Ken Livingstone was born in Stratham, in south London, in June 1945, one month after the end of World War II. “I grew up in a world in which all the horror of what the Nazis did unfolded over the years,” he said in a newspaper interview six months ago. “For all my generation, we defined evil by that: that this is the absolute worst in human history.”
His world of images is anchored in that war and its horrors, from which he also occasionally draws some of his controversy-sparking expressions. In 1984, as a member of Camden borough council of London, he attacked the Board of Deputies – the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities in Britain – describing it as being “dominated by reactionaries and neo-fascists.” Three years later, he compared Camden’s housing policy to the persecution of homosexuals by Hitler’s regime of terror. In 2000, he commented, “Capitalism has killed more people than Hitler.”
But his sharp tongue reached the height of vulgarity of historic memory one evening last February. Livingstone was in an especially ebullient mood that night, and some say he was a trifle too ebullient due to having had a few too many drinks (he denies this) at a political get-together. Waiting outside the party was Oliver Finegold, a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard, who peppered Livingstone with questions. The mayor responded by comparing the reporter to a kapo, a guard at a concentration camp.
This caused a huge storm. Holocaust survivors demonstrated outside his office. Synagogues called for a boycott of the mayor. Some observers feared the incident could hurt London’s efforts to win the right to host the Olympic Games. Prime Minister Tony Blair phoned and asked Livingstone to apologize, but the mayor refused, with characteristic stubbornness. “Why should I say words I don’t believe in?” he railed. But at the same time, in an effort to fend off the criticism, he also attested that “The Holocaust infuses all my politics.”
After high school, Livingstone completed a teacher’s certificate, but never used it. From a relatively young age he had worked as a technician in the cancer research laboratory of a hospital, was active in the Labour Party, and was drawn to its more radical circles. His political consciousness was etched by the protest movement of the 1960s. The two mainstays of his worldview emerged from that era. One was reflected in his opinions on foreign policy, in which it was always clear who were the bad guys (European colonialism and American imperialism) and who were the good guys (the repressed Third World). It comes as no surprise that in 2002 and 2003 he described Ariel Sharon as a “war criminal.”
When George W. Bush was due to arrive in London on a visit, Livingstone called him “the most dangerous man in the world.” Sharon and Bush are in good company in Livingstone’s vocabulary. They are there together with the Saudi royal family, about which he said that he hoped to see its sons “swinging from lampposts.”…