Ken Livingstone is back in fantasy land
By Matthew d'Ancona
With his nasal whine, love of newts and Pearly King persona, Ken Livingstone has always reminded me of a Peter Cook character. So it was striking yesterday morning to hear the Mayor of London explicitly invoke the spirit of Cook's greatest creation, E L Wisty: the self-styled "tadpole expert", defender of those with "spindly legs" and founder of the "World Domination League".
Alas for Mr Livingstone, his stab at humour on the Today programme went disastrously wrong. The mayor's point was that the media should end their fixation with what he called "the most minority strand amongst the Muslim community, people whose followers are numbered in tens, not even hundreds". The militants, he said, represented mainstream Muslim opinion no more than E L Wisty's World Domination League "represented the English People".
This was in answer to a question about pictures on the front page of yesterday's Daily Telegraph. The two Muslims depicted were Anjem Choudary, a former leader of the Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, who has declined to condemn the London bombings, and says that "the real terrorists are the British regime and even the British police"; and Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the founder of the same group, who says that the British electorate is to blame for the attacks because it "did not make enough effort to stop its own government committing its own atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan". Mr Livingstone scorned the press for giving undue prominence to "serial fantasists".
Well, where to start? First of all, the World Domination League had only two members: Wisty himself and his friend Spotty Muldoon. I think it is a safe bet to say that more than two British Muslims sympathise with the analysis put forward by the Islamists pictured on yesterday's Telegraph front page (three of them, after all, blew themselves up on July 7).
Second, it seems to me not only reasonable, but essential, to shine as bright a light as possible on "minority strands" in Muslim opinion at the moment, only a fortnight after the adherents of one of those "strands" killed at least 56 people. The implication of Mr Livingstone's remarks was that the wicked press is irresponsibly focusing on a handful of militants - the "few bad apples", as police spokesmen used to say - when it should be concentrating on moderate Islamic opinion. To which I can only say: leave it out, Ken.
One of the many reasons to feel pride in the past fortnight has been the general restraint with which the media - like the readers and viewers they serve - have responded to a terrorist outrage that, in many other developed countries, would have led to civil strife and disorder. One should not tempt fate, of course. But the mayor's suggestion that the press is behaving badly in its coverage of militant Muslims was cheap.
The shame of it is that, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Mr Livingstone's performance was nothing short of magnificent. In Singapore, hours after he had learnt that London was to host the 2012 Olympics, he said, without equivocation, that the attack was "mass murder" and that "it was aimed at ordinary working-class Londoners".
It seemed, for a moment, that the mayor was letting his socialism get the better of him: as if an attack on middle-class Londoners would have been somehow less horrific. But I don't think that is what he meant. His point was that the bombs had slaughtered ordinary Londoners on their way to work, an indiscriminate attack on the most culturally diverse city on earth.
At the vigil held in Trafalgar Square on July 14, Mr Livingstone warmed to his theme. "Those who came here to kill last Thursday had many goals," he said, "but one was that we should turn on each other, like animals trapped in a cage, and they failed, totally and utterly." With tears streaming down his cheeks, he quoted Pericles, and in homage to John F Kennedy's famous call - Lass'sie nach Berlin kommen - the mayor declared: "Let them come to London!" On that day, only the most churlish would have denied that Mr Livingstone spoke to, and for, his city.
So it was all the more depressing to hear him revert to type yesterday as he spouted the fatuous Left-wing mantras for which he earned his notoriety in the 1980s. While claiming that he felt no sympathy for the suicide bombers and (naturally) that "killing people is wrong", he resurrected the pernicious old doctrine of moral equivalence, beloved of the Left in the Cold War. "I don't just denounce the suicide bombers," he said. "I denounce those governments that use indiscriminate slaughter to advance their foreign policy" - by which he meant Israel, and, one presumed, America.
So, too, he deployed the whiskery argument that western imperialism is at the root of all evil. If we had only left the Arab nations alone after the First World War, the mayor said, "and just bought their oil, rather than feeling we had to control the flow of oil, I suspect this would not have arisen". This was Dave Spart at his most repugnant and most juvenile. Does Mr Livingstone really think that the legacy of the Great War is what drove the Leeds terrorist cell to commit their atrocities?
Is he truly blaming the murder of 56 commuters on the Balfour Declaration, and the 1920 San Remo Conference? And would the mayor be willing to tell the bereaved relatives of Shahara Islam, the 20-year-old from Plaistow who was buried on Friday, or of James Adams, 32, from Peterborough, and Monika Suchocka, 23, a Pole who was living in north London (both of whom were named as among the dead on Tuesday), that their loved ones would still be alive if not for the Treaty of Versailles?
This was the shabby, reptilian side of Mr Livingstone, the old-fashioned socialist playing to what he imagines to be the gallery. As it happens, I doubt there are many takers for this kind of drivel. "It's a complete lie, of course," said E L Wisty of one of his own political claims, "but you can't afford to be too scrupulous if you're going to dominate the world."
There is part of Mayor Livingstone that still aspires to world domination, or at least a much greater role in national political life.
But - as his pitiful behaviour yesterday showed - the bigger he tries to be, the smaller he gets.
Matthew d'Ancona is deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph