Sunday 29 April 2012

I'm a Londoner - make me smile

Dwellers of that vorticular, self-referential, glorious city-state that is London may be unaware that there are local elections in other parts of the country this week.  These latter elections will be won or lost on matters of policy, of party popularity, and what politicians like to call "the things that matter to ordinary people". They will not, generally, be fought on the basis of the charisma of the electoral candidates, who will be happy solemnly to proclaim at the slightest provocation that "it's policies not personality that matters" (matters, that is, to the aforementioned ordinary people, obviously).  The point about the London mayoral election is that precisely the reverse is the case.

When New Labour won in 1997, an early if second-level, priority was the creation of a new city-wide government for London.  This was to address a perceived strategic deficit created by the abolition of the GLC in 1986.  London, it was argued, was a "world city": the largest, most populous metropolitan area in the EU, the most important financial centre on the planet, and the engine of the UK economy.  It was ridiculous that no single figure or body was in charge of it.  The 33 separate local authorities which comprise Greater London could not between them hope to provide the necessary leadership, even if they could agree on how to exercise it.  A big, important city needed a big, important leader.  A mayor along the lines of New York or Paris seemed just the job.

But Tony Blair was sensitive to claims that he was creating a new "tier" of local government.  He was also very keen not to (re)create something which could establish itself as a troublesome, opposing political force, as the GLC, under Ken Livingstone, had done in the early 80s.  The Government was also alive to the prospect, even early on, that Livingstone wanted - even expected - to be the Labour leader of any new authority, having been spitefully deprived of his former power-base by the Tories.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) was to be a modern, administratively slimline, US-style setup - a mayor, monitored by a small assembly - both to be separately elected by proportional representation, and housed in a purpose-built, energy-efficient glass bubble near Tower Bridge - way downstream from Westminster.  Its focus was to be strategic - in other words, it was to take the big, city-wide view of the world, and leave the day-to-day management of Londoners' lives to the borough councils.

The London Assembly has no real powers of its own.  It calls the Mayor to account, and can, if so minded, reject the Mayoral budget.  Its members - usually those who are opposed to the Mayor politically - appear from time to time on BBC London TV news (or "Children's Television" as it's known to Londoners) but are generally below the radar.

The Mayor, by contrast, does have a few powers.  He or she is in overall charge of the Underground and the buses (although not of most of London's extensive overhead rail network).  He has responsibility for co-ordinating land-use planning and can override boroughs' planning decisions; and has partial - but crucially non-operational - responsibility for the Metropolitan Police. He oversees collection of the congestion charge, one of Britain's very few hypothecated taxes (the other most important one is the BBC licence fee), the proceeds of which he has by law to spend on transport.  That's about it.  He has no responsibility for health, education, housing or social services.  He does not empty your bins or clean your street.  He can raise or lower tube and bus fares, and invest accordingly.  Otherwise, he does - and I sincerely wish it were otherwise - relatively little that you would notice.

The reality is that, outside transport, the Mayor's executive responsibilities are few.  That, as envisaged by the Blair government, is the whole point.  He is not there as a provider or manager of services; but as a figurehead, a champion, an ambassador.  He is to sell London, to plead its cause at home and abroad, to commend it to visitors and investors, to make the voice of the vast, impossibly diverse, organically uncontrollable, rapidly growing*, counter-culturally religious, thrillingly alive entity that is London heard in the world.

This is beyond party politics.  More than that, it's actually about personality over policy.  It's about which of the candidates most clearly says about London what Londoners want to be said about their city.  Archbishop Cranmer told us last year** that the choice for Londoners is whether they want their city's voice to be one that says "piffle" or one that says "shit". I would put it differently - perhaps because I am an ordinary priest and jobbing chaplain who is not allowed to say "piffle".  I think it might actually be about which candidate most makes you smile.

* Projected population: 9 million by 2020, 10 million by 2030 (Office for National Statistics)

Thursday 19 April 2012

Born at the Right Time

I am childless.  As a member of that social group so elegantly referred to by Richard Coles as "nature's bachelors", that's not going to be a huge surprise. (Although there are and always have been plenty of childless men who are not bachelors and vice versa.)  But my point here is that my childlessness is perhaps related to my possession of a very decent number of godchildren - and all of a very decent quality.  My eldest (if I may so term him) is properly grown up: he is clever, mature, independent-minded and enlightened. He has a very good job at which he works hard and for which, at the age of 24, he is paid more than I was at the high-point of my (admittedly undistinguished) career. He is also good company and likes a drink. What's not to like?

My youngest is a three year-old, golden-haired cherub. She goes to a nursery near to where I live and from which I sometimes go with her dad to collect her at the end of the day, and where she and her little friends cluster round me and pull at my clerical collar.  When she first sees me, there is that momentary quizzical, processing face which dissolves into a smile of unalloyed pleasure. Her parents are kind, intelligent and sociable people, both in good jobs, and she is their only child. She seems, to their eyes as well as mine, to be the happiest child in the entire world. Was she, pace Paul Simon, simply born at the right time?

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time.
Listen here: Paul Simon - Born at the Right Time

Yet the timing of her birth, indeed the fact of it, was a matter of anxiety. She was conceived by IVF only after her mum had undergone what seemed like endless courses of intrusive investigation and treatment, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts.  Even when conceived and returned to the womb, there were many weeks of uncertainty before it was clear that a child would indeed be born.  When she arrived, she felt like both a miraculous gift and a reward to her parents for the months of stress and pain they had undergone.

And yet they are preparing to go through it all again. In their situation, I'm not at all sure I would have the strength.  They've made the journey before and they know the road that lies ahead. They know it could be hard and may end in disappointment.  Yet such is their desire, their need, for another child that they've already taken the first steps.

I'm not one of those who believes that having children is a human right.  I've always understood that they are a gift from God which comes to some and not to others.  I find myself wanting to say to tearful couples who cannot have children that this state is not the end of the world: because of their childlessness, other possibilites will present themselves, and other gifts will be given.  I feel this to have been true in my own life.   I would like to have had children - very much, actually - but I haven't; and God has found other uses for my time, energies and affections.

But I'm also aware that the desire to reproduce is primal and extremely powerful.  I reflect that, like the sex-drive itself, it is not something that humanity has invented for itself: it, too, has been given to us, installed and instilled within us, and most of us cannot be deaf to its call.  For that reason, I can understand those who go through so much to have children who do not arrive in the natural course of events.  They are, to some extent, just responding to their programming.  And that's profoundly human.

Paul Simon lyrics courtesy of Universal Music Publishing Group
Photo courtesy of Paul McRae (Delta Niner)