Last Leader

Neal Ascherson

  • Citizen Ken by John Carvel
    Chatto, 240 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7011 3929 3

After crossing the river, the little band of Palaeolithic hunters huddled together shivering on the far bank. They were cold and wet, but they still had their flint-tipped spears. Men and women together, side by side collected dry brushwood at the top of the sandy shore and tried to start a fire. Here at least the ground was firm, unlike the flat swamps of the south bank, and in the distance ahead they could see a line of northern heights, shaggy with forest. There should be deer there, perhaps a mammoth. The fire took hold and warmed them. Soon the group was spreading out and – without regard to colour, sexual preference, age, size or creed – beginning to gather the nuts, berries and tubers and to share them democratically, once more in balance with the environment and with one another. And as the evening shadows lengthened, the first members of the species Homo Erectus to arrive in London fell to their normal diversions, or ‘what we would consider a life of idle luxury – music, dancing, relating to each other, the constant flow of conversation’.

So Ken Livingstone might imagine the first inhabitants of the GLC area. They call him a Trot, but there is much more in him of a far older generation of palaeo-socialists. For Livingstone believes in a social version of the Fall, in a State of Nature and – almost – a Garden in which human beings lived with one another, innocently, equally, without private property or surplus, without stress, in balance with nature. In a long conversation with John Carvel, far the most astonishing and winning part of this book, he lays out his own Livingstonian anthropology. These wandering bands did not know war, as the inhabitants of the nuclear-free zone of Lewisham shall not know war. They were ‘a very together, well-organised and sophisticated proto-culture’. Everything that we are today has emerged from the hunter-gatherer tradition. ‘All of our ability, the development of our intellect, all of our early culture grows out of those kinship groups operating overwhelmingly in a co-operative way ... The hunter-gatherer is what humanity is.’

So far, so Fourier, or Rousseau or St-Simon. The most interesting question about state-of-nature utopian thinkers is where they insert the Fall and what they consider to have played the serpent. Ken Livingstone has no doubts. It was the introduction of agriculture, the Neolithic revolution ‘twenty thousand years ago’, which ruined everything. For a start, it accelerated the growth of population until the ecological balance collapsed. ‘Hunter-gatherers have a basic diet which means you can’t wean children easily. It’s all hard, scrunchy stuff. There’s no animals’ milk or mushy foods.’ And with the junk food of planted crops came the creation of wealth, surpluses, hierarchies, technology.

‘If you look at the way the City of London works, it is operating in exactly the same way as the most primitive of those societies based on agriculture ... The basic motive force is greed and exploitation, which is there from the start once you move away from that co-operative group. We haven’t learned to cope with surpluses and distribute them without greed becoming the major motive factor and the desire for power over others. I do not think that is a natural state for humankind to be in.’

This is all fearful heresy to those – like myself – reared on the work of V. Gordon Childe, whose Marxist version of the natural state was located precisely in the world of Neolithic agriculture, perceived as a non-competitive, co-operative and equal society bonded together by kinship and by the need to give and receive food surpluses to relieve crop failure. For Gordon Childe, the ‘origins of inequality’ were to be found in the invention of metallurgy, creating, out of the families who possessed the secret, hereditary castes which would eventually develop into a primitive bourgeoisie with all its attendant vices of greed, privilege and war.

But then Gordon Childe, as a Communist, took a basically optimistic view of history. His metallurgical Fall might have wrecked the ‘undifferentiated substantive’ of primitive farmers. It was, however, the first ‘contradiction’ in a dialectic which would in the end create equality and co-operation at a higher synthesis – the victory of the industrial world proletariat. What is fascinating about ‘Red Ken’, so much a child of the Seventies, is his pessimism. A man who does not see history as in at least some sense a progress will never make a recognisable Communist, whether Stalinist or Trot. Talking, or rambling on, to Carvel, Livingstone derides the whole idea of progressive evolution, biological or social. ‘It’s there in the thinking of a lot of people around Stalin – the idea that man is getting better, that we are part of this inevitable upward progress. We’re not really ... We’re still trying to adjust to changes that came over us twenty thousand years ago.’ Well, it was there in the thinking of a lot of people around Karl Marx as well. But Ken Livingstone, a man for compassionate issues rather than ideologies who was brought up in South London suburbs rather than among proletarian terraces, simply points to the city around him as evidence of negative evolution. People now live on their own, surrounded by other isolated people. They do not gather tubers with their comrades, neither do they enjoy that ‘music, dancing, relating to each other, the constant flow of conversation’ which is proper to the species. ‘The isolation you get in society, particularly urban society, where people are frightened and embarrassed to turn to other people for support, means that we are living in a way which is completely at odds with the best part of fifteen million years of evolution which turned us into what we are.’

