The NS Interview: Boris Johnson

“This recession wasn’t caused by unions, it was bankers”

What's your favourite place in London?
I might mention Greenwich, where we used to go for picnics, or Highbury Fields, where I go and smoke cigars and stare at the sky. But you know what? I am increasingly taken by the view from the office in City Hall.

What's your priority for the capital as mayor?
There is not a day that passes when I don't curse this recession, and curse the government for the role it played in screwing up the economy. So my top priority is to get our capital through the downturn - giving cut-price travel to those in search of work and the over-sixties, and doing everything we can to keep the housing industry moving.

How can London make it past the downturn?
There are some parts of the economy that have proved astonishingly resilient, and I am completely confident that things will pick up strongly by the back end of this year. We are one of the only European cities to have a young and growing population. We are going through a neo-Victorian age of transport investment - the Tube upgrades, the Thames Tideway tunnel - and my job as mayor is to keep blapping ministers between the eyes until they understand that it would be utter madness to cut infrastructure projects that will increase com­petitiveness. So the plan is simple: lengthen London's lead as the best big city on earth.

What will be your biggest achievement as mayor?
Asking that is like peering into a crib full of octuplets and asking the proud mother which baby will be the brightest. It's just too early to say, and I don't want to jinx things by boasting.

I am pleased with our success in fighting crime - down 9 per cent in the first 21 months of my mayoralty - and especially in tackling knife crime and aggro on public transport, both issues on which I campaigned.

We already have more electric cars than any other city in Europe, and you should not ­underestimate my militant determination to increase cycling. I am a proud former motoring correspondent for GQ magazine, but we are crazy to be making so many short journeys by car. Cycling went up 10 per cent in my first year, and we are hoping to have further success this year. I know how unpopular bikes can be, but we are going ahead full tilt in the serene confidence that it is the right thing for London.

Who is your hero?
Pericles. At the age of about 12, I read that bit where he defines a democracy and an open society - equality under the law, advancement based on merit, freedom to do what you want provided you don't harm others - and I remember thinking that this was what I believed in.

I remember passionately identifying this way of life with America; this was during the cold war. I identified Sparta - nasty, closed, militaristic, authoritarian - with socialist Russia.

Are bankers much maligned?
Let's face it, this recession was not caused by union militancy or oil prices. It was caused by bankers taking too many risks. That is why I said it was outrageous that they continue to pay themselves stonking bonuses, as though nothing had happened. Where I differ from some commentators is on whether it would be a good idea to attack the financial services industry, to hack it back and sack them all in the demented belief that manufacturing would somehow plug the gap.

What place should banking hold in Britain's economy?
London happens to be a world leader in a business that is indispensable to a market economy. That business generates stupendous tax revenues. It attracts people of talent and spending power to our city. I certainly believe these people need to make a much bigger contribution to the lives of people around them. But it is one thing to insist that bankers show a greater sense of duty to society, and another to launch a wholesale attack on a sector that is of huge ­economic importance.

Do you support the 50p tax on high earners?
We can't expect to muddle along for ever with a top rate of tax considerably higher than most of our serious competitors, including Germany, France, Italy, China, Switzerland, Australia and America. So the answer is no.

Should Britain leave the EU?
No. But it was a scandal that Labour got re-elected by promising a referendum on Lisbon, and then failed to deliver.

What do you like about David Cameron?
He's a nice guy but he's also tough as old boots. And I very much like the fact that he's about to be Prime Minister.

Does class matter any more?
Ask Harriet Harman - an Old Paulina whose uncle Lord Longford was a very sound Bullingdon man.

Are we all doomed?
Of course not.

Defining moments

1964 Born in New York
1986 Graduates from Oxford and joins the Times. Later fired for falsifying a quote
1994 Assistant editor, Daily Telegraph
1999 Appointed editor of the Spectator
2001 Elected as MP for Henley
2003 Vice-chairman of the Conservatives, then shadow minister for the arts
2004 Removed from both party posts following an affair with Petronella Wyatt
2008 Elected Mayor of London

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times