I met Boris Johnson in his office in City Hall overlooking the Thames and Tower Bridge. Our former editor seemed a more thoughtful and sensible character than the man who used to practise cycling with no hands down Doughty Street at lunchtime, but there were signs of the old Boris tucked around his mayoral office: ping pong bats (the Mayor likes to unwind by trying and failing to beat his personal assistant, Ann Sindall); a book of love poems by the late Woodrow Wyatt; a bust of Pericles in the corner, looking out over this 21st-century Athens.
Do you identify with Pericles?
It would be absurd to say that I identify with Pericles. But I have had a spooky veneration for him, ever since I read the funeral oration at the age of about 12 — the bit where he bangs on about Athenian democracy, and equality under the law, and a society based on merit. I remember my skin crawling with excitement because it was so obvious to me, back then in the Cold War, that Athens was like America — open, generous, democratic — and Sparta was like the Soviet Union — nasty, closed, militaristic, totalitarian.
Even though I later learned that it was all really propaganda cooked up by Thucydides, that speech still seems to me so fresh and modern, and far better than any speech I ever heard in the Commons.
Thirty years later I was in the British Museum shop, and in an ecstasy of pretentiousness I bought the last plaster bust they made of Pericles. The hat he is wearing is from some American mayor.
What would Pericles do to make London the school of the world?
But London already is the school of the world. We have more of the world’s top 100 higher education institutions than any other capital, a constellation of universities that draws more students from around the planet than any of our rivals. London is the Athens of the global economy. I am afraid poor old Pericles would be quite stunned by the number of Greeks who feel it necessary to complete their education in London.
Have you always had natural authority?
The sad truth is that my children would find that question satirical. Though I did play God, aged 10, in a play about the Flood.
How do you think being Mayor has changed your character?
It’s a bit like having your first child again — a sudden sense of overwhelming responsibility.
You’ve said that the most important political issue facing Britain is that too many children leave school without the basics of reading, writing and maths. How do you plan to fix this?
Synthetic phonics; multiplication tables by heart; more male teachers; academic competition; a grand smashing of Playstations and making them all learn two poems a term.
What do you think about the idea of making all state schools independent charities with almost no regulation?
Sounds groovy. But the answer, as everybody knows but dare not admit, is to allow state schools the freedom once again to select on the basis of academic merit. Everything else is just blah. Look at what is happening to social mobility. Look at the way the fee-paying schools are lengthening their lead. The whole thing is outrageous, and to cap it all we are now letting Martin McGuinness — who spent decades trying to blow us up — get away with abolishing the grammar schools in Northern Ireland. What a disaster, and what putrid hypocrisy on the part of the entire British ruling class, who either use private tutors to give their kids the edge, or else send them to private school.
As a father, do you believe parents should be given more control over their children’s education?
Look, this is just blah. As a ‘father’, I don’t want to waste my time at some blooming consultation with the teachers, jostling for attention with a load of sharp-elbowed mums. I don’t want to have ‘control’ over my kids’ education. I want the teachers to have control. They already have the government telling them what they can and can’t do to a degree that is utterly absurd and humiliating, and contrary to their vocation as teachers. The last thing they need is to share their dwindling prerogatives with a load of ghastly and ill-informed parents. If you mean, should parents be more free to choose their kids’ schools, then yes, by all means — but the choice will be pretty meaningless until you bring back academic selection.
Batman or Superman? And why?
Give me the Incredible Hulk any day. The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.
You must have met tens of thousands of people in the last year. How has mayordom changed your view of human nature?
The more people Mayor meets, the more optimistic Mayor gets about human nature.
What changed your mind about Crossrail? Will it be finished in time for the Olympics?
I’ve always backed Crossrail. It’s going to expand London’s transport capacity by 10 per cent, but it won’t be finished until 2017.
Why do more people recognise you than they do David Cameron?
Alas, the premise of your question is false, and quite rightly.
Would you beat David Cameron at ping-pong?
Hmm. Tricky one. I have a feeling my brother Jo claims to have beaten him at tennis, so I think I would fancy my chances. The only way to settle the matter is to have a heavily sponsored match — possibly organised by The Spectator — with all proceeds going to the Mayor’s Fund for London.
What would you do if you were President of the USA?
I would try to talk to the Iranians, since I see no sense in another war. I would do a deal on the Doha round, stopping the witting evil by which Europe and America continue to dump subsidised agricultural produce on the markets of the Third World. I would take steps to ensure that all automobiles became either electric or hydrogen fuelled by 2020.
Does power corrupt?
Is it an unavoidable fact that sleaze will be invented by one party to damage another? Did the Ancient Greeks do it?
