Let’s pinch ourselves and recap. This week, a prime minister who has yet to lead her party to a general election victory will take a gigantic and possibly disastrous decision about the United Kingdom’s future, all because a referendum called by her predecessor in order to appease a fringe, right-wing party produced a narrow majority for leaving the European Union with the help of outright lies.
Theresa May, you might recall, didn’t campaign in favour of the nations she now leads leaving the EU. She campaigned for the opposite. Yet on Wednesday she will set in motion the formal process for leaving, by triggering Article 50. The three politicians she has appointed as key ministers in charge of the leaving process – including former London Mayor Boris Johnson – who all did campaign to leave, don’t tell the public much about what they are doing. This could be because they just don’t know.
Meanwhile, the stupidest, ugliest, most ignorant attitudes to which the referendum campaign gave a chilling legitimacy are now consolidating their presence in national debate, indulged with mainstream media platforms and endless coverage. We may be a nation of animal-lovers, but what does it say about us that a skunk called Nigel and a cockroach called Katie have been given their own radio shows?
Such is the ludicrous, perilous state the UK has got itself into. Inclined to boast about its stable, moderate past, its present is sharply divided and its future is being shaped by fanatics. The “hard Brexit” the latter crave, and which many think the government will give them, looks dark and filled with danger. It must be fought every step of the way.
At the weekend, tens of thousands rallied in London to that end. Be glad. The capital is not the only place where those battles should take place. Far from it: indeed, a mobilisation against the wrecking process soon to be formally underway is needed everywhere. But London has a special part to play.
That is not only because it is the UK’s capital, with all the symbolism that entails, but also because its economic power is so vital to the rest of the UK. Nearly one quarter of the UK’s wealth is produced in London and around 30% of the taxes the government raises are generated here. If Brexit weakens London, as it already threatens to do, it will also weaken everywhere else, from St Ives to Inverness.
That dependency on London is regrettable in several ways. But the malice and resentment directed against it by the cranks and loudmouths of the Brexit extremes is about something other than its economic dominance. Last week’s deranged terror attack in Westminster has been greedily exploited as a pretext for whipping up hatred of a city loathed by Brexit bigots for its cosmopolitanism, immigrant cultures, liberal values and, of course, for voting to remain in the EU by a decisive 60% to 40%.
Our city is the home of everything Brexit’s hate preachers most revile and, more importantly, want others to revile too. This has been apparent for some time, though mostly implied rather than clearly stated. Since the terror attack it has become more explicit. Theresa May has kept herself on the right side of these strutting ideologues, some of whom would tear up the very roots of democracy in order to impose their idea of right and proper national order on everyone else.
So London must defend itself. It must continue to make known that it rejects the path of peril on which the government seems set, continue to explain why its strength is essential to the wellbeing of the whole UK, continue to challenge its mischaracterisation by poisonous populists and scrutinise the coming long, slow Brexit process relentlessly.
In so doing so, London must also demonstrate humility. It must recognise that not every leaver is a seething bigot and that the 40% of Londoners who wanted out of the EU had their reasons, which should be listened to. The capital, internationalist to its historic foundations and liberal in every sense of the word, exemplifies the glories of being a truly World City, but is not free of the estrangement, inequality and unease that can go with it.
The city’s case against Brexit and its threatening extremes is undermined by any impression of metropolitan conceit. But that case must be made. Doing so is the task of London politicians of every party in parliament and City Hall, of London journalists, Londoner campaigners and anyone else who cares about this city and the nations of which it is the capital.