And at this point Citizen Ken brings on the reptiles. Everyone who can read a paper knows that he keeps lizards and salamanders; given the sort of press he gets, millions probably think he uses them to enrich the cauldrons of lesbian separatist covens dancing on Peckham Rye. In fact, he uses them not for food but for thought. Some lizards, he explained to Carvel in the second part of this immortal conversation, reproduce by parthenogenesis – females reproducing themselves without male involvement. (First the Russians discovered such a lizard. The Americans denounced it as a fraud until they discovered one of their own. ‘So it’s now established that the superpower blocs have parthenogenic lizard parity,’ says Livingstone.)

He sees an analogy here with his view of human development. The lizards who developed parthenogenesis at once collected an enormous short-term advantage: by avoiding all the dangers and uncertainties of sexual reproduction, they solved the problem of keeping the species going. But in the long term, the solution must lead to extinction. The gene pool is not mixed, healthy mutation and adaptation cease, and a population of identical, mindless little creatures without an original idea or physical variation among them will be easily wiped out by some catastrophe.

It is not difficult to see what the chairman of the GLC is getting at. On that cursed day when hunters first broke the soil and threw seed into it, the human race began a parthenogenic leap forward: all the variations and mutations of social relationships were abandoned for the gigantic increase of security and population that agriculture guaranteed. Society lost the capacity to adapt, locking itself into one mould of greed and competition. ‘We may be just trundling along on a dead end which suddenly cuts off the whole of the human race very violently and rapidly.’ Unrestricted population growth, or pollution, are as likely to bring humanity to that dead end as nuclear war.

And is there no way back? John Carvel inquires. No way back to the state of nature and the pursuit of berries and tubers, the chairman implacably returns. But by establishing little islets of non-competitive association, rafts of co-operative production on the capitalist sea, a start can be made on restoring society’s capacity to mutate and adapt. With the help and subsidy of GLEB (Greater London Enterprise Board), humanity can begin retracing the wrong turning taken by the Neolithic revolution.

All this will reduce many archaeologists, many professors of anthropology, probably many GLC ratepayers, to speechless fury. Hunter-gatherers? Lizards? Thoughts like these, even the affectionate John Carvel concedes, ‘in the atmosphere of workaday politics ... sound positively loopy’. So much the worse for workaday politics. Ken Livingstone is a utopian socialist, a man who does not fit most of the categories crammed round his neck by the media. He is anything but a Trotskyist, although he will gladly use small Trot groups for support when it suits his tactics. He is not a working-class politician formed by poverty, but neither – as Carvel points out – is he a ‘paperback Marxist’ from a ‘lumpen polytechnic’. He had no real higher education, and his grasp of theory, as the hunter-gatherer-parthenogenesis hypothesis shows, is wonderfully sketchy and personal. In most ways, he is more of a classical anarchist than a Marxist. His style is to work through a constantly changing series of caucuses, cabals and temporary alliances; one of the reasons why the Parliamentary Labour Party hates him so fervently is that Livingstone dislikes the discipline of permanent political structures, even though he still seems anxious to enter the House of Commons. If there is anyone in European politics whom he resembles, it is Erhard Eppler, the veteran Social Democrat in West Germany, an infinitely graver and more consistent thinker who nonetheless commands a similar coalition of leftists, life-stylers, Green-minded socialists and nuclear disarmers, whose outlook is also pessimistic and who was the first in his party to welcome the ‘end of growth’ and put forward a sweeping reform programme which did not amount to the mere redistribution of capitalist surplus in years of expansion.

Ken Livingstone complains that the society he lives in has almost killed off the capacity for social ‘mutation’. But, as a matter of fact, he himself is a mutation. Citizen Ken is one of the first known examples of a new strain of politician entirely resistant to all known forms of media poison. The last ten years have brought campaigns against the personal and public lives of selected left-wing politicians of a viciousness scarcely seen in Britain since the Victorian period, but none of these campaigns – not even that against Arthur Scargill – acquired the intensity of the hounding of Livingstone. Scargill and Benn, of an older generation, have developed signs of paranoia under this treatment; Tatchell was nearly destroyed by it. But Livingstone actually feeds on pesticide. The more hysterical the abuse, the more provocative he becomes. The quotes about the IRA, the Royal Wedding, gay rights and black pride continue to flow; his wretched Labour group on the GLC have often paid the price, pockmarked by the shower of missiles aimed at their leader and obliged to watch many of their most ‘popular’ measures obliterated from view by the latest scandal over ‘Red Ken’ and his big mouth. Meanwhile, Livingstone himself was turning the publicity steadily to his own advantage, emerging as a skilled, unflappable and charming radio and television panellist and interviewee. Increasingly, his case has been heard, and Londoners have developed for him both affection and some respect. Carvel observes that ‘Livingstone’s crucifixion in the media formed the basis of his subsequent political strength and popularity.’

