Ken Livingstone: taking the pee out of politics

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics
  • Forget about Politics with a capital ‘p’ – now we are reduced to the politics of taking a pee in the capital.

Listening to Ken Livingstone tell us flash Londoners not to flush if we have ‘only had a pee’ this week, I felt a sudden urge to flush the mayor’s head down the nearest lavatory.

Some fool has just nominated Livingstone as the seventh-funniest Londoner, for his ‘wonderful’ sense of ‘miserabilist humour’. But his proposal to leave a reservoir of urine simmering through the summer confirms that Livingstone’s miserabilism is no laughing matter. Coming soon: congestion charges for using the sewage system during peak periods.

The mayor claims that, unless we adopt his proposals to use less water, the capital will face a crisis of supply. Yet if there were to be a water shortage recent events suggest that Livingstone would have done his bit to help to bring it about.

Thames Water, which supplies eight million people in and around London, has faced a flood of criticism because its ancient, leaky, under-invested pipes lose almost one billion litres of water per day – enough to flush a modern loo some 200 million times. But Thames Water has at least taken the positive step of planning a £200 million desalination plant in Beckton, the first in Britain to turn seawater into drinking water.

The Government’s Environment Agency says this plant is urgently needed, and Newham Council agreed the project. Livingstone, however, vetoed it. Why on earth would the Mayor of London want to kibosh plans to tap into an almost limitless supply of water for the city? Apparently because the plant would use energy, and therefore contribute to global warming – the fashionable argument against doing anything today. And mostly because Livingstone prefers to make people use less water, and pay more for it through metering.

Here speaks the deeply miserabilist morality of our age, with a dry old stick of the Labour Left as its authentic voice. Why should investing to produce more of what we want and need be frowned upon as unethical? Why must we always be told that the ‘right’ thing to do is to cut consumption and raise costs? The primary concern of the new moralists seems to be less to save water than to save our souls by making us change our sinful ways. Thus a recent London Assembly report endorses the official view that, far from being seen as an embarrassing failure of service, a hosepipe ban should be considered a ‘useful’ educational tool for ‘raising awareness’ among us free-flushing wasters.

I am all for empathising with the problems of Africa, but I draw the line at importing African standards of sanitation into our London homes. As many Africans would surely agree, a basic sign of living in a civilised society is universal access to a working lavatory – and the freedom to flush it whenever you feel the need. Rationed flushing in one of the world’s richest cities looks like the mark of a civilisation on a slippery slope down the pan.

  • No doubt Admiral Horatio Nelson is an authentic hero of British history, of a sort that makes our leaders today seem Lilliputian.

But watching the Trafalgar bicentenary events reminded me that I have always had a far softer spot for Napoleon than for Nelson, Wellington et al.

When Napoleon seized power at the end of the French Revolution, he was widely seen as a symbol of the new Europe, feared by the anciens régimes in England and everywhere else, admired by many, including English Whigs. Across Europe he raised horizons, swept away feudalism, introduced the rule of law, laid the basis for modern nations and championed science and meritocracy. It always seemed a travesty that my generation of schoolchildren were taught to lump Napoleon in with Hitler as mad, short-arsed European tyrants.

Of course, Napoleon disappointed his many democratically minded admirers by crowning himself Emperor – none more so than Beethoven who, on hearing the news, furiously tore out the title page of his new (third) symphony, which he had dedicated to Bonaparte. But I prefer to think of Napoleon as a general in the army of modernity or, in the words of Hegel, as ‘the world spirit on horseback’. Not a label that anybody seems likely to attach these days to our spiritless, pedestrian European leaders.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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