AFTER taking a good look at London, that perennially inquisitive visitor from Mars might reasonably expect the contest for Mayor to be dominated by weighty and urgent debates.
The candidates would argue about the exorbitant cost of housing, he might imagine, or the crashes in the financial markets. Perhaps they would wonder how a city which can’t manage to operate a baggage-handling system will cope with the Olympic Games, but surely they wouldn’t waste their time bickering about a crime problem which appears under control.
The police certainly think it is. A few weeks ago, I chatted with the Met’s divisional commander for Islington who reeled off an impressive list of statistics which showed that burglaries, assaults and murders were down in my part of London.
Every other Met commander can tell the same story. Sadly for them, no one wants to listen, as Monday night’s Standard debate between the candidates for Mayor made plain.
Boris Johnson declared that he was running on an anti-crime ticket. Ever the opportunist, Ken Livingstone heard what his opponent had to say and announced “I’m stealing your policies”. The two are now in an arms race to see who can adopt the toughest stance before polling day, and to listen to them you would think that London Town was Gotham City.
It clearly isn’t, and sociologists throw out all kinds of explanations for why fear of crime is growing when crime rates are falling. Some blame the media for providing disproportionate coverage of murder and mayhem. Others blame politicians for stoking public fears with “eye-catching” initiatives and stunts.
I’m sure that the sight of Harriet Harman taking to the streets in a stab-proof vest will do nothing to calm fluttering nerves, but the big reason why crime is dominating this contest is that Londoners are becoming far less tolerant of threats to their quality of life. Increasingly they do not accept fights at chucking out time or the occasional burglary as inevitable. They don’t shrug their shoulders and mutter that they must be grateful that overall crime is falling. They want to know why it can’t fall further.
As someone who believes we have too many people in prison, I find the crammed jails and restrictions on civil liberties that the authoritarian climate produces depressing.
However, I and my fellow liberals are equally intolerant when it comes to our pet causes. It’s no good telling us to be grateful that London is no longer enveloped by smog, for instance, or that homophobia is not as vicious as it used to be. We want a green environment and minorities to be treated with respect, right now
This convergence between liberal and conservative thinking is a sign that London, for all its poverty, is becoming an ever-more middle class city. And like solid bourgeois everywhere, Londoners want good manners, cleanliness and order. In his lumbering way, Johnson half grasps the public mood, which is why he looks like winning.
I COULDN’T get agitated by Sunday’s revelation that Max Mosley played Nazi sex games with prostitutes. It’s not just that I believe what consenting adults do in private is their own business. It’s not merely that I expected a son of Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford to be screwed up. He had a little of my sympathy for proving the truth of P J O’Rourke’s assertion that, “no one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal”.
Or so it seemed when the story broke. But within days a blushing Nick Clegg announced that he had had dozens of lovers. I’m now looking forward to next Sunday’s revelations about a Chelsea brothel where the clients demand that prostitutes talk dirty to them about the Lisbon Treaty before beating them black and blue with an Electoral Reform Society discussion paper.