Big cities have long been objects of resentment and fear and none more so than the UK capital. It provides fuel for every prejudice. If London is not too flash, too greedy and too rich, it is too feral, too dark and too poor. It is always too big and too dominant, whether “a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country,” or colonising towns and countryside around it, be that by commuter belt home-building or the housing of its homeless.
The loathing of London goes way back. For William Cobbett, the expanding city of the 1820s was, famously, a sebaceous cyst on the face of the nation – “the great wen“. Today, a pustulant feature of the UK’s condition is that London-hating has become widespread, almost a unifying force. The EU referendum Leave campaign fed dislike of the very things for which London had become so noted and had gloried in at the 2012 Olympics – the triumphant, multiethnic global metropolis, the wide open “world in one city” and so on.
No wonder Nigel Farage can’t abide it. Little imagination is required to picture that seething loudmouth on a train out of Charing Cross, unnerved by the sound of foreign languages in his carriage. “This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren,” he told an audience in Torquay three years ago, describing how immigration was making more and more of the country “unrecognisable” in his eyes. To 8.7 million Londoners, of course, anything other than Farage’s vision of alien contamination can feel novel and perhaps a little strange. But to many Leavers it meant that a menacing London-ness was coming to get them unless they shook off the chains of Brussels.
Theresa May, representing Maidenhead, has called on similar sentiments for political help. Even in 2012, when Home Secretary, she singled out the UK capital as the heartland of a national problem with social cohesion:
You only have to look at London, where almost half of all primary school children speak English as a second language, to see the challenges we now face as a country. This isn’t fair to anyone: how can people build relationships with their neighbours if they can’t even speak the same language?
In fact, the 2011 census found that only one in eight London households contained no one for whom English was their principle language and the presence of immigrants is seen as part of the mix of reasons why London’s schools are so successful compared with the rest of the country. Just ask Michael Gove. During this year’s general election, May again drew on anti-London feeling. The Conservative manifesto contained a number of pledges on how to “close the gap” between the capital and the rest and described this as nothing less than “the biggest prize in Britain today”.
Meanwhile, London-loathing is also doing a brisk trade on the supposedly “progressive” parts of the political spectrum, even though the Labour Party continues to consolidate its strength here. A large and well-connected army of liberal and Outer Left academics, journalists and propagandists has established a firm presence in all forms of media and cultural institutions, where it perpetuates its own narratives about the evils of the UK capital, denouncing London as an epicentre of capitalist exploitation, a “playground for the rich”, and the home of “social cleansing”.
Within these sweeping theses are themes of legitimate, indeed pressing concern, which London should strive to address. Yet in their present incarnations they are too often ahistorical, unscientific and shrill, routinely reducing to a self-gratifying populism as crude and misleading as that emanating from the Right. From sources that like to think they are above such things come simplistic north-south divide polemics, jaw-dropping misrepresentations, unchallenged campaign group assertions and basic factual inaccuracies that leave people striving at the coalface of London politics and policy, including veterans of social justice battles going back decades, rolling their eyes in despair.
The most discouraging threads of this protest leftism are those that closely resemble and sometimes even intertwine with those of their supposed opposites: a divisive regionalism that screens out the inconvenient truths of London’s child poverty and youth unemployment; the fanciful idea that London has ever been anything other than an international business crucible since Romans founded its first incarnation more than 2,000 years ago; a nostalgia for an unchanging social and spatial landscape that has never existed in a metropolis whose very essence is to ceaselessly change and churn.
The sadness of this situation is that whatever the long-term outcome of leaving the European Union – assuming it really, substantively occurs – Brexit Britain is going to lean on London in the coming years. Simultaneously conflicted and becalmed, the whole country may depend more heavily on its biggest city’s economic power than it does already. Yet at a time when the country badly needs its capital, and when the capital badly needs more autonomy and investment to better run own affairs and continue to thrive, it is coming under attack from all sides.
This is no sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s UK. It is a political project that leads nowhere. All over the planet, people are flowing into cities, drawn to the hope they offer, sometimes finding fulfilment, sometimes not. The UK should help make London both more productive and more equitable and to keep it as open as ever. And not only London, but all of its big cities, working as allies as well as competitors. That is the true “biggest prize in Britain today”, for that is the true path to Britain’s future.
Photograph by Max Curwen-Bingley