August 8, 2007

A Conservative for London

By: Alvino-Mario Fantini

LONDON—When my editor asked why this column was so late, I had to quote Boris Johnson: “Dark forces dragged me away from the keyboard, swirling forces of irresistible intensity and power.” The man who came up with these words is now running for mayor of this city and I feel compelled to dedicate this entire column to him.

When you see Boris Johnson up close, he seems a proper mess: rumpled suit, straw-yellow hair tousled and a perpetual look of confusion and perplexity across his pale face. When you hear him speak, a touch of that shambles comes through—but it is offset with surprising flashes of intelligence, a sparkling wit, and an endearing, self-deprecating humor. With frequent columns, articles, television appearances, and several books, Boris has become one of Britain’s most recognizable journalist-turned-politicians. As recent biographer Andrew Gimson writes, Boris “is a figure from the eighteenth century, a magnanimous Merry England Conservative.”

Mind you, I don’t necessarily hold him up as a man of virtue or even propriety. He has committed many errors in judgment and has had one well-publicized extra-marital affair. But Boris is a breath of fresh air in a stale, political landscape dominated by the gloomy Gordon Brown, the smarmy Tony Blair, and the insincere, Conservative toff known as David Cameron.

And, despite his flaws, Boris is a man of the Right steeped in tradition and broad, humane learning. One of his friends recalls in the Gimson book, “ ‘Boris read the Classics [at Oxford] and was very influenced by [them]. … he likes the aristocratic value system of the ancients, meaning rule of the best—the heroic values.’ ”

Boris—or BoJo, as some of his fans call him—has been described as the closest thing to a real-life Bertie Wooster, the quasi-inept upper-class literary character invented by P.G. Wodehouse. “Like his hero, P. G. Wodehouse, … [Boris takes] us into a world of upper-class lunacy from which all nastiness had been removed,” writes Gimson. He is one of the few politicians that one can truly enjoy.

* * *

In recent weeks, Boris has been in the headlines because of his decision to run for mayor of London. He’s even set up a website. The incumbent—Ken Livingstone—is not only a disagreeable fellow, but he has done little good for the city other than organize festivals, multicultural happenings, and politically-correct shindigs. (Only once did Livingstone get what he deserved when Douglas Murray, contributor to the New Criterion, ended a speech with a blistering attack on Livingstone during a forum on the clash of civilizations held January 20th.

Truth is, since Livingstone assumed office as London’s first-ever mayor in May 2000, not much has improved. The public transport system—and the underground in particular—has become on of the most expensive (and unreliable) in the world. His push to get the so-called Oystercard payment system implemented on the Underground means that Big Brother can now track the movement of all users. He started a controversial congestion charge for all vehicles entering central London in 2003—which he expanded into West London earlier this year. Along the way. “Red Ken” as he has been called in the past, has rubbed elbows with Jesse Jackson and befriended Vietnam vet-turned political activist Ron Kovic. The man clearly needs to get the boot.

Enter Boris. Truth is, I don’t know what his platform is exactly but Boris is guaranteed to liven things up quite a bit.

From 1999 to 2005, Boris was editor of the UK’s The Spectator, the oldest weekly in Britain and one of the finest magazines in the English-speaking world. As Gimson writes, it stands for “a kind of irreverent conservatism.” (I’ve been reading it since my undergraduate days and fondly recall the pleasure of lighting up an unfiltered Camel by the bay window in my dorm with my latest copy of “The Speccie.”) Taki, co-founder of the American Conservative, has a regular column in it.

Last year, Boris hosted a BBC series on the Roman Empire which eventually led to the publication of a book titled The Dream of Rome. I discussed the book on a radio program last week, highlighting Boris’s main themes: that the EU project is the inheritor of the Roman Empire, that the Eurocrats in Brussels have failed to create the kind of uniformity and unity created by the Romans—and that the spirit of nationalism and self-determination are growing in the same way that they did two thousand years ago.

As wide-ranging as his mind is, the one thing that is ever-present in Boris’s articles and speeches is a deep loathing of bureaucracies. And whether one is a conservative or a libertarian (or simply a “good-government” liberal), this is a sentiment I think we can all share. In a June 28 piece titled “Goodbye to Blair” posted on his website, Boris reminded readers that “[s]ometimes people can be genuinely better off—especially people running public services—if we give them back power, rather than endlessly depriving them of their own right of initiative.”

I’m probably not allowed to formally endorse Boris as mayor (and since I am a US citizen, such a gesture would be meaningless). But it is refreshing to see Boris shake things up in London and I encourage his continued participation in the political arena. He is exactly the kind of person that makes politics so much fun. As Boriswatch, one of several fan websites, says: “Boris Johnson is, frankly, the mutt’s nads … and anyone of that caliber [sic] needs to be watched.”

Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.