Guest article: London must learn from history as Brexit nears

by Jack Brown

Jack Brown works for the Strand Group at King’s College and is researcher in residence at 10 Downing Street. He has a particular interest in the contemporary history of Docklands as well as in London in general. This is first piece for On London and hopefully not his last.

Monday brought the news that Amsterdam has been successful in its bid to capture the European Medicines Agency, which has been located in London since its creation in 1995. The European Banking Authority is also off, in its case to Paris. Both will move away from Canary Wharf, one of London’s youngest but strongest business districts, taking hundreds of jobs with them.

We have known for some time that these organisations would be leaving their current homes in East London’s Docklands due to the UK’s voting to leave the European Union. Their decisions are perfectly logical and, in themselves, reveal little about the capital’s post-Brexit future other than the unsurprising fact that EU organisations would like to be based within the EU.

However, as someone who has recently spent a several days with his head buried deep in the history books, tasked with finding out why great cities of the past have risen and fallen, it is hard not to notice that the two to benefit from these relocations are also two of London’s great historic rivals. As the old saying goes: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

London has been a great city for hundreds of years, but it was during the 19th century that it became what the great urbanist Professor Sir Peter Hall described as “indisputably the greatest city that had ever existed in the world”. At the beginning of that century, London’s population exceeded that of Rome at its peak. By 1840, it had passed two million, becoming the largest city to ever have existed. By the end of the century, it had an incredible 6.5 million inhabitants and was not only the financial and manufacturing capital of Britain but also a great port connected to an empire that stretched around the world.

Yet London’s rise did not occur in isolation. Continental discontent provided it with the advantage of stability. The French capture of Amsterdam in 1795 saw that city’s wealthiest flee, seeking opportunity and security elsewhere, in many cases, just across the English channel. London successfully attracted much of this flight of capital, just as Amsterdam had done with the fall of Venice before. London had long sought Amsterdam’s crown and now it took its place as one of the world’s most powerful financial centres, a status it retains to this day.

The Napoleonic Wars also caused turmoil on the continent, putting the final nail in the coffin of Antwerp, another rival to London. Napoleon had plans to resurrect Antwerp’s port, once a great trading centre but which had experienced a decline in trade and population. These plans fell with Napoleon at Waterloo. The City of London had financed Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. The subsequent peace saw both the City Corporation and London as a whole emerge dominant.

As Richard Roberts and David Kynaston have pointed out, London’s financial centre prospered in the 19th century at least in part because its continental rivals were otherwise occupied with both internal and regional conflicts, which led to a less than global outlook. France, Holland, Spain and Portugal lost most of their overseas colonies during the French wars of 1793-1815 or soon after. Austria, Russia and Turkey remained imperial, but their interests were mainly regional. Germany and Italy became inward-looking.

London, however, rose because it remained open and global in its outlook. New communities established themselves in the capital: some, like the Chinese and the Irish, arrived seeking economic opportunity; others, like the Eastern European Jews arriving in the late 1800s, arrived seeking sanctuary from persecution overseas and went on to make a significant contribution to London’s life, culture and economy.

In essence, while its rivals became distracted or impaired, London in the 1800s was able to improve its system of governance, develop some of its most impressive and vital infrastructure, clean up its air and water and build some of its most impressive monuments because it was entering a period of relative stability and international dominance. There was even time for a party. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, six million visitors flocked to Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace over a period of just six months to see London proclaimed “the workshop of the world”.

But before all that, there was Amsterdam.

The coming departure of the European Medicines Agency followed a Eurovision-style elimination process, which saw Amsterdam tied with Milan in its final round. Amsterdam beat its fellow finalist in slightly bizarre fashion, by being the first drawn out of a hat (or, more specifically, a bowl). Likewise, Paris was tied with Dublin before it landed the European Banking Authority by a similar method. However, the previous rounds were not quite as randomly-decided, as a wider list of viable alternative cities had their bids ranked and analysed on their relative merits.

The EMA will take 900 jobs with it to Amsterdam and further, related jobs could follow. Surveys of the organisations’ staff to find out their preferred relocation destination were taken into account during the process. The EMA expects a minority to quit rather than move, but this is to be expected. What is certain is that none of the EMA’s jobs will remain in Canary Wharf.

Whether this sets a precedent for private sector organisations to begin to follow remains to be seen – it really is too early to say. But the historical lessons are clear, as is the warning for the future. London cannot afford to take its eye off the ball and become distracted while other cities circle. Similar decisions on the locations and relocations for offices and headquarters are being taken constantly behind the scenes. And these decisions will not be decided by drawing a name out of a hat.

Jack Brown’s history of 10 Downing Street is here. Follow him on Twitter.

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