Brexit attitudes: London doesn’t need England (or so they say)

Brexit attitudes: London doesn’t need England (or so they say)

“You see, Sam, London doesn’t need England. London turns its back on England. That’s what these people who voted for Brexit don’t understand”, said my friend, a larger-than-life bearded funny man from Manchester.

He had recently and reluctantly returned from Singapore and he did not seem happy to have arrived back in Brexit Britain. He looked contemptuously at his half-drunk pint of American pale ale and then stared forlornly into the distance in the manner of Richard Gere attempting to act. He knew he deserved better than this. “Don’t look back in anger”, I heard you say.  

And who could blame him? Tom (we’ll call him Tom because I’ve drawn his character so richly that if you knew his first name you would know his real identity) had never understood the patriotism of the average Englishman. To Tom, “Englishness” stood for flat warm beer on muggy Monday nights, piss-poor towns in the middle of nowhere and racist, insecure, emotionally stunted working-class men whose false consciousness simply refused to budge. Bastards.

Listening to Tom, I wondered if the superior values of our metropolitan middle classes could ever be reconciled with the things people like doing in Andover and Crewe, like laughing unironically at a joke or not being an insufferable pseudo-intellectual. I thought they probably couldn’t, and this worried me because it suggested something deeper. Disraeli’s notion of “two nations” was now as anachronistic as a Labour voter with a job that involved the use of their hands.

There was instead one nation: England. And then there was a city which saw itself as above that nation: London. And never the twain would meet. (“Thank God”, I could hear the lifelong socialists of Hampstead intone in unison, which sounded weird and sinister in my head, so I reverted to my preferred loop of, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. It soothed me. Thinking of Jeremy always soothed me…)

Perhaps those morons in the North of England had finally got the memo: the M25 was not a motorway but a piece of satirical modern art with a clear and simple message – “don’t you dare set foot London.” Why did northerners always take so long to understand satire? Sweet, charming Corrie characters.

Perhaps this is overly dramatic. Certainly, Peter Hitchens’ recent prognosis that the country is so divided that it’s in “a pre-civil war condition” sounds a tad alarmist. If only a tad. The Berlin Wall came down shortly before I was born and then history ended. Remember? Now history has started again and we as a society are more divided than we have been for generations. Sad.

Don’t believe me? Consider the following. The baby boomers have all the wealth, all the property and all the luxuries that persuade them to vote for utopia. The young have none of the wealth, none of the property and all the entitled millennial dreaminess that persuades them to vote for utopia. “Ah – maybe we’re not that divided, then!”, I hear you squeal. Shut up, you idiot.

I’ve recently bought a flat in Basingstoke (Amazingstoke), having been socially cleansed from London. That’s what being youngish in Britain in 2018 typically ends in: social cleansing. Top banter, eh? Even so, I’m more fortunate than 95% of my peers in the south of England, who are clinging on desperately to the idea of owning a home of their own in England’s capital city. Slow clap.

This fact doesn’t stop me loving and admiring London in very many ways. I still come here every day to work and I probably will until I retire in 2143, at which point I assume my identity will be uploaded to the Cloud where my satirical ramblings will be far more appreciated than they ever were in Hampshire.

But there’s a warning in all of this. London is a great city. Always will be. But a city that devours its young before spitting them out to places for which it has contempt is not a city fit to lead or rule the nation. Maybe London does turn its back on England, but it was England that turned its back on Europe. And without Europe, London will have to get used to being part of England again.

Or not, in which case the M25 need not be a satire anymore. Those caring, sharing Londoners could simply build a wall around it instead. Maybe I’m just being cynical. Maybe London will soon be umbilically tied to the rest of the country once again and we’ll be able to stop worrying about the terrifying chasm opening up between us. #LondonIsOpen, after all.

Sam Stopp is, until May, a Labour councillor in Brent and he chairs the Labour Campaign To End Homelessness. His previous pieces for On London can be read herehereherehere and here.

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