Of course. This stuff by McBride is very tame by comparison with the ancient tradition of personal invective. Look at the things Cicero says about Mark Antony in the Philippics — a catalogue of disgusting perversions, all of it no doubt made up, and all thought perfectly appropriate to a serious speech.
You’ve said that you’re in favour of restorative justice — is there any way that corrupt or criminally negligent bankers could repay the taxpayer?
Anybody corrupt or criminally negligent should be sent to prison. All other bankers who find themselves in possession of a taxpayer-funded bonus can assuage their embarrassment by donating it to the Mayor’s Fund for London.
Why can’t we have NYC-style zero-tolerance policing to stamp out low-level aggression and vandalism in the city?
I suppose I would say this now that I am Mayor, but on almost every indicator London is far safer than New York. You are certainly much less likely to get murdered here, and I would not swap our streets for theirs. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss the idea of zero tolerance. That’s why we are taking steps to end fare-dodging; that’s why we banned alcohol on the tube and the buses; that’s why we have expanded greatly the safer transport teams, so that there are now more people in uniform on the buses than at any time in the last 30 years. We have already seen big falls in violence on public transport, and a big rise in the confidence of passengers — and I take great pride in those figures. If you crack down on mundane offences, such as fare-dodging and aggro on buses, then you will make public space safer and drive out more serious crime.
How do we get more policemen doing one-person patrols?
I am pleased to say that Sir Paul Stephenson, the new Commissioner, has already announced this policy.
Which sportsman or woman do you admire most?
Who were you cheering for last year, Federer or Nadal? And why?
Roger Federer, no question. Because when you hit 44 you are always on the side of the older man. All the women I know were backing Nadal, which tells you all you need to know about life.
Is there a case for ripping out the traffic lights and trusting in the homeostasis of mini-roundabouts?
There may very well be, and we will be bringing forward some fantastic plans for shared space schemes. Why do we need all these blasted traffic lights? They massively expanded under the last mayor. Have you tried driving around Ealing on a Sunday morning?
You’ve said that you favour ‘persuasion over persecution’. Why then put up the fare-avoidance fees on buses from £20 to £50?
See above on zero tolerance. Why the hell should everyone else have to subsidise people who can’t be arsed to pay their fares?
Spectator readers may be worried that your plans for knife arches mean they will spend all day queuing and bleeping. Can you reassure them?
Since we came to City Hall last May, Operation Blunt Two has lifted about 4,000 knives from the streets of London, and the police have made about 8,000 arrests. Provided it is done sensitively and in accordance with the law, the use of stop and search and knife arches has the overwhelming support of local communities, and those carrying corkscrews or dog whistles have nothing to fear.
Why aren’t you worried about bird strikes bringing down planes in the Thames estuary?
Because the risk of bird strike is no greater in the Thames estuary than it is at Heathrow. Seabirds are littoral creatures, and the proposed site is some way offshore.
You describe London as ‘funkapolitan’, what does that mean?
I think it’s a way of saying ‘vibrant’ — a word I am trying to ban from City Hall.
When you close your eyes and imagine your Utopian London, what does it look like?
I see a new world of shared space, where the endless black railings are melted down to make bicycles, and I see happy pelotons of cyclists scudding through the streets, dappled with the light filtering through some of the 15,000 trees we are already planting; and I see pavements levelled to create beautiful urban realm projects across town, starting with Exhibition Road and Oxford Circus; and I see chewing gum magically vanishing thanks to the use of a new hydrophilic agent in the recipe, and the pollution disappearing from our nostrils thanks to the introduction not just of cycle-hire schemes, but also of a new generation of low-carbon and electric vehicles, and over the brow of the hill by as early as the end of 2011 I see a cleaner, greener, lighter version of the Routemaster bus, to say nothing of the growing fleets of catamarans that are plying the river, and which are already accepting the Oyster Card.
I see a London where developers are no longer building rabbit hutches, but are obliged to make rooms according to the standard of Parker Morris plus 10 per cent, and where architects rediscover an interest in ornament, and beauty, and once again create domestic architecture with a distinctive London vernacular rather than all-purpose Euro-flats.
I see a London where green space is protected, the parks are improved and the sporting facilities expanded, and where the outdoors is so safe that we see a steady falling off not just in youth crime (which is already happening) but in obesity as well. I see a river made clean enough to swim in, thanks to the vast new Thames Tideway Tunnel which will at last deal with the unmentionable consequences of what happens when the Bazalgette interceptors overflow, and Crossrail, and air-con on the tube.
In short, I see a steady improvement in the quality of life offered by the greatest city on earth. And this is not Utopia, my friends. A lot of these things will be done in the next few years.
What do you want for your birthday?
I want the government to agree a proper permit scheme for anyone who wants to dig a hole in the roads of London, so that if they take too long, or if they leave it unattended, we can hit them with serious fines.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 25, 2009