London's postmodern mayoral election.

London's postmodern mayoral election.

London's postmodern mayoral election.

Events beyond our borders.
April 28 2008 8:00 PM

Boris vs. Ken

London's postmodern mayoral election.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Click image to expand.
Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson

First, a disclaimer: I have known Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party candidate for mayor of London, for some 15-odd years. During that time, I've also met his first wife, his second wife, and his mistress, though I don't think the last merited that title at the time. I worked for some of the same editors as he did during his earlier journalism career and can remember many of his columns. One—it concerned the dubious legal status of one of his children ("Congratulations, it's a Belgian")—still makes me laugh when I think about it.

And now, a second disclaimer: I first met Ken Livingstone, the current mayor of London, now up for re-election, some 15-odd years ago, too, when he was still a member of Parliament. I don't know his mistresses—though I gather there are several—or his colleagues. But I do recall one memorable dinner, organized by a London newspaper, during which we argued at some length about whether Stalin was evil. I said yes. He disagreed. No one laughed.

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Given that I know both candidates personally, I should probably be disqualified from writing about the London mayoral election, which takes place on May 1. But in this case, it doesn't matter. Although there are some actual issues at stake—police, traffic, housing—this particular campaign has in fact been completely dominated by discussion of the candidates' remarkably different, and remarkably vivid, personalities. This is no sober clash of ideas, a race between Mr. Livingstone of the Labor Party and Mr. Johnson of the Conservative Party. It's a contest between Ken and Boris, a race in which personal anecdotes have mattered more than policies from the start.

The candidates haven't exactly gone out of their way to discourage this kind of commentary. Though he's been more staid than usual during the mayoral campaign, Boris is a man who can't stop telling jokes, whether at the expense of the aforementioned mistress or the people of Portsmouth (a city of "drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs").

Adjectives like mop-haired, blustering, and old Etonian appear in just about every profile of him ever written. So does his most famous quotation—"Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3"—though that line is misleading since his sense of humor is usually far more self-deprecating. "Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon," he once remarked, "there lurks a blithering buffoon."

Ken, by contrast, isn't funny or self-deprecating at all. His need to attract attention manifests itself in other ways: the expensive celebration he had planned to commemorate 50 years of Fidel Castro's dictatorial rule, for example, or his public embrace of a Muslim cleric who defends suicide bombing and advocates the death penalty for homosexuals. Like Boris, Ken often offends people, though his insults are less likely to have started out as jokes. He called the U.S. ambassador to Britain a "chiseling little crook" and told a Jewish journalist he was behaving "like a concentration camp guard." I'm told he sometimes makes good decisions about transportation, though central London traffic still seems pretty bad to me.

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As I say, this is a personality contest, and a deeply unserious one at that: If the good people of London really thought their traffic mattered that much, Boris wouldn't be a candidate, and Ken would never have been elected in the first place. But it's nevertheless worth watching because this campaign could well be a blueprint for the elections of the future since it is postmodern and post-ideological in the deepest sense: In a world in which "issues" are not the issue and no one takes political parties seriously anymore, there's nothing left to talk about except who said what to whom and whose tongue was sharper while doing so.

Usually, we don't have this problem in the United States, our politics being too partisan and our nation too divided to allow for it. But a glimpse of what it could be like is available in the form of the Democratic primary, which has also deteriorated, unsurprisingly, into a particularly nasty personality clash. Any long, drawn-out contest between two people who don't—let's face it—differ that much on fundamental issues will invariably turn into farce; whether it's an amusing one, as in London, or a "bitter" one, as in Pennsylvania, depends on the characters of the candidates involved.

So three cheers, then, for ideological politics—or at least for real clashes of ideas—and let's hope our presidential elections, when we get to them, include some. At least they make everyone talk about things that matter. And, yes, I do hope Boris wins.