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by Martin Giles
Ken Livingstone admitted he hated Guildford when he spoke at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre last night (February 20th).
“It always reminds me of 11pm 18th June 1970*. It was the night of the General Election and Guildford was the first result announced. The percentage swing said that the Tories would be elected. I will always remember that and I have hated Guildford ever since.”
It also seems that Guildford might not be too keen on Ken Livingstone, and perhaps left wing politics generally, if the less than half-full theatre was anything to go by. But the audience that did turn up seemed genuinely interested in Mr Livingstone’s views and answers, given candidly, to questions from the audience in the second half of the show.
Those hoping for a lively evening of aggressive questioning or heckling would have gone home disappointed. But the evening was filled with an interesting and amusing set of memories, anecdotes and views.
The chat show hour covered a wide range of subjects. Among Ken Livingstone’s comments were:
London as a nuclear free zone: “The GLC (Greater London Council) policy was most popular with residents who normally vote Conservative. They did not want to die in a nuclear attack….If there had been one I would have been whisked off to a bunker in Essex to live out my life in confinement with Margaret Thatcher! …I also discovered that one nuclear shelter was situated right under the old Elephant House in London Zoo!”
9/11 and 7/7. “The seeds of those terrorist bombings were laid by Jimmy Carter who agreed with the CIA or the Department of Defense idea that to arm the Taliban would make Afghanistan ‘Russia’s Vietnam’. I knew that one day they would strike in London… The terrorists wanted to fracture our society but they failed. There was not one record of a significant sectarian attack in London afterwards.”
The Royal Family. “Well I am a republican. I would like us to have a ceremonial president, perhaps an academic, along the lines they have in Germany… The Queen will be the last monarch who was allowed to grow up with a discrete press. I feel sorry for the young royals today, it can’t be good for them.”
Winning the Olympic bid for London. “Initially. I thought it was a long shot but also that we had nothing to lose. It was not until the meeting in Athens that I said to Seb (Lord Seb Coe, bid leader) ‘We can win this’. The French didn’t get off their arses… I was in the bar every night lobbying.”
Other politicians: Dislikes – Wilson, Blair and Mandelson, grudging respect for – Thatcher and Reagan (“at least they did what they believed in.”) and likes the late John Smith, and Ed Milliband (“He is the first leader I have confidence in for a long time.”)
A further range of subjects were covered when the audience got their turn to ask questions, after the interval:
Railways: “Privatisation has been a disaster. I came down from Waterloo to Guildford tonight, there was not a seat to be had. Passengers standing everywhere and some sitting on the floor… On the old British Railways you always got a seat and you could have a meal in the restaurant car even if you weren’t in first class.”
The media: “The trouble is we do believe what we read. Even I believe what I read about other people, even though I know they publish lies about me….The concentration of power into a few media owners is a bad thing. Over 70% of our newspapers are owned by just five billionaires. Murdoch has had a pernicious influence.”
Power – Whitehall and the corporations: “It used to be true that Whitehall [the civil service] ran the country but now it’s the big [business] corporations.”
Boris Johnson: “Boris tells audiences what they want to hear, there is a lack of ideology. If Cameron loses the next election I think Boris will stand as Conservative leader… He could probably win… Another contender could be Michael Gove, imagine that!”
Horse meat: “We shouldn’t worry about the horse meat, it’s the salt and fat they put in we should worry about.”
Proportional representation: “I’m in favour. Every vote should count. Otherwise, what does some poor bugger who supports Labour in Guildford do?”
By the end of the show he was asked by the question master Bill Heine what he thought of Guildford now? “Well judging on the basis of this evening’s audience in Guildford, Britain is on the verge of a social revolution and I look forward to a Marxist being elected here.”
An Audience With Ken Livingstone, in support of his new book You Can’t Say That, is on tour. Click here for other dates.
* The general election of 1970 resulted in a surprise victory for the Conservative Party under leader Edward Heath, who defeated the Labour Party under Harold Wilson [source Wikipedia].