Yesterday’s march to Parliament Square for a “people’s vote” on the government’s Brexit deal, whenever and if ever it is struck, had the national focus you would expect. Not only was it held in the heart of the nation’s capital, ending next to the home of national government, it also invoked themes of national history and destiny to make its case: prominent among the marchers as they gathered in Pall Mall were a wheelchair-bound armed forces veteran and teenagers demanding a better future; UK union flags were dotted among European Union ones; the Cenotaph and Churchill’s statue were claimed as photo opportunity props.
The marchers themselves came from various parts of Britain: Wales, Scotland and the England beyond the capital. That, of course, is what the cause requires – its effectiveness depends on mobilising citizens from coast to coast. Given the quicksands of today’s political terrain, who knows if it will succeed or what the true impacts of leaving the EU might be? There is, though, one sure thing amid all the uncertainty – Brexit or no Brexit, Britain needs London to remain strong.
Let’s contemplate the daunting details, displeasing to some though they might be. Greater London produces nearly a quarter of the UK’s total wealth and generates 30% of its taxes. Its productivity dwarfs that of any other UK city, its growth creates employment far beyond its own boundaries and it exports the equivalent of £2,500 per Londoner in taxes every year to other parts of the UK. How London would cope with Brexit is a matter of diffuse opinion, but whatever Britain’s relationships with its European neighbours two, five or 20 years from now, its dependence on its capital seems unlikely to lessen any time soon.
Part of the depressing and opaque condition of national politics just now is that so little attention is being given to how best to nurture London’s nationally invaluable strengths and help it to address its local weaknesses. Instead, both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition have seen advantage in being perceived as ambivalent if not unsympathetic towards London, largely in the subliminal sense of disapproving of the elitism and over-mightiness with which it is associated in non-Londoners’ minds.
The EU referendum outcome formed a big part of the backdrop to this. The Brexit vote, after all, can plausibly be read as a rebuke to Remain City and all it is seen to stand for. Given that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – a London MP, of course – need to keep Leave voters sweet, they have little to gain from speaking up for London when doing so would be read as a form of favouritism that both leaders prefer to be seen to abjure.
Where does all that leave Sadiq Khan in his role as number one London champion and its most prominent Remainer during the referendum campaign? Last autumn, the Mayor said he thought a second referendum might prove necessary, and at the start of this year he published a report by Cambridge Econometrics warning that a “no deal hard Brexit” would be bad for employment and growth.
But though in Central London yesterday, the Mayor was there to address the Eid celebration in Trafalgar Square rather than to join the march that filed past it at lunchtime. To the vocal annoyance of the demonstrators, Corbyn, a career-long Brexiter, doesn’t back a “people’s vote”. Even if, privately, the Mayor favours the idea, these days he is rarely out of step with his party leader in public. Tottenham MP David Lammy and Twickenham MP Vince Cable were the London politicians who called for a people’s vote from the Parliament Square stage. Along with London’s local authorities, Mayor Khan has continued to prise a few more devolution concessions from the centre. But maybe the politics of Brexit and their entanglement with the politics of Labour – not least in London itself – are inhibiting the city’s political leader too.
Wherever you stand on Brexit – and it should not be forgotten that a substantial minority of 40% of Londoners favoured it – the political torpor it has induced must not shut down arguments for helping London to thrive in the future. In or out of the EU, Britain will continue to heavily depend on its capital city.
Will Brexit be good or bad for London? On London and the London Society are holding a debate on the issue on 13 September. Buy your tickets here.