2019-09-02

Mayor of London w Gdańsku, na Westerplatte i w Warszawie

Jack Blanchard, “Politico London Playbook” 2 września 2019

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POSTCARD FROM POLAND

POLES APART: It’s shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday morning when we gather in the hotel lobby, and the London mayoral team is suffering. “Where did you get that coffee?” one of the party eyes my hot drink enviously. We’re swapping stories of sleep deprivation when a besuited Sadiq Khan strolls in, perfectly groomed, looking impossibly like he’s had eight hours’ kip. “Good morning,” one of his aides says to him. He smiles and squints at his watch. “Is it morning? Is it good?” The Polish TV news is rolling on screens in the hotel foyer. They’ve been talking about Brexit, Boris Johnson and Queen “Elżbieta II” for 20 minutes straight, against a backdrop of union jacks and red London buses. Look — global Britain, I tell the mayor, gesturing at the telly. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

In memoriam: We’re up early for a trip to the Westerplatte, an historic military site on the harborside in Gdańsk. It was here, at 4.45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, that the German battleships opened fire on what was then the free city of Danzig, and the first battle of World War II began. Khan has been invited to join the annual commemorations by his opposite number, Mayor of Gdańsk Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. Later in the day, 200 miles away, world leaders are gathering in Warsaw for a separate 80th anniversary ceremony organized by the Polish government. But Khan was keen to come to Gdańsk to show support for the liberal mayor in her ongoing struggle with the national regime. We’ve walked straight into a huge domestic power struggle, and it plays out throughout the trip.

Night on the town: We head out across town at 3.30 a.m. with other dignitaries to where a coach is waiting to take us to the military site. Gdańsk is a lively city, and Saturday night has run on into Sunday morning in the way it tends to do. There are groups of young people outside the bars and filling the streets, staggering, drinking, snogging, throwing up. Khan is unfazed, strolling through the melee without batting an eyelid. You can take the boy out of Tooting, etc. Walking with us is the young deputy mayor of Berlin, Sawsan Chebli. Like Khan, she’s a Muslim politician from a Western capital, a child of immigrants who fought her way up into front-line politics. They swap chit-chat. We flew in from London last night, he tells her. Actually we went straight to a nightclub. We’ve just come from there — been clubbing all night. Her eyes widen. Then he’s grinning. “Oh, you’re teasing,” she laughs. He shrugs.

Old school: The same ready charm is on display when he arrives the night before. I’m already here, working on a laptop out the front of the hotel’s riverside bar. Before I’ve even said hello, Khan is asking about my newborn baby daughter, how Emily is coping, how much sleep we’re getting and so on. He’s slick, smart, well briefed — kind of like politicians used to be. We talk about Donald Trump, who has canceled his own trip to Poland at the 11th hour and has just been spotted playing golf in Virginia. Khan is shaking his head in disbelief. “And he’ll get away with that. The normal rules do not apply.” Khan cut his teeth in the New Labour years, and in a sense he still plays by those “normal rules.” You look the part; you say the right things; you strategize, you triangulate. You listen to your spin doctors; you act professionally, you try to impress. In an age of populism, of insurgent leadership, of super-charged outrage on social media, he almost feels like a politician from another era. He’s also a reminder that this stuff can still work in 2019 — in the big metropolitan centers, at least. He is the overwhelming favorite to win re-election in London next year.

Pomp and ceremony: By 4 a.m., hundreds of people have gathered at the Westerplatte waterside for the 80th anniversary commemorations. There is military pomp and ceremony; flaming torches in the night sky; big screens showing grainy black-and-white footage of that first, fatal attack. Khan takes a seat in the front row of visiting dignitaries, he and Chebli the only non-white faces in an enormous crowd. There are lots of Polish flags being waved; EU flags too. Khan is seated beside Frans Timmermans, the European Commission first vice president, who gives a well-received speech on how his own father and grandfather in Holland were liberated by Polish soldiers during World War II. He recalls the “unspeakable horror” visited upon Poland in those years — “unspeakable horrors we need to remember if we are to prevent them from occurring again.”

