PRUDEN: British press horrified as London’s new mayor dares to proclaim the truth

LONDON — Free speech is good, but sometimes dangerous in practice. Saying what you think can get you sacked in America even if it’s something that most people think. Practicing free speech here in the old country is risky, too, but saying the wrong thing appears to be a misdemeanor, not yet a felony.

Boris Johnson, the irrepressible mayor of London, said some provocative things the other day to a private think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, and political London — mostly the scribblers, anyway — has been in a tizzy since.

The mayor playfully invoked Gordon Gecko, who exists only in a movie, and his economic philosophy that “greed is good” to make the point that intelligence, ambition, inspiration and above all perspiration is the irresistible driver of prosperity for everyone. He observed that some people are smarter than others, and that the 2 percent pulls the 98 percent into the good life. To the consternation of conservatives in the government and the left-wing columnists and commentators, the mayor is still upright and walking around.

The 98 percent should be grateful to the 2 percent and not spend a lot of time cultivating resentment. “Some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy,” he said, “and keeping up with the Joneses is, like greed, a valuable spur to the economy.” This reflects an unremarkable understanding of what was once called human nature before the liberals — “progressives,” they call themselves now — decided that the state can install a better nature than God did.

Mr. Johnson then went even further. He said nice things about Margaret Thatcher, who has never been forgiven in certain of these precincts for pulling Britain out of the deep coma imposed by a welfare state that had reduced an empire to “a little England.”

The mayor sometimes talks less like a mayor than a newspaper columnist, which he is as well, for The Daily Telegraph. The squeals from the left and the harrumphs from the right after his Maggie Thatcher remarks may be less about the interpretations of his message than about the folly of electing a newspaper columnist to high office. Instead of bashing the rich, he wrote the other day, “we should be offering them humble and hearty thanks. It is through their restless, concupiscent energy and sheer wealth-creating dynamism that we pay for an ever-growing proportion of public services.”

Prime Minister David Cameron and his like-minded Tories, often called “wet” for their lack of fire and cunning in confronting the left, put the mayor on what the English call “the back foot.” Mr. Cameron said pointedly that he would “let Boris speak for Boris.” His deputy prime minister said the remarks smacked of “unpleasant and careless elitism.” A prominent Labor member of Parliament insisted he had caught “a whiff of eugenics.” But no demands that he quit as mayor.

The mayor has so far declined to dance the grovel so familiar to Americans. “If you look at what has happened over the last 20 to 30 years,” he told a television interviewer a day or two after, “there has been a widening in income between the rich and the poor — there’s no question about that. What hacks me off is … that people of ability have found it very difficult to progress in the last 20 years, and we’ve got to do something about that.” He had tried to make the point, he said, that “inequality was only tolerable in our society if those who are finding it tough to compete” were looked after [by the government] and “people who do happen to have ability” were allowed to succeed.

Unexceptional as this might be to anyone who has been paying attention to the newspapers over the past few years, it was as bracing as garlic. But some conservatives have been wary of the ambitious Mr. Johnson, regarding him as well-meaning but unpredictable, and a bit of a publicity hound.

His bluster, saucy humor and a madcap private life (he really, really likes women) have rendered him “unserious” by Conservatives looking for a reliable rival for the unpopular Mr. Cameron. “The question about the London mayor,” says the sympathetic Sunday Times, “has always been whether there were any serious ideas lurking behind the humor and bluster beneath the mop top. His lecture suggested there might be.”

Making heroes of fat cats will require more than bluster and humor, but he may be on to something in a world that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere good. “We should stop publishing rich lists in favor of an annual list of the top 100 Tax Heroes,” he says, “with automatic knighthoods for the top 10.” That’s risky speech.

Wesley Pruden is the editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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