LONDON—The latest battle of Trafalgar is getting ugly.
Mayor Ken Livingstone wants to erect a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square alongside monuments to British military heroes.
“Suppose I had proposed, in a moment of euphoric bipartisanship, to erect a statue of [former Conservative Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in Trafalgar Square. Would I have had problems with Westminster City Council?” the left-leaning mayor asked the Labor Party’s annual conference this week.
He answered his own question: “No.”
The Conservative-controlled Westminster Council has rejected Mr. Livingstone’s plans for a 9-foot-high bronze statue on the square’s north terrace, outside the main entrance to the National Gallery.
The council says its opposition is practical, not political. It does not like the look of the proposed statue by sculptor Ian Walters, which depicts Mr. Mandela clad in a characteristic loose-fitting shirt, his hands raised as if in animated conversation. It also wants the monument placed in front of the South African Embassy on the eastern edge of the square.
Mr. Livingstone wants Mr. Mandela at the heart of the square, already dominated by another Nelson. A statue of 19th-century naval hero Adm. Horatio Nelson stands atop a 185-foot-high column, and the square itself is named for the admiral’s 1805 victory over the French and Spanish fleets.
Also in the square are statues of King George IV and Victorian generals Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier.
Paul Drury, a consultant for the conservation group English Heritage, which also opposes the mayor’s plan, has said that placing an “informal, small-scale statue” of Mr. Mandela alongside military heroes “would be a major and awkward change in the narrative of the square.”
Changing that narrative is exactly what the radical mayor—once nicknamed “Red Ken” by the press—wants to do. Shortly after his 2000 election, Mr. Livingstone suggested replacing the military statues with figures “that ordinary Londoners would know.”
“I actually think it’s what he represents they don’t want to see depicted, because in that square one Nelson signifies the birth of the British empire and 100 years of global dominance,” Mr. Livingstone told Labor delegates. “Nelson Mandela would signify the peaceful transition to a multiracial and multicultural world, and I would be proud to have that in London.”
Mr. Livingstone has some high-profile supporters, including filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who raised money for the statue, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who last year called on Westminster Council to honor “one of the greatest statesmen of our time and help bring this internationally important public space into the 21st century.”