Message from Brussels: Much of Timmermans’ speech appears aimed squarely at the event’s other speakers — Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki; plus the country’s military top brass and religious leaders. Most of them frame the war as brave Poland under attack from its evil neighbor. There is little sense of a wider ideological struggle. Timmermans instead talks about a European conflict, and about how “patriotism does not need an enemy.” He is the only politician to even mention the extermination of the Polish Jews.

Storytelling: This is all very relevant here right now. The right-wing government has just taken forcible control of the Westerplatte by decree; taken too the city’s World War II museum, sacked its director, changed the exhibits inside. One senior member of the government mentions the takeover in his speech — furious locals in the crowd shout and jeer. Their warmest reception is reserved for Mayor Dulkiewicz, her very presence on stage a poignant moment. Her predecessor, Paweł Adamowicz, was mayor of Gdańsk for more than 20 years before his assassination in January. He was stabbed on stage at a charity gala, the killing sending shockwaves across the nation. It adds to a picture here of liberalism under siege.

Solidarity: Khan’s team sees Poland as a land of left-leaning civic leaders struggling against a very right-wing government and a wave of populist nationalism. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why he decided to come. Later in the day he speaks alongside Dulkiewicz at a panel discussion at the European Solidarity Centre, a gleaming museum built on the site of the famous old Gdańsk shipyard where the Solidarity movement began under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. “She and I have a lot in common,” Khan tells the audience, gesturing at Dulkiewicz. “One of the things we have in common is — please don’t judge us by the actions of our government.”

Progress? It gets a laugh, but Khan has a serious story to tell. “Nativist, nationalist” language from politicians is playing on people’s fears across Europe, he says, “and not just in Poland.” Asked about the reasons behind the Brexit vote, he replies that progressives in Britain “became complacent” about the march of history. “Progressives from my side of the political spectrum failed to challenge the stories that were being told,” he says. “There are lessons there for Poland, Hungary, France.” It resonates with the crowd. The European Solidarity Centre itself has just been taken over by the Polish government, which has its own story to tell about Poland’s past. “Are we living in times now similar to the 1930s?” Khan asks the audience rhetorically, citing “the rise of the charismatic leaders, using the power of hatred to divide communities and pick on ‘the other.’”

Photo bombs: Up at the Westerplatte and here too the museum, people are queuing excitedly for selfies with Khan. Attendees at these events know who he is and clearly have a set idea of what he means to them, long before he ever opens his mouth.  The director of the center opens the discussion by telling him he is an “inspiration.” Mayor Dulkiewicz tells both Khan and Chebli she is thrilled to see two Muslim immigrants in such senior roles. “It’s a great example to Poles about how much Europe has changed — how much we would change,” she says. A quick glance at some of Khan’s more abusive Twitter mentions, of course, shows the other side of the coin. Chatting later on the train to Warsaw, Khan accepts he will be pre-judged wherever he goes, for good and for ill. “I’ve never seen myself through the prism of my faith or my ethnicity,” he says. “I truly believe we all have multiple identities — I’m a south Londoner, I’m Muslim, I’m of Pakistani origin; I’m a Liverpool fan; I’m a trade unionist; I’m a dad; I’m a husband. But I’ve got to accept it. I’m not naïve. My election in May 2016 had an impact around the world.

Winning here: “But that’s not about how great I am — it’s about how great our city is. After one of the most negative — in some people’s minds racist — campaigns in the history of our country, our city decided to vote for me as its mayor. That says something remarkable about our city. We know there’s Islamaphobia out there, we know people tend to pre-judge. And it was not just the former PM [David Cameron] but senior members of the government, and London’s premier newspaper [the Evening Standard] making all sorts of aspersions about me based on my faith and my ethnicity. And Londoners could withstand all that and choose me as their mayor. For me it’s a big responsibility not to let the values of our city down.”

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© Ryszard Stemplowski

Eugeniusz Stemplowski