Saturday, May 03, 2008

From Istanbul to London ... via the British election

As most of you probably know, there was just a round of local elections in Britain (minus Scotland), which resulted in a comprehensive disaster for the Labour Party. The main beneficiaries were the Conservatives.

The biggest single election of this bunch was the one for Mayor of London. A directly-elected Mayor of London was a post introduced in 2000 by the then-fairly-new Blair government as part of its devolution program. To Blair's dismay, the winner in 2000 was the one-time radical firebrand Ken Livingstone, who managed to get elected despite having been denied the Labour Party's endorsement. Livingstone got re-elected in 2004 as the official Labour candidate But this time Livingstone was defeated by the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson, a slightly odd character, invariably described as "colourful," who was once editor of the right-wing Spectator and has also been a Conservative MP and member of the Conservative shadow cabinet.

(There were various other candidates, including the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, a highly respected--and openly gay--former Deputy Commissioner in the London police force. But they got buried by the top two candidates.)

The New York Times report opened with the standard line on Johnson:
Boris Johnson, the floppy-haired media celebrity and Conservative member of Parliament who transformed himself from a shambling, amusing-aphorism-uttering figure of fun into a plausible political force, was elected mayor of London on Friday. [....]

In his colorful career, the new London mayor has survived public airing of an extramarital affair whose existence he originally denied as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”; has apologized to whole cities, like Liverpool, that he offended in one way or another; and has been prone to saying things like: “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.”

He has developed a reputation for having a fearsome but un-serious intellect and for wading into and out of embarrassing scrapes. But a man who has previously poked fun at the political process, saying: “I can’t remember what my line on drugs is. What’s my line on drugs?” and “I’m backing David Cameron’s campaign out of pure, cynical self-interest,” has been kept under a tight rein this time around, sticking to issues like crime and transportation. [....]
The Guardian put it this way:
Boris Johnson last night notched up the Tories' greatest electoral success since John Major's surprise victory in the 1992 general election when he unseated Ken Livingstone as mayor of London.

Ecstatic Conservatives cheered at London's City Hall, at the end of a count lasting more than 15 hours, as the man who had been dismissed as the Bertie Wooster of British politics took charge of one of the biggest political offices in Britain. [....]
A pre-election piece by Martin O'Neill in the left-wing New Statesman gave it a slightly different spin:
Boris Johnson is a dishonest, incompetent clown, whose life has been a story of contemptuous, self-serving privilege. The fact that he may on 1 May be elected Mayor of London tells us something very unsavoury about the ways in which Britain continues to be disfigured by social class.

The facts about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson are well-known, and should be more than sufficient to stop him being a plausible candidate for any kind of elected office in a mature democracy. He is a man who has lost a number of jobs for lying: he was sacked from The Times for making up a quotation from his godfather, the Oxford historian Colin Lucas, and lost his front-bench role, under Michael Howard, for lying about his four-year extra-marital affair with his fellow toff journalist, Petronella Wyatt. (For men like Johnson, with friends in high places, serial sackings are no bar to advancement.)

As well as being a famous liar, Johnson has skirted the borders of criminality when it has suited his interests or those of his foul, larcenous and over-privileged friends. [....]

Boris Johnson is not only shady, dishonest and incompetent. He is also a particularly offensive kind of clown, as is evidenced by his absurd litany of gaffes and insults. The people of Papua New Guinea are, according to Johnson, “cannibals,” while Portsmouth is “full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs”.

Worst of all is Johnson’s casual racism, although it is perhaps not wholly surprising from someone of his class and background. It takes a particular kind of bad judgement, as despicable as it is revealing, to think that there could be anything funny about describing the participants in the Congolese civil war as having “watermelon smiles” or talking of “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” (with conscious echoes of Enoch Powell?), yet both phrases appeared in a Daily Telegraph article by Johnson as recently as 2002. Such a man simply does not belong in modern, multicultural London.[....]

In any sane society, Boris Johnson would not be a plausible candidate for Mayor, even within the Conservative party. Yet he is odds-on favourite to win the mayoralty. [....]
Can't please everyone, I guess. For some background information on Johnson, including photos, see this fairly extensive BBC News profile, along with this and this.

The London election was important in practical and even more in symbolic terms, and I can't feel good about the Conservatives winning it. On the other hand, while Ken Livingstone has done some good things as Mayor, he has been increasingly odious in some ways himself, so I can't feel entirely crushed by his defeat. (For a genuinely ambivalent farewell to Livingstone, by a former supporter eventually pushed over the edge, see "Goodbye, King Newt" by David T. at Harry's Place. If the newt reference doesn't ring an immediate bell, the piece will make it clear.)

But be that as it may ... one angle that some of you may find more intriguing (though it will be no news to others) is Johnson's Turkish connection.

=> Boris Johnson--more precisely, as Martin O'Neill reminds us, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson--is correctly described by his long-time pal Andrew Sullivan as "an extremely wealthy Etonian." And as you can see from the photos, he looks the part--almost like a caricature of a blond ultra-posh upper-class Brit (straight out of "Brideshead Revisited").

However, it so happens that Johnson's paternal great-grandfather was the prominent Turkish liberal journalist and politician Ali Kemal Bey (who, among other things, condemned the Armenian genocide). Ali Kemal opposed both the Young Turks and then, after World War I, the followers of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), and was killed by the latter in 1922. According to the Wikipedia mini-bio:
On November 4, 1922, Ali Kemal was kidnapped from a barber's shop at Tokatliyan Hotel in Istanbul, and was carried to the Asiatic side of the city by a motor boat en route to Ankara for a trial on charges of treason. On November 6, 1922, the party was intercepted at Izmit by General Nureddin, then the Commander of the First Army which was aligned with Mustafa Kemal. Ali Kemal was lynched by a mob set up by the General. His head was smashed by cudgels and he was stoned to death. As described by Nureddin personally to Dr. Riza Nur, who with Ismet Inönü was on his way to Lausanne to negotiate peace with the Allies, "his blood-covered body was subsequently hanged with an epitaph across his chest which read, 'Artin Kemal'". This bestowal of a fictitious Armenian name administered a final indignity to the victim.
Ali Kemal's first wife was an Anglo-Swiss woman, Winifred Brun, whose mother-in-law's maiden name had been Margaret Johnson. Winifred died in childbirth in 1909. Ali Kemal's second marriage was to a Turkish woman, Sabiha Hanim. His son and daughter by his first marriage were recognized as British subjects, settled in England in the 1920s, and adopted their maternal grandmother's maiden name of Johnson. Since then that branch of Ali Kemal Bey's descendants have been English Johnsons.

I can't help being reminded of the way that, during WWI, the Battenbergs took the more English-sounding name of Mountbatten--but you really can't get more English-sounding than Johnson. Ali Kemal's son Osman Ali became Wilfred Johnson; his grandson Stanley Johnson is a former Conservative Member of the European Parliament as well as an author and, apparently, a noted environmentalist and animal-welfare campaigner; and his great-grandson Boris Johnson is the new Mayor of London. From one great cosmopolitan city to another ...

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. According to Boris Johnson, the genetic background for his blond hair may not come entirely from the English side of his family tree. He claims that his great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave girl who was bought and later married by his Turkish great-great-grandfather. There's nothing inherently implausible about this story, but whether or not there is any truth to it is a matter of some uncertainty.