As Jack Brown notes in his concise yet hugely informative book exploring attitudes towards the capital and its dominance of the British political, economic and cultural landscape, the idea that London is a problem is not new.
Two hundred years ago, at a time when London was experiencing explosive growth, the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett described the city as “The Great Wen” (a “wen” being a sebaceous cyst). More recently, in a bid to assist struggling regional areas, governments in the post-war era legislated to limit economic activity in London. During this period, the city’s population fell from a pre-World War II high of 8.6 million people in 1939 to around 6.8 million in the 1980s.
As the British economy shifted away from manufacturing and towards services under Margaret Thatcher, London’s fortunes revived. New Labour was more alive to the widening regional inequality resulting from de-industrialisation and introduced Regional Development Agencies, charged with driving economic development, employment and skills. But the Labour government nevertheless saw London as a template for success, rather than as a burden. In 2006, Gordon Brown declared: “The message London’s success sends out to the whole British economy is that we will succeed if, like London, we think globally.”
Attitudes towards the capital have darkened since then. The 2008 financial crisis saw banks (many of which were based in London) bailed out with government money, and yet the capital itself came through the crash with its economy relatively unscathed. This prompted a swift change in rhetoric from politicians. In 2010, David Cameron stated that “today our economy is heavily reliant on just a few industries and a few regions – particularly London and the South East – we are determined that should change”.
Complaints about London sucking people and wealth from the rest of the country are long-familiar, but as tensions between Britons over fundamental social values have become more prominent in our politics, Brown points out that the hostility to London has acquired a new dimension.
The 2016 EU referendum result was both a manifestation of underlying divisions between liberals and social conservatives and a catalyst for further conflict. The Remain-voting capital quickly became caught up in these nascent culture wars. As Brown says, “London… is portrayed as the physical headquarters of a set of cultural values, the epicentre of a liberal ideology that is both disconnected from the reality of life elsewhere in the country and imposed on it from the capital.” Deborah Mattison’s book Beyond the Red Wall (which has become an influential text within the Labour Party) describes conversations with “Red Wall” voters (who are mostly Leavers) where visceral animosity towards London is a major theme.
Yet many of the more substantive complaints about London are flawed. Brown patiently rebuts the claim that London is a drain on the country – although it is true that London receives a large amount of public investment, it is also true that the capital contributes much more in taxation than it receives. London is in aggregate a wealthy city, but this wealth is not evenly spread among its inhabitants. Anyone who knows the capital well is very aware that great deprivation co-exists alongside great riches. Even the city’s reputation for social liberalism is not entirely accurate: a study in 2020 found that London was more religious and socially conservative on some issues than the rest of Britain
The book describes how “London” has too easily become a cypher – for liberalism, wealthy elites, Westminster-centric politics, an inward-looking mainstream media and a services-dominated economy among other things. The fact that it is real place containing huge variations amongst its nine million population can often be forgotten.
Of course, some Londoners do conform to stereotypes, but many do not. The author himself is a Londoner born and bred, with a deep attachment to a particular part of the city – the opposite of the crude caricature of the capital’s inhabitants drawn by commentators such as David Goodhart as rootless “Anywheres”. What is worrying is that general attitudes and government policies seem to be increasingly driven by an imagined idea of London, rather than by the more complicated reality.
Towards the end of the book, the impact of the Covid pandemic is discussed. London’s economy, with its dependence on hospitality and tourism, has been badly hit and it may be that changing patterns of work lead to an exodus from the capital. But as Brown points out: “London’s long history is full of fire and disease” and undoubtedly the city will survive this crisis as it has survived many others.
Like many thoughtful Londoners, Brown is well aware that London’s dominance is an issue that needs to be addressed by political change. And like many others (though apparently not the current Conservative government), he concludes that genuine devolution of power and funding to local leaders across the country must form part of the answer.
Yet regional inequality in Britain has proved intractably stubborn over the last few decades. This slim volume does not fully address the profound structural economic changes that have benefited cities over towns and benefitted London in particular. What it does do is to offer a persuasive and well-informed argument against taking short-cuts to reducing geographic inequality via levelling London down (either through design or neglect) rather than through building other regions up.
It also offers a plea to the rest of the country to “learn to stop worrying and love London (again)”. For anyone (Londoner or not) who wants to avoid the myths about the capital and engage in an informed and constructive debate about fixing regional inequality, reading The London Problem would be an excellent place to start.
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