By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
LONDON, March 28 -- The mayor of London considered the virtues of the U.S. ambassador to Britain: "A chiseling little crook," Ken Livingstone concluded of Robert Holmes Tuttle on Monday, further dismissing the colonials' latest representative to Her Majesty's realm as a "car salesman."
Though Livingstone is known for contentious remarks -- he recently likened a Jewish newspaper reporter to a concentration camp guard -- splashing such verbal mud on Tuttle caused a flurry of amusement, embarrassment and tut-tutting among the British. Tuttle is a noted friend of President Bush and, it must be said, a purveyor of automobiles.
At issue is the U.S. government's refusal to pay more than a quarter of a million dollars in traffic congestion fees charged to cars that enter central London. The fees are a tax, the embassy says, and under international law, embassies don't pay taxes.
But Livingstone won't buy that line. "When British troops are putting their lives on the line for American foreign policy," he said Monday, "it would be quite nice if they paid the congestion charge."
Rick Roberts, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, said he did "not want to dignify those remarks by responding to name-calling." But he noted: "We pay our parking tickets. We honor every commitment we have except tax. We are good citizens."
Other embassies in London also are refusing to pay the $14-per-car fee. "Our legal department in Berlin, like that of the State Department," concluded that the charge is a tax, said Michael Fluegger, a spokesman for the German Embassy.
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said that "a large number of missions pay" and that Washington should, too. The spokesman added that the congestion fee "comes under the same category as parking fees and toll charges."
When diplomats have refused to pay parking tickets in New York and Washington, it has caused an uproar.
"It is absolutely not a tax," said Graham Goodwin, a spokesman for Transport for London, the city's public transportation agency. Goodwin said the United Arab Emirates also owed a considerable sum and was paying up.
The charge, implemented in February 2003, was designed to lessen traffic congestion in the city center and get more people to use the subway and buses.
Tuttle's family operates one of the largest automobile dealerships in the United States. He was sworn in as ambassador in mid-July, after the decision to stop paying the fee was made.
"This new ambassador is a car salesman and an ally of President Bush. This is clearly a political decision,'' Livingstone told reporters. On ITV television Monday night, he said: "It would actually be quite nice if the American ambassador in Britain could pay the charge that everybody else is paying and not actually try and skive out of it like some chiseling little crook.''
On Tuesday a British civil liberties group, Liberty and Law, complained to a disciplinary board that the mayor had -- and not for the first time -- brought disrespect to his office.
"Ken Livingstone is an extremely left-wing, anti-American politician who delights in his anti-Americanism," said Gerald Hartup, director of Liberty and Law.
Livingstone was recently reported to the same disciplinary panel for his remarks to the Jewish reporter. The board suspended Livingstone from his duties for four weeks; he has remained in office pending the outcome of an appeal.
Meanwhile, the mayor last week tussled with two wealthy businessmen, telling them they should "go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs."
His style has won admirers and detractors. "He is a bit of an idiot," said Stuart Alldrydge, 41, a London letter carrier. "If someone said something like that about him, all hell would break loose. The Yanks should have to pay the charge, though."
"Good on him," said Ann Love, 29, who works in financial services and supported Livingstone's tough words. "I think he just blurted it out -- he's just too honest to be a politician."