Ken Livingstone is a fool and a hypocrite. Leaving a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chris Smith "coming out" as the first openly gay MP, he asks a London Evening Standard reporter (who happens to be Jewish) if he is "a German war criminal", suggests that he should seek treatment and describes the reporter's employers as "a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots". This is foolish because doorstepping a London party is hardly on a par with running an extermination camp, and to equate the two is to trivialise the latter; it is hypocritical because, a few years ago, Mr Livingstone himself acted as the Standard's restaurant critic. It would be good manners for Mr Livingstone to say sorry to Oliver Finegold, the reporter. But it is also absolutely no business of anyone else's whether he does so or not.
The fuss over the Livingstone affair, which is laughably said to "cast a shadow" over London's Olympic bid, illustrates everything that is wrong with contemporary politics. By the usual standards of Westminster and Fleet Street, Mr Livingstone ought to be an unpopular politician. He embraces militant feminism, Irish nationalism and Palestinian resistance. He keeps company with Muslim clerics and Sinn Fein leaders. On social and economic affairs, his views are close to those of Tony Benn. Mr Livingstone represents everything that new Labour thought it had consigned to history, warning that if the smallest trace of it survived, the middle classes would be scared out of their wits. Yet Mr Livingstone remains a popular politician across all classes. He can win elections even without a party to back him.
Why is this? Is it because Mr Livingstone, despite his peculiar views, sounds and behaves like a normal human being, who doesn't bother to stay on-message and who, on his way home after a late night, gives a piece of his mind to an irritating reporter? Other politicians generally use stilted, formal language, which follows strict codes as to what is and is not permissible. They can sound like Victorian spinsters trying to describe bodily parts. This is why they are not only distrusted but also regarded as weird, in an age when informality and uninhibited self-expression have become the social norms. Mr Livingstone talks like the rest of us. Voters can judge for themselves whether his rudeness disqualifies him from office. They do not need the Standards Board for England to help them decide. That board should throw out the complaint made against the mayor and confine itself to punishing corrupt or otherwise improper use of public office.
The demand for ritual recantation and punishment whenever someone expresses themselves "inappropriately" (itself a prissy, nannyish sort of word) has become an inhibition on free speech. A football manager loses his job when he "insults" disabled people; an editor's career is endangered when his magazine "insults" Liverpudlians; a commentator is thrown off the airwaves when he "insults" tsunami victims with a feeble pun. The worst sin of all (and rightly so) is anti-Semitism; but to place Mr Livingstone's remarks in that category is another example of trivialising the genuine article.
Freedom includes the freedom to speak offensive rubbish; indeed, that is the most important freedom of all, and it should not be qualified by demands to apologise for exercising it. Why should Mr Livingstone feign a contrition that he does not feel? Sincerity is what we supposedly want in our politicians. The Prime Minister, who seems to wish to turn apologising into a cottage industry, predictably supports those who want the mayor to retract. Yet he will not apologise for misleading the country over the threat from Saddam Hussein; on the contrary, he promoted the intelligence chief apparently responsible for the flawed information.
It is because our rulers have become so difficult to hold to account on the larger issues - ruinous wars, disastrous public-private partnerships, gridlocked transport - that the media try to nail them on what seem smaller, simpler questions. There is no easy way of putting Iraq right; but Mr Livingstone can be fixed if he will utter a few, well-chosen words, preferably on prime-time television. Again, it is because the political parties lack firm boundaries of principle that so much attention focuses on how politicians express themselves. Just as they are required to tidy their hair and clothes before they go out, so politicians have to tidy their language. The slick surface is all: the substance beneath is nothing.
These are the results of a media-driven political system, which politicians have helped create. Mr Blair demands that Mr Livingstone, after apologising, "moves on". It would be better if the rest of us did so.
They're only here for the Beeb
You can't be too careful. The world is a dangerous place, full of foreigners. Michael Howard, who comes from a family of foreigners, is well placed to warn us about them. Many are determined to slip into this country to take advantage of our health service. Indeed, some may well contract HIV/Aids or TB deliberately so that they can enjoy the comforts of a British hospital ward, complete with its friendly MRSA superbugs and its uniquely weak, lukewarm tea. But Mr Howard could do more than propose health checks on migrants. They may take advantage of other superb services: public transport and the BBC, for example. Only those who bring their own bicycles should be admitted. They should take a full battery of tests in order that we can rule out any who show the least interest in a Humphrys, Paxman or Dimbleby. No doubt Mr Howard will get round to proposing all these measures in the coming weeks.