organized way."

Now Ken Livingstone is mayor, put there by the votes of more than a few capitalists who have made this one of the richest cities in the world (and one of the most expensive - rent on a three-bedroom apartment averages a tad over $3,000 a month these days) and some of the poorest people in Britain(London is home to 13 of its 20 most deprived areas).

Yet, if the new mayor shows signs of reverting to his "loony Left" ways of the past, the millstone that is tradition may stop him in his tracks, or possibly even sink him. In truth, London is not so much a city as a collection of squabbling villages - those 32 boroughs -and they all loathe and despise change.

For instance, moviemaker Sam Wanamaker had to go to court to get permission to revive and rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theater. The Southwark borough council, which controls the land, had insisted it was needed as a parking lot for its garbage trucks.

London survived "Bloody Queen Mary" and the religious nutter Oliver Cromwell and Hitler's Luftwaffe. So I suspect it has a pretty good chance of surviving Ken Livingstone and his pet salamanders. But I also suspect there won't be many dull moments in the process.

Al Webb is an independent American journalist living in London.

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