Boris and Hugo

It was, at first blush, an odd affair between curiously mismatched lovers: one of the world’s largest cities paired with one of the poorer ones. The seemingly unbalanced relationship between London and Caracas has been terminated. The instigator of the annulment was London’s new mayor, the previously deemed unelectable Boris Johnson. Some seven million British pounds will be returned to the Venezuelan government in due course.

In February 2007, London’s previous mayor, Ken Livingstone (a.k.a “Red Ken”), sealed a deal with Hugo Chávez that was subsequently termed “oil for brooms.” As the details unfolded, it looked more like a neurotic version of the lady and the tramp. The Wall Street Journal was less flattering, headlining an editorial on the subject “Brits on Venezuelan Dole.” The agreement would, argued Livingstone, bring benefits to 250,000 poor Londoners, with half-priced bus and tram travel. Fares would be subsidized through savings made from discounted Venezuelan oil. The Venezuelans would in return receive training to remedy traffic jams, something vaguely described as “technical” advice. Far better to receive handouts from Caracas, intoned Livingstone, than Washington.

The welfare element in the deal was dismissed by some in the Court of the Common Council, London’s main decision-making body, as suspect. The agreement had been made, concluded the then-Tory leader in council, Angie Bray, with someone who engaged in “the politics of the pirate.”

And Livingstone was ravenous — the ink hadn’t dried on the arrangement before he proceeded to talks with Chávez’s Brazilian counterpart, Lula de Silva. For him, the international city was, like any city-state, bound by the dictates of international diplomacy. If that manifests itself in terms of travel budgets, then Livingstone had much to show for it: some 20 overseas trips to such cities as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Moscow by February between 2004 and early 2007. Such is the operating nature of a modern, multinational city.

Municipal Consultant

London’s City Hall has been riding a pig through velvet green fields – there’s nothing its officials claim it can’t do. At least that was the case under Livingstone, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much since. The words of an official within City Hall last year say it all: London sees itself as a giant in municipal consultancy. “If you went to one of the big consultancy firms and said ‘let’s rebuild a city,’ the cost would be colossal. We have over 100 years experience of running a successful city.”

New York City officials grew envious at the lucrative earnings of London’s congestion charge. Meetings between Livingstone and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were not infrequent. The cordiality of it all didn’t dissipate after a change of the guard in London. The tables have now turned. New York, it seems, has much to teach a London traumatized by rising crime levels. A new era of “cooperation” has been ushered in, with exchange programs promised between the cities.

It was very clear prior to coming to office that Boris Johnson wasn’t thrilled with the oil-for-brooms arrangement. On coming to office, the writing was on the wall. “I think many Londoners felt uncomfortable about the bus operation of one of the world’s powerhouses being funded by the people of a country where many people live in extreme poverty,” he said. Johnson’s press office recently reiterated that position, positioning Livingstone’s London as the thief who plundered from the cookie jar. “Venezuela, a very poor country, has given London, one of the world’s richest cities, some 16 million pounds, of which several million has not been used. Boris Johnson feels that this was a morally bankrupt approach,” a spokesperson said.

Moving On

Was Johnson being scrupulous, something the former journalist has never been accused of? Or was it a case of Tory aversion to radical figures, notably of the South American type? Margaret Thatcher had never made any secret of the fact that she had “friends” among the Argentine and Chilean juntas in the days of Cold War politics. On the other hand, Livingstone, a long-standing socialist, never made a secret of his preference for radicals of the left. Conservative commentators thought Livingstone so extreme that having him seen alongside Chávez (this in the latter’s election of 2006) might have proven damaging to his electoral prospects.

Indeed, even with the short-lived “oil-for-brooms” arrangement’s demise, the personal association between Livingstone and Chávez continues. Livingstone has landed a consultancy position with Caracas authorities dealing with policing, urban transport and policing. London may have lost its Venezuelan oil, but Caracas has gained its former mayor. And Johnson’s response? “Ken Livingstone is free, as a private individual, to offer his advice and services to whomever he wants.”

Johnson is intrigued by what he sees as the bread-and-butter issues of conservative politics. That doesn’t necessarily involve keeping the costs of public transport down. As Livingstone said in response to his successor’s refusal to continue the scheme, this “ideologically motivated move to cut off technical assistance to Venezuela will cost London a cool seven million pounds, as well as doubling fares for some of the poorest people in the capital.”

No, for Johnson, fighting crime comes first, and that means less expansive foreign engagement, and a keener eye for local details.

Populists tend to only see junkets where there might be tangible benefits for a city’s international diplomacy. The policy with Chávez fell in the latter category. As did the number of London’s officials attending the Beijing Olympic Games. The poor, in the meantime, can walk.

Binoy Kampmark, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, and lecturer at the University of Queensland.