Monday, May 5, 2008

LONDON CALLING


My first introduction to London came in the grim mid 1980s, the nadir of Thatcherism. In the two years that I lived in England, the miners’ strike was crushed, the United States used British military bases to launch its attack on Libya, and radioactive dust from Chernobyl blew over the British Isles. I still can’t give blood because of my potential exposure to Mad Cow disease from all of the terrible, overcooked beef that I ate there. The only silver lining (or I should say sterling lining) to the cloud was that the dollar and pound were nearly at parity. For a student with a fellowship paid in US dollars, living was good.

I spent at least one day a week in London in the 1985-86 academic year, doing research in what was then called the Greater London Council Archive in the then very, very gritty Islington neighborhood. Britain’s transformation over the last quarter century is particularly visible in my old stomping ground. The Greater London Council, as Monty Python might put it, is no more. It has gone to meet its maker. It has joined the bleeding choir invisible. And Islington, like many inner London neighborhoods, has become a playground for the rich, full of trendy boutiques and super-expensive restaurants. It’s little working-class row houses are now unaffordable. And the corner pub where I lightened the burden of archival research with a pint or two of Fuller’s ESB is now history.

The Greater London Council (the successor to the London County Council, whose records on public health I was examining in the archives) shuffled off its mortal coil in 1986. Or rather I should say it was executed. The GLC had become one of the leading bases of anti-Thatcherism, largely because of its leader, “Red” Ken Livingstone, who had been elected in 1981. Under Livingstone, the GLC cut Underground and bus fares and improved council housing (what we call public housing). My numerous long walks through London neighborhoods in search of a good pint or a curry took me past many a set of council flats that blended into their surroundings, a stark contrast to the isolated high-rise state-supported housing in the Parisian banlieux or the projects on wind-swept, marginal land in most American big cities.

Back in the 1980s, London was still a working-class city with staggering rates of unemployment. In one of his most brilliant theatrical acts of protest, Livingstone’s GLC posted unemployment figures on a billboard on County Hall within plain sight of Parliament, forcing Thatcher and her cronies to avert their eyes from the numerical reminder of the economic hardship that was the result of their policies. Not that they cared, because it was a necessary structural readjustment. Of course, Livingstone was by no means perfect. He was often too blustery for his own good, he alienated allies in the Labour Party, and he was too much a political loner. In one of his lowest moments, he reached out to Sinn Fein, the Northern Irish terrorists. But then again, his opponents were no better. Thatcher and her crew were consorting with all sorts of unsavory characters, among them Chile’s brutal Pinochet and the leaders of Apartheid-era South Africa. Red Ken's gesture was symbolic. But Thatcher and Reagan's alliances with dictators the world over had devastating long-term consequences.

After the Conservatives put the axe to the GLC, Livingstone reinvented himself as an MP and later as Mayor of London, albeit with far fewer powers than he had held as head of the GLC. Even if he sometimes slipped, Livingstone continued to fight for working Londoners. His signature accomplishment--one that should be emulated worldwide--was introducing congestion pricing to curb traffic in central London. Livingstone also staunchly supported the subsidies necessary to maintain an extensive, yet affordable public transit system.

But last week, Red Ken lost the mayoralty to celebrity journalist Boris Johnson. Johnson will, no doubt, be as colo(u)rful a leader as Livingstone. But that colour won’t be red. Instead, expect Johnson to accelerate the transformation of London into a playground for the rich and to cut many of the subsidies for working people, students, and the poor that Livingstone had fought so hard to keep in place. In his own bull-in-a-china-shop way, Livingstone fought for policies to protect London’s still-sizeable working-class from the vagaries of privatization, a predatory real estate market, and an economy that provided systematic advantages to the wealthy. With Livingstone now gone, London will be all the less for it.