“Levelling up” the country is a huge political priority and anti-London sentiment is high. Is it time to make somewhere else the nation’s capital and be done with it?
New polling by YouGov for Times Radio reveals that Britons have little enthusiasm for the idea. Just 16 per cent of those polled said they thought a different city should be the United Kingdom’s capital. As many as 62 per cent outright oppose the idea to some extent and almost half disagree with it “strongly”. Support for change is, unsurprisingly, highest in Scotland and the north of England and lowest in London. But even at its regional highest, only one in five are in favour.
Talking about the poll got me thinking about one conducted for Centre for London in 2019 which showed relative disinterest across Britain in moving institutions out of London in order to make the UK “fairer”. I thought the “levelling up” agenda might have encouraged a shift in attitudes to London. The new poll asked a different question, but the response to it was even clearer.
London became our nation’s capital almost by accident. It was home to monarchs before there was even an England, let alone a UK. A commercial centre on roughly the site of today’s City of London was established by the Romans in the fifth decade AD. A centre of monarchical and religious power was established outside the city, in “West-minster” in the middle of the 11th century. Over time, as power transferred from royalty to elected politicians, co-location made ever more sense.
As time went by the physical location of central government became entrenched. Infrastructure was built to support this. A city grew up around and between the two centres of financial and political power, who though initially – and, arguably, enduringly – seeing one another as rivals, eventually became part of one expanding city. London became the national capital almost by default.
The city’s long history has mainly been one of expansion in both size and influence. Given the widening economic gap between (parts of) London’s economy and that of the rest of the nation in recent years, “levelling up” has become a fairly consensual priority of the two main national political parties.
Other nations manage to maintain more equally-successful cities in terms of economic might and function. Germany is a good example, Frankfurt being the leading financial centre with Berlin the modern political capital. Post-reunification Germany’s seismic investment in the former East Germany is also often cited as a guide for levelling up the UK.
To some extent, this underlines the scale of investment required. But the political context and incentives involved in rebuilding a nation previously torn in two were somewhat different to those faced in the UK today. However desirable, it is hard to imagine any government finding the cash required just now.
The United States and Australia are cited as successful examples of nations with multiple cities with complementary specialisms and attractions. However, both are much younger and both carefully considered and agreed where their capitals would be before selecting them. And both, importantly, are federal states. That means they are less centralised in terms of power and resources, which might explain why they are less dependent on a single city.
I agree with the government’s levelling up white paper and with shadow secretary of state for levelling up Lisa Nandy that the best way of achieving a more balanced country would be to devolve more power to a regional level, rather than just moving a very centