Website comment threads are poor reflections of public opinion, but can be windows on to sore parts of its soul. Yesterday’s announcement of a £1.4 billion “bailout” for Crossrail’s overdue Elizabeth Line drew back the curtains on a view that is centuries old but can rarely have looked as hostile as it does now.
“Meanwhile in the North we have 40 year-old trains, overcrowding, delays and cancellations. But all you ever hear about are the problems in that London,” complained someone in response to the BBC’s coverage at dead of night. That £1.4 billion “could probably have resolved all the North’s rail difficulties at a stroke,” wrote another. And here’s the raging heart of it: “The whole of the UK is being RIPPED OFF FOR THE BENEFIT OF LONDON, YET AGAIN!!!!!”
Bashing London, resenting London, blaming London for the pain of the rest of the UK is an embedded part of the great national clamour against this, against that, against just about everything it’s unhappy about. It doesn’t represent the full range of non-Londoners’ opinions about the capital or its shades of grey. Even so, outright dislike of London – that is really to say a set of values and privileges that “London” is held to epitomise – is real, and finds frequent, furious expression over transport infrastructure funding.
It’s not hard to see why. Last summer, the government announced its backing, of a kind, for Crossrail 2 having said a few days before that it would not be completing the electrification of the rail ink between Manchester and Newcastle. “We can’t wait for ever,” said Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham. “They’re not governing for the whole of the country.”
Yet the government too makes anti-London mood music when it suits. Theresa May’s 2017 election manifesto offered a number of pledges to “close the gap” between the capital and everywhere else, even describing doing so as “the biggest prize in Britain today”. The Remainer PM was trying to tune in to the subliminal anti-London message of the Brexit vote. Kicking the capital has been indulged across the political spectrum in recent times, with Alex Salmond and even London MP Sir Vince Cable pitching in.
The “London” of these rebukes is a metaphor for casual conceit and complacent wealth. Its crushing poverty rates do not feature. There is another despised version of London too, a crime “war zone”, an immigrant “hell hole”, a dirty, crowded dystopia that its “liberal elite” pretends just isn’t there. Sometimes, the two strands combine to weave a London of leeching entitlement, draining the rest of the nation dry.
Of course, the story isn’t that simple. In the first place, there’s no turning back on Crossrail now. The project has gone much too far, and not completing it would be a waste of money to end them all. All we can do now is cough up, finish the job as soon as possible and try to learn the lessons of this latest in a long list of London rail projects that have been delivered late and over budget: new signalling systems, the Jubilee Line extension, the Central Line upgrade, the list goes on. Looked at this way, London has already done its share of suffering. The Crossrail delay is but the latest addition.
Then there is the inconvenient truth that when London thrives, the rest of the country enjoys some of the benefits. Boris Johnson liked to point out that Crossrail’s trains are built in Derby, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. As the generator of nearly a quarter of the UK’s economic output, London is also a big exporter of taxpayer cash, helping to fund facilities and services the length and breadth of the land. The government knows this, which is why it also knows that investing in London’s economic growth makes national economic sense: put a taxpayer pound into a rail project in London and you will get your pound back sooner than if you put it into Liverpool or Leeds; it will turn into two pounds sooner too, and Liverpool and Leeds will get a portion.
This is not an ideal state of affairs. The draw of London for adventurous and energetic young people from other parts of the UK is a legitimate concern, depriving as it does other cities and regions of the sorts of talents they need if they too are to thrive. Wouldn’t it be better for Birmingham and Bristol if those cities and their people really were more in command of their own destinies and less dependent on the centralised redistribution of the proceeds of the capital’s economic power?
But all this is a case for greater and wider public and private investment and for deeper devolution, not a reason for scapegoating London over the Crossrail bailout or anything else. You “re-balance” the UK economy by helping other cities to lift themselves up, not by doing London down.