Boris Bey for mayor of London by Alper Ali Rıza*

May 02, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:33:00

On May 3, 2012 Londoners will vote for a new mayor. A significant number of people who live and work in London have Turkish roots, including one of the candidates for mayor, Boris Johnson, who is the present incumbent.

His great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a journalist and a politician who came to England from Turkey in 1910. Johnson is also a journalist and a politician, as well as a former editor of the Spectator, the well-loved conservative weekly magazine of a libertarian persuasion. His main opponent is Ken Livingstone, who is the Labour candidate. He is English, although for a time during the troubles in Northern Ireland he was so pro-Irish some thought he was partly Irish.

London did not have a mayor until 1999, and even now power in respect to housing, education and social and health services rests with the 32 London local authorities. The mayor’s role is to promote the economic and social development of London and to improve its environment. The mayor’s powers include the power to develop and implement overarching strategies for transport, development, municipal waste, air quality, ambient noise and culture. Importantly, however, he has no power himself to raise money. Johnson thinks it is a great job but in reality it is not a very powerful one.The question for many people with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot roots is whether to vote for Mr. Johnson on the grounds that he is partly Turkish in origin; in other words whether to vote for him for patriotic rather than political reasons to do with his policies for London.

Johnson has been the mayor for the past four years. Livingstone was the mayor from 2000 until 2008. In terms of personal style the two could not be more different. Johnson is charismatic and witty with a light touch that endears him to the young. Livingstone takes himself too seriously and has run a lackluster campaign, but he knows the inner workings of local government well enough to be highly effective. Given that he has been a kind of politician cum local government apparatchik all his life, this is unsurprising. In terms of memorable achievements, Livingstone introduced the congestion charge and Johnson the public bicycle network known as “Boris bikes,” which he got Barclays Bank to sponsor. The only other significant difference between them is that apparently Johnson has a secret ambition to become prime minister, similar to what Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did in Turkey when he moved from being mayor of Istanbul to the office of prime minister in Ankara, whereas Livingstone can have no such ambition.

In terms of how London is to be governed, however, it would make little difference who is elected on May 3, which means that a choice based on patriotic reasons is respectable in that it would not be offensive to the host country to vote for Johnson for, as it were, extraneous reasons. Londoners of Turkish origin are therefore free to vote for Johnson and his party because he is partly Turkish and his party is pro-Turkish.

The Conservative Party has been friendly towards Turkey since the time of the Crimean War in 1853, and although relations between states are based on interests rather than preference, the Conservative Party has shown itself to be favorably disposed towards Turkey over so many years that it seems that the Turkish character appeals to English Conservative ideas of serious, civilized and respectful discourse founded on traditional noble values such as courage and integrity. Furthermore, the Conservatives are in power in the UK, albeit as the main party in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats very much the junior partner. By contrast, the Labour Party has been against Turkey primarily, though not exclusively, because of Turkey’s policy on Cyprus. There is a substantial Greek Cypriot population in London who support the Labour Party. Originally, this was because of its support for the Greek Cypriot struggle to unite Cyprus with Greece in the 1950s and more recently through force of habit and emotionalism. In London, the Greek Cypriots would probably vote against Mr. Johnson if they found out he is Turkish, but this is not a good enough reason for Turks to vote for him. However, there is a good chance that many Greek Cypriots will not find out about his Turkish roots because they have old-fashioned ideas about what Turkish people look and sound like and, as Mr. Johnson has very blonde, straight hair and speaks with an upper-class accent, most Greek Cypriots would rule out the possibility that he may be partly Turkish.

The most virulently anti-Turkish prime ministers in the UK have been Gladstone, in the late 19th century, and Lloyd George, in the early 20th century. They were both members of the Liberal Party, which was replaced by the Labour Party as one of the main two parties in the UK in the early 20th century. People of an immigrant background do not have to vote patriotically, but for those in London with a Turkish background who are eligible to vote on May 3, and who are stuck and cannot otherwise make up their minds, voting for Johnson on the grounds that he has a Turkish background is a respectable reason for voting for him.


* Alper Ali Rıza, QC, of Goldsmith Chambers, London, is a barrister and freelance writer.