Lesson from London
Funny place, London. For a start, you have to choose between being a litter-bug or a human garbage can (sorry, make that ‘rubbish receptacle’). On the main streets and in even the big railway stations – not to mention throughout the London Underground – there are no trashcans available. The result, needless to say, is that most people leave their wrappers, empty coffee-to-go cups etc. all over the place. The cause of this peculiarity – almost every British peculiarity has an identifiable historical cause – is that in the 1970’s the Irish Republican Army placed bombs in these receptacles on a few occasions. As a safety precaution, they were removed en masse and eradicated, never to re-appear (the garbage cans, not the terrorists – silly). The IRA has long quit terrorism, a new and far more dangerous breed of terrorists is ready to blow up entire trains, with themselves on board – but although the transport system remains as vulnerable as it proved to be on ‘7/7’, when London was paralysed by a multiple terrorist attack on its transportation system, the garbage situation has not changed one iota.
You can walk for literally miles around central London and not see anyone resembling a ‘typical Englishman’, or hear anything remotely reminiscent of the Queen’s English. As for fish n’chips, let alone kippers and other traditional local forms of sustenance, they can still be located if you’re prepared for the effort and expense, but alternative culinary cultures – from Starbucks to curry to Chinese – are now the norm. You are what you eat, and London has become a melting-pot in every sense of the term.
But there are still native Londoners, rather a lot actually. This has now been proven in the most dramatic way, via the democratic process. Although the exercise of democratic rights, primarily that of voting, has been on the wane in the home of the ‘mother of Parliaments’ as in most democracies, and nowhere more so than in local government elections, the recent (May 1) direct election for the Mayor of London was sensational: voter turnout soared as two candidates, representing two totally contrasting approaches to virtually everything, went head-to-head. Londoners, many of whom think that London is synonymous with the UK as a whole (in fact, the two are increasingly quite different countries), further indulged their collective ego by comparing their local punch-and-Judy show with the Obama-Hillary contest being played out across the pond.
The comparison is of course absurd in terms of substance. But it is very valid in that it highlights a vital phenomenon that occurred in both places simultaneously. For the first time in at least a generation, politics became important to many people. Everyone talked about it, many became actively involved and huge numbers made it their business to vote. The intensity was two-sided: supporters of the incumbent Mayor, Ken Livingstone, fought hard to win their man a third term, whilst opponents fought even harder to unseat him. The Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, became the focus of the anti-Ken movement, which encompassed most of the London Jewish community (because of Livingstone’s long-standing closeness to radical Islamists and perceived anti-Semitic bent), as well as many other groups, whose gripes ranged from the congestion charge on private cars in inner London, to the Mayor’s radical Left past, his associates, appointees and, probably above all, his boorishness.
The elections were thus a triumph of classic democracy, in that a clear choice was presented and made – but the campaign was as contemporary as could be. The political guru behind former Australian premier John Howard’s successive election victories was hired to run Johnson’s campaign, and took Boris from an eccentric outsider to Mayor in a four-month, highly-focused campaign that will be studied for many years by politicians and parties everywhere. Yet the real message from London this year, as from primary elections across the US, is that democracy is not dead, that voters can be re-engaged and even enthused by political issues and that, given a choice between clear-cut alternatives, they will debate and decide. The same phenomenon was at work in the recent Polish election, although that got little coverage west of the Rhine. The message seems clear enough: given the opportunity, people still prefer active participatory democracy over cynicism and apathy.