Antipathy towards London has a very long history but seems to have intensified lately. The EU referendum vote, the Conservatives’ general election manifesto, bits of Labour Left populism, resentment of public investment in infrastructure in the capital and the nationalist Right’s loathing of a “metropolitan elite” all illustrate this. Arguing that hating London misses the point and that a weakened London would not mean Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool become stronger can be difficult. Pointing out that London’s economic power benefits the whole of the UK in many ways, not least by way of a large “tax export” subsidy, risks simply replenishing the belief that the capital is too dominant, too greedy and too big-headed and ought to be cut down to size.
The other week, Andrew Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, having bracingly cleared the air in a Commons dining room by saying Brexit should be stopped, outlined a programme for national renewal involving vastly enhanced rail links not only within London in the form of Crossrail 2, but also between London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds from which all those cities would benefit. Last night, in a lecture at the Guildhall, he elaborated, describing the formation of a rail transport “Golden Arrow” connecting those five great cities, plus Oxford and Cambridge along the way, and more besides.
The arrow would primarily comprise High Speed 2, Crossrail 2, full London Overground control of suburban rail services and a high speed Crossrail of the North, linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds and also Hull, York and Newcastle. There would also be a Midlands Hub creating new links between Birmingham International (which Adonis thinks should be renamed UK Central) and Coventry and other West Midlands towns; a Midlands Metro, extending Birmingham’s new tram service to the wider conurbation; and a Leeds Metro, bringing Leeds and Bradford closer together. A third runway at Heathrow, which Adonis called “the most successful airport in aviation history”, would make the arrow complete. “Brexit or no Brexit, Britain needs a plan,” Adonis said. “The Golden Arrow is that plan. It can and must be done by 2030.”
This received a pretty good reception from a high-powered Square Mile audience, but also a challenge from David Goodhart, journalist, ex-director of Demos and author of The Road to Somewhere, a book about responding to the new populist politics of identity. He put it to Adonis that “one of the subterranean reasons for the Brexit vote was a kind of revenge on London”, and that Leave voters hearing his lecture would not have thought him “in any way admonished by that vote or responding to it in a creative way”. Goodhart pointed out, correctly, that the gap in size and strength between London and other British cities is far greater than that between the capitals of other nations and their next largest cities, and that it is Germany, with no equivalent of London, that is “the economic powerhouse of Europe”. He couldn’t see that what he tartly termed Adonis’s “train set arrow” would do anything about all that.
Adonis responded to his “critical friend” with proportionate force. “Be very, very careful what you wish for,” he said. While acknowledging that what Goodhart called London’s “over-dominance” was not ideal, he warned against governments trying to mend things that do not work by destroying things that do. “The idea that the salvation of the Midlands and the North lies in doing down London would be to repeat all of the mistakes of [Sir Patrick] Abercrombie and what was called ‘de-congestion’, and attempting by government fiat to move jobs and business away from London in a way that failed catastrophically in the 1960s and 1970s and would fail catastrophically again.”
Doing down London would result only in “an even poorer Midlands and North,” he said. The right approach was to at last get the right policies in place to make the Midlands and the North more successful. That meant “connecting up the country” far better so that “we aren’t 60 years behind in the connectivity of our major cities in the future as we have been in the past”. Japan had done it in 1964 for their Olympics, he said, introducing inter-city bullet trains only two decades after enduring the terrible destruction of World War 2. He then reeled off examples of British backwardness about transport modernisation, including a rejection by Baron Leslie Hore-Belisha of building motorways in the 1930s because straight roads were fascistic and un-English.
I thought Adonis’s answer pretty good, but it seems unlikely to have satisfied Goodhart and might not have impressed the mass of Leave voters invoked by Goodhart either. The view that the “north-south divide” is the product only of a causally arrogant southern bias within the political class is deeply entrenched, as is its concomitant conviction that upending that bias would make the regional prosperity gap disappear. Adonis’s Golden Arrow pointed a way towards the sort of unifying national vision the UK is in need of. But there may be a long way to travel before Britain’s leading politicians and the country as a whole can be persuaded to climb on board.