Ever since a backbench MP called Boris Johnson, whom some of you might recall, led the Conservative Party to a large general election win just over three years ago, much of the United Kingdom has been encouraged to believe that its capital city, which is responsible for nearly a quarter of the nation’s economic output and has been in the habit of exporting over £30 billion in taxes to other parts of it every year, is in fact a parasite upon The People and a place to be despised.
The very word “London” has served as a versatile shorthand for Things To Be Against, be that “remoaners” or the “north-side divide” or “the metropolitan elite” or a crime-ridden “third world shithole” full of immigrants. The potency of these populist pleasantries has persuaded the leaders of our two largest political parties that London is a place and Londoners a people best ignored in the search for electoral advantage, except for intermittent exploitations of all that prejudice against them.
This cross-party consensus that the capital city is at best an irrelevance and at worst a monster to be tamed was evident in this week’s speeches by the leaders of our two biggest political parties, one a Prime Minister fighting an odds-on losing battle to shore up support – and that’s just with his own MPs – the other a Leader of the Opposition whose road to Number 10 entails lengthy and conspicuously sympathetic stopovers in places such as Darlington and Stoke.
Such is the political geography of our great nation as it stagnates and falls apart that the corner of it still doing the most to keep the whole place going is assiduously excluded from prospectuses for national renewal. How entertaining, then, that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer chose to make their New Year pitches from Here East, the innovation campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which is the UK’s most successful example of government-backed urban regeneration, ingenuity and ambition this century.
Starmer’s speech confirmed that under his leadership Labour at last knows what its top priority should be – winning a general election – and how to go about it. Sunak’s the previous day sought to re-associate his frayed and sullied party with optimism and can-do. Both men made a decent job of doing what they need to, but in so doing underlined that they are effectively pretending to the country that the UK can recover from the damage done by Covid and Brexit and “level up” decades-old regional productivity imbalances without a reinvigorated capital city.
Sunak, when Chancellor under Johnson, produced a budget in which London was barely mentioned except as an object of resentment. Labour’s recent democracy renewal document mentioned London nearly 100 times, but mainly to help recycle old, familiar northern grievance tropes. Starmer’s speech yesterday repeated his promising ideas for bolder devolution along with the reasonable, if slightly opaque, observation, “if the south east races ahead ‘redistribution’ can’t be the one-word plan for the rest of Britain”. Absent, though, was even an implied acknowledgement that without the economic strength of London and the south-east the investment needed to lessen the rest of Britain’s dependency on the region won’t, for the time being, be forthcoming.
Both men surely know the importance to the whole country of London’s continuing economic power. Both have their reasons for pretending otherwise. Neither will succeed in renewing the UK unless they help London to stay strong.
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