23 March 2006 – Editorial Comment The Times
The loutish Mayor Heaven help us if this is the voice of London Ken Livingstone is a fool. Or at least, too many fawning acolytes and the 360-degree view from his eyrie atop London’s most peculiar building have made a fool of him — and not for the first time, his critics will observe. But even his most ardent admirers must have studied their fingernails in dismay when, faced with a potential impasse in negotiations between the developers responsible for building the capital’s Olympic City, Mr Livingstone resorted to crass insult.
The facts, as best they can be ascertained, are these: in a speech on Tuesday, the mayor identified David and Simon Reuben as obstacles to progress in developing the 2012 Olympics site in East London site. Perhaps, he suggested, “if they’re not happy they can always go back and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs”. He was asked to clarify his meaning. Back where? “To Iran,” he said, “if they don’t like the planning regime or my approach.”
The remarks carried two implications — first, that the Reuben brothers come originally from Iran, which they do not (they were born in India), and secondly that it is acceptable for London’s first citizen to suggest that a legal immigrant go back where he came from. It is not. Had Mr Livingstone said this of a Nigerian or Pakistani immigrant, whatever the context, he would be ruing his idiocy and considering his position. Instead, he shot from the lip in language that he must have known, given that the Reubens are Jewish, would be construed as anti-Semitic. He then instructed his office to say that he would have no further comment on the matter, only to break his silence yesterday with a “complete apology” — to the people of Iran.
As it happens, the Reuben brothers have said that they do not consider the mayor’s remarks anti-Semitic. They are being, at the very least, magnanimous. Mr Livingstone has a long record of antagonising the Board of Deputies of British Jews, most recently for refusing to apologise for likening a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard. He also has a record of trading on the distinction between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli governments. In his own case that distinction now looks blurred indeed, while his claim yesterday that he had no idea that the Reuben brothers were Jewish, and in fact thought from their names that they were Muslims, would be laughable were the issues at stake not so serious.
Those issues include the question of what constitutes racism, but also what voters should expect from their elected leaders. Where did Mr Livingstone get the idea that being mayor of a great city entitled him to unleash his short temper and acid tongue on any individual or interest group with the temerity to stand in his way? It should not be surprising if the Reuben brothers, who have not thrived as developers through simple altruism, are seeking the best possible return on their investments in East London. But Mr Livingstone is seeking their co-operation in the worst possible way.