The election of Sadiq Khan to be mayor of London is really quite a significant event. Does any other comparable city in Europe or America have a Muslim mayor? Its symbolic importance, at least, is comparable to that of Obama’s Presidency of the USA. In a way it’s more surprising than that, bearing in mind that anti-black prejudice in the US had been declining for some years, whereas Islamophobia in Britain is now at its peak. Shameful efforts by his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith, probably under the influence of the evil Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby, to paint Khan as a ‘friend’ of terrorists, spectacularly backfired; which is hugely promising and a great credit to Londoners. Their city has been attacked and its people slaughtered more than once by self-styled Islamists; yet they can still distinguish between the latter and the great body of Muslims who have integrated into British society peacefully. Contrast Donald Trump, who wants to get rid of all American Muslims. It shows that we in Britain are not that far on the road to Fascism yet.
It also conforms with one of Britain’s most bruited ‘national traditions’ – though it’s one often more honoured in the breach – of tolerance towards outsiders; whatever those who assume that, because Britain had an empire, she must have been racist, may have been told. I’ve argued elsewhere – in my books on imperialism and refugees – that this was not so. Of course negative hypotheses like this are hard to prove; but the present condition of multicultural cities like the now famous Leicester could be taken as evidence; together with Britain’s much greater ‘toleration’ – the word used in the nineteenth century, though it’s a problematical one (why not ‘acceptance’?) – of Jews throughout history, compared with the Continent. As far back as 1868 Britain even elected a (converted) Jew as prime minister. And there have been dozens of Jewish government ministers since. Last year the Tories even appointed a Muslim, Sajid Javid, as Secretary of State for Business: although to tell the truth he’s a little too integrated for my taste. (He’s a Thatcherite. See below, April 1.) I’ve been reading some blog comments today on Khan’s election which have reacted to it with a disgusting level of Islamophobia, but no-one takes these as typical. Khan’s election in itself would seem to disprove that. And incidentally, the scale of anti-Semitism – the other kind of ‘Semite’: for aren’t Arabs Semitic too? – is even more miniscule, whatever calculating Tories pretend and vigilant guardians of Israel may genuinely think. That fuss was mainly a ruse to ‘get at’ Corbyn.
Let’s hope that Sadiq Khan, within the narrow remit he has as a mere ‘mayor’, can fulfil the hopes placed in him. Controlling the free market to provide affordable London housing must be his main priority, after the Boris Johnson years of encouraging foreign millionaires to buy up prime properties as ‘capital investments’. Then it would be good if he could demolish that ghastly misshapen skyscraper in Fenchurch Street known as the ‘Walkie-Talkie’. (He must have some planning powers?)
But his main significance lies in his election itself: as a son of working-class immigrants – a London bus-driver and a seamstress – brought up on a Council estate (almost all of these are ‘privatised’ now), and still openly retaining his Muslim identity, in a city where big money and an Eton education (both represented by Zac Goldsmith) have been making all the running for years; and at a time when his ‘sort’ could so easily have been painted as the ‘enemy’ – bombers, machete-wielding zealots – as Goldsmith intended, if Londoners had not been more discriminating.
As a Londoner originally – albeit an outer suburbanite – I always rather despised the place, preferring more sheerly beautiful foreign cities (Paris, Stockholm, San Francisco…), and wishing I didn’t come from there. For years now I’ve been trying to take on a more provincial identity. But I can now see, I think, what Sadiq Khan meant, when he described it, in his victory speech, as ‘the greatest city in the world’. It has always been – always – a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural place. That’s reflected in the culture that has arisen there: I can’t imagine Shakespeare’s mind being so broadened and stimulated if he’d stayed in boring mono-ethnic Stratford. Occasionally – where foreigners arrived together in large numbers – this has caused trouble. (The East End was Oswald Mosley’s main – indeed just about his only – popular recruitment area.) But generally London has been ‘big’ enough, in all senses, to welcome strangers, to its and our huge benefit. That must make it pretty great.