There are many different versions of London in peoples’ heads, including those of people living here. Some of these imagined capitals are romantic, inspiring and full of hope. Others are poisonous fantasies. Anti-London feeling is very far from new, but today’s manifestations are disturbingly reflective of the age. Populist, prejudiced, and full of ignorance, they form a large and revealing part of our current national story, with all its delusions and resentments.
Misrepresentations of the UK capital come from outside and from within, from the Left of the political spectrum and from the Right, from politicians, journalists, academics and activists of several kinds. Some perpetrators seem motivated by genuine concerns about danger, injustice and social breakdown. Others are calculating stirrers of ordure. All of them create and perpetuate untruths that do nothing to address the problems of London or the rest of the UK.
The gargantuan gobs of the nationalist Right shout some of the more malicious framings. London’s Mayor, famously a Muslim and the son of immigrants, has been disgracefully misused as a propaganda tool by Donald Trump, a narcissist so complete he might actually believe London is full of Sharia-ruled knife gang no go zones, as he absurdly claims. His fellow foghorn Nigel Farage thinks hearing foreign languages on a train out of Charing Cross is a form of national contamination.
Characterising London as a teeming, dysfunctional, alien polyglot has worked in tandem with its depiction as a “liberal elite” stronghold indifferent to the dismay of rank-and-file natives (implicitly always defined as white). Such narratives fuel the extremes of hostility to the European Union – the things London is seen to stand for are the things many Leavers most dislike.
But anti-London attitudes also flow from supposedly “progressive” sources. Resentment of “rich London” fuels crude “north south divide” polemics and disfigures the otherwise entirely valid case of England’s northern cities for overdue investment in transport infrastructure. In these fantasy Londons, there is no table-topping poverty rate, no crisis of housing costs and conditions, no trouble finding affordable childcare, no low wage economy, just a greedy mega-metropolis that “gets everything”. The unsatisfactory but very real interdependence of London’s economy and those of other parts of the country does not exist in these crowd-pleasing accounts. Recognising it would jeopardise the feelgood protest project.
Meanwhile, London’s internal critics enjoy free passes on to the platforms of of the liberal media, as squads of one-eyed class warriors and “urban geographers” peddle “social cleansing” and “community resistance” products to credulous and ideologue buyers who are as eager to feed outrage and trade on scandal as their Tory-backing counterparts. There are no grey areas in these off-the-peg accounts of change and its balance sheets, no interest in nuance, mixed feelings or moral complexities. As its former London commentator, I look on in disbelief at the complete and utter rubbish so often published by the Guardian about housing and development schemes in the capital, be they in Seven Sisters or South Bermondsey.
This is not about being “left wing” or “right wing” about London or any point in between. It is not about the banalities of “balance”. It is about striving for a basic understanding of the issues, reporting them fairly and as fully as you can, and showing a bit of respect for your readers. Too much Left journalism about London is really hucksterism. Politicians and policy-makers wrestling with the trade-offs and dilemmas so integral to making London a better place roll their eyes at the false depictions of these issues by outlets that parade themselves as champions of truth.
The upshot of all the above is a cacophony of crude distortions of the city from which only its perpetrators profit. London is vast and various, glorious and ignominious, miraculous and distressing, and all of those things at the same time. Changing it for the better is a tricky business, involving many exacting practicalities and resolving sometimes profound tensions between competing interests and opinions. Its relationship with the rest of the UK and the world is similarly variegated, subtle and complex. The traducing of London may gratify some but in the end it does few of us any good.
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