Most of this book, naturally enough, is about local government and London politics. Livingstone was welcomed to power with the headline ‘Red Ken Crowned King of London’. John Carvel shows what a mockery those words were and are. Britain is the most over-centralised state in the Western world, in which local authorities have always been tightly hobbled, and today the Government – through ‘rate-capping’, through the abolition of the Metropolitan Counties – is engaged on reducing that slight room for manoeuvre even further. Political prejudice against Labour-dominated authorities plays its part, but the real situation is little short of a creeping nationalisation of local government by White-hall – by the Treasury in particular. The Daily Express last year published a cartoon showing ‘Red Ken’ digging the grave of democracy, but the whole bizarre, impudent, exhilarating history of his administration at County Hall shows that he and his colleagues have been trying to give local democracy the kiss of life on what appears to be its deathbed. The sullen, morose sea of overcrowded humanity that is London has never been encouraged to develop a sense of active community. Who, after all, is remembered as a leader of London? Dick Whittington, perhaps Herbert Morrison. Ken Livingstone has dealt mostly in symbolic politics – there was little else left to deal in – but he will be remembered as the man who gave Londoners their only revelation of common identity since Marshal Goering abandoned the Blitz. He could not be a giant-killer, but he made fools of the giants. Michael Heseltine, as Secretary for the Environment, bungled the legislation to cut the GLC’s revenue. The judiciary made imbeciles of themselves in their eagerness to crush the cheap fares policy by pronouncing, in effect, that all forms of subsidy were a misuse of ratepayers’ money. The onslaught by the gutter press made Citizen Ken into a folk-hero. Mrs Thatcher, in her eagerness to suppress him and to destroy what remains of local authority freedom, has deeply offended the Conservative conscience in a way which may well contribute to her fall.

Ken Livingstone has also been lucky. Like many obsessive manipulators, he has almost come unstuck on many occasions, saved usually by the blunders of his enemies. He was rescued from taking the consequences of the appalling financial muddle which had developed at the GLC after his first six months as leader only by the surge of sympathy after the judges condemned the fare cuts. The Labour group might well have unloaded him for his ‘they are not criminals or lunatics’ remark about the IRA bombers, and for his invitation to Sinn Fein to visit County Hall, if the Home Secretary had not changed the focus of the uproar by ‘excluding’ the two Sinn Fein MPs from the British mainland. He declared that Labour would stay in office and simply refuse to raise transport fares after the law lords’ judgment, and was saved from a terminal collision with the law by the mess the Tory GLC opposition made of the crucial debate. And luck has repeatedly frustrated his deplorable hankering to get into Parliament: he was only narrowly defeated at Hampstead, and although he was winning the murderous guerrilla faction war for the nomination at Brent East in 1983, Mrs Thatcher called the election before the sitting MP, Reg Freeson, was finally ‘deselected’. Why Ken Livingstone wants to enter the House remains a mystery. The place is full of aging gadflies who achieve nothing beyond turning the Speaker’s face purple, and who lack the delicious power to do things like cover London with nuclear-free zone notices and witty posters at the ratepayers’ expense.

He is no administrator and, really, no hero. He has a cheerful super-rat gift for dodging upwards through chinks in situations. He is a shameless carpet-bagger and opportunist with a gift for bringing together coalitions of people who all slightly suspect him for different reasons but find his flair irresistible (in this, he has something in common with Lech Walesa, whom he probably regards as a clerical fascist). As a schoolboy, taught at Tulse Hill Comprehensive by the expansive Philip Hobsbaum, he became, in his own words, what he was to remain: ‘an argumentative, cheeky little brat’. John Carvel, who obviously admires him, often seems in this book to shake his head with exasperation over the chances Ken takes with his reputation. And yet, if the GLC is to die, Ken Livingstone has ensured as the last leader of greater London that it will perish in a display of vigour, ideas, experiments and sheer entertainment that dims any Lord Mayor’s fireworks on the Thames. It may be because he has such a passion for the Irish – seeing them perhaps as hunter-gatherers in arms – that he has turned a sober funeral of democracy into a spectacular wake.