London Special - Ken's friends

Few doubt that the Mayor of London has been successful in promoting the capital as a major global fi

His enemies have always thought Ken Livingstone rather fancied himself as a left-wing dictator of a Latin American state. The Mayor of London's latest forays into foreign policy will have done much to confirm them in their views. His oil deal with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela is a classic piece of Livingstone political theatre, designed for maximum impact. But quite how he will square the import of Venezuelan diesel with his latest pledge to cut London's carbon emissions is yet to be explained. It also suggests a mayor who sees himself as an alternative focus of foreign policy to the national government.

As elected leader of a major world capital, he can claim political legitimacy for using his limited powers to develop policies in the best interests of Londoners. As a result of the Chávez deal, 250,000 poor Londoners will benefit from half-price travel. But as the Conservatives have point-ed out, the deal means that one of the poorest countries in the world is effectively subsidising the transport in one of the richest.

The mayor will argue that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: London will advise on redeveloping Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, as a modern international city. He might also point out the novelty of the Conservative Party taking an interest in the slum-dwellers of Caracas.

His interests extend beyond South America. Livingstone has just hosted the mayors of Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Beijing in London. And now there are reports that his officials have been "scoping" links with Brazil's left-wing president Lula da Silva. While the Blair government parades its close relationship with the Bush administration, Livingstone is developing a network of alliances with the US government's opponents in its own backyard.

To his critics, Livingstone's Latin American approach is the perfect complement to his Middle East policy - fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli. (Livingstone supports the radical Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has applauded suicide bombing of civilian Israeli targets, female genital mutilation and the execution of homosexuals.)

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington who is standing as a left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership, worked with Livingstone on the GLC. The two have not always seen eye to eye, but McDonnell believes the mayor's foreign policy is consistent with a lifetime commitment to international causes: "He's had a genuine interest in Latin America for years and wants to demonstrate solidarity for the Chávez regime."

But it is not only Conservatives who are critical of Livingstone's new initiatives on the world stage. One former Labour Party colleague from his GLC days said Livingstone risked becoming a figure of ridicule: "He's had one really good idea, congestion charging, but that doesn't give him the licence to become a world statesman."

Oddly, Livingstone's policy on South America did not figure in a recent statement on "Globalisation and the International Promotion of London" presented to the London Assembly. This concentrated on the importance of developing links to the emerging economies of China, Russia and India (the GLA has "embassies" in Shanghai and Beijing and plans to open two more in Delhi and Mumbai).

According to figures from the mayor's office, London now has over 60,000 foreign students, of whom 7,300 are from China and 4,300 are from India. Tory attacks on Livingstone for wanting to make 2007 the year of promoting London in India rightly backfired, as did attacks on the quality of London's universities and the wisdom of attracting foreign students. But critics have noted a disjuncture between the pragmatic politics of representing London's interests in a changing global economy and some of Livingstone's more ideologically driven initiatives.

The veteran left-wing journalist Nigel Fountain, who first met Livingstone in the early 1970s and has taken a close interest in Venezuela, believes the mayor was wrong to take up Chávez as a radical cause: "The left has always loved a man in uniform who claims to be left-wing. Chávez is a populist authoritarian sitting on an oil well. Ken Livingstone gets incredibly enthusiastic about things. But he doesn't have any idea what Venezuela is really like."

Livingstone would do well to at least address some of the concerns of Chávez's left-wing opponents in Venezuela itself. Take, for instance, Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. Petkoff, a former resistance fighter who founded the democratic left-wing party Movimento al Socialismo in 1971, has called on the international left to expose the contradictions of the Chávez regime. Asked by the website Harry's Place to describe the country, he provided the following useful pen-portrait.

"Venezuela is a racially mixed [mestizo] country and you can find white and dark-skinned people on both the pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez sides . . . It is true that Chávez's social programmes have reached the broad masses of poor people, but his economic policy has increased poverty by 10 per cent since 1998 according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics."

Livingstone has already been rightly criticised by those on the traditional left for his dalliance with the Islamic religious right. There remains a distinct possibility that his alliance with Chávez will prove equally difficult to justify as a genuinely progressive political strategy.

A senior adviser said the mayor's office had examined and rejected claims about the authoritarian nature of the Chávez regime. "We prefer to deal with a government that spends its oil revenues on health and education rather than exporting it to banks in Florida," he said.

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State