Q&A: Boris Johnson on conservative mayors in liberal cities

London's mayor on plastic bags, Rob Ford, and Canada — 'like the United States but nicer, gentler ... with more bears'

Boris Johnson is the English journalist and editor who decided to become what he wrote about: After serving in Parliament, he was elected Mayor of London in 2008 and was re-elected this May. A month later, he arrived in Canada to promote his book, Johnson’s Life of London, which uses various figures from British history (ranging from Dr. Johnson to Keith Richards) to demonstrate, as he puts it, that “London is the originator of ideas and trends that make it the greatest city on earth.”

The famously unkempt-haired Johnson — David Letterman recently took one look at him and said “how long have you been cutting your own hair?” — talked to Maclean’s about being a Conservative mayor in a liberal city, the importance of transportation, and how little he’s heard about Rob Ford. One of the first things he noticed was that the conversation was being recorded.

Q: Journalism has changed since you were part of it.

A: I know, it’s absolutely true. It’s a nightmare, because the reader has the power of instant fact-checking. The things I used to be able to assert with unbelievable confidence 25 years ago, in the knowledge that I was almost certainly probably half-right, they can now correct you. The balance of power has shifted tragically in favour of the consumers and against the producers … which is a good thing, of course. But I have to be honest, I think the profession I joined, at the risk of being pompous–why the hell not?– I’m worried that technology is making it difficult for newspapers to encourage the kind of stuff they used to do, finding things out and holding people to account.

Q: But was there an equivalent then to today’s culture of trying to get as many page hits as possible, getting as many items up as possible?

A: The great thing was to get scoops. You could go to bed in the knowledge that you had something that would shock them when they wake up in the morning. But that doesn’t happen anymore. You know all that.

Q: What about books? Is this a better or worse than average book tour?

A: My first ever! And it’s such a joy to be here in Toronto, because I’ve never been in Toronto before. I’m so glad that I’ve finally written a book that propelled me here.

Q: In England, generally, is there any awareness of Canada? Do people in England even care who’s our Prime Minister?

A: You’re the second person who’s asked me that. We love Canada. People think Canada is like the United States but nicer, gentler and kinder, and with more bears. But also more close to Britain, how about that?

Q: I thought the States was considered closer to Britain lately.

A: Oh, no, I wouldn’t say … well, these are matters of opinion. You ask 100 people and you get different views. But I think when huge numbers of Brits come to Canada, they treat it it as their own. Didn’t Kate and William come here for some sort of  “Calgary Stampede,” and that sort of stuff? I would say you wouldn’t find many Brits with a bad word to say about Canada. Come on, Canadians! Ypres! Dieppe! What a great bunch. Operations in which, I’m afraid, a great deal of Canadian blood was shed to not much purpose, but anyway.

Q: The other thing I’m sure everyone’s asking you about is the election. We had a municipal election here in Toronto with a somewhat surprising choice for Mayor, Rob Ford…

A: I don’t know Mr. Ford. I know about the election in London, I can comment with authority on that.

Q: I guess it was just sort of a roundabout way of asking how a conservative mayor gets elected in a liberal city.

A: Okay, here’s how. I guess Toronto is not unlike London. It’s one of the big cities, you’ve got a very diverse population … you’re rapidly going to exhaust my knowledge of Toronto. But I think it would probably be fair to say that I got a lot of support from Labour voters. I got strong support from Conservative voters because I kept taxes low and I did stuff that I said I was going to do, but I suppose maybe some of my more left-wing friends were pleasantly surprised with some of the things we did on the environment, on recycling, all that sort of stuff. And I think in a big city, since the whole world is going to live in cities–cities, I think, are where it’s at –I think it’s important that you work to improve quality of life.

Q: In North America, conservatives can be a little skeptical of public transit projects, and I’m wondering if that’s true in England.

A: No. There are bad transport projects. Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons famously built a monorail to nowhere. Not every great infrastructure project has a great business case. But I think when you look at the history of London, as a great metropolis, that it has prospered when attention is paid to infrastructure. Look at what happened in the 19th century, the building of the electric railways into suburbia. The bankers were all able to commute from their semi-detached homes or whatever into the city.

Q: This is going to be a strange question, but here in Toronto there was an uproar about plastic bags…

A: I feel so embarrassed not to know about these important things in Toronto. Someone just asked me about plastic bags. My view is that I’d like to ban all of them. I can’t do it very easily, because I don’t have that kind of power over plastic bags. How’s it going? I’m interested to know. Have they actually been banned?

Q: I got a plastic bag just today, so I’m assuming I was breaking the law.

A: Your plastic bag pusher, does he know he could be facing jail? “You know where I could get some good bags?” But look, I know nothing about this. I’m very worried about getting quoted on him, because I’m sure Mayor Ford and I are going to have to do things together in future, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on any Mayor of Toronto, living or dead. I have no views on him. I just don’t know.

Q: Moving from Toronto back to London, what are the biggest changes from when you first became Mayor? What are the major changes you’ve seen in the last decade?

A: It’s richer. Transport’s better. More bicycles everywhere. We’re going through a near-Victorian surge of support in transport infrastructure, in which I passionately believe. I think we’ve made progress in education, funnily enough, not a point that’s often made. But London schools have traditionally not been better than the rest of the country. Now we’re level or better. But now we’ve got to work on educational disadvantage, and the basic causes of poverty and underachievement. I mean, there’s no question that London is richer now than it was 10 years ago, but there’s also no question that the spectrum of wealth is broader now.

Q: Is there a technology gap that contributes to this income inequality?

A: I don’t think you can really argue that. Look at the riots, which were the most technology-fueled acts of criminality that we’ve seen for a long time. I think that the level of understanding of electronic and digital technology is very high amongst all groups, all classes. Obviously there are people who don’t have access to the web, to devices that you and I take for granted.

Q: In North America and elsewhere there’s a lot of talk about how it’s harder for people to get jobs today once they lose them. Is it important for a city to devote resources to training people for jobs?

A: That’s the big issue now. London is an incredible crater of jobs, but too often the jobs don’t go to Londoners, as it were. They go to hard-working immigrants. I’m pro-immigrant, this book is a celebration of immigrant dynamism, but as Mayor, I also want to see kids growing up in London getting the chutzpah, the life skills you need to get these jobs. The stuff you see in North America.

Click here to read Leah McLaren: Boris Johnson of London vs. Toronto’s Rob Ford from the May 11 issue of Maclean’s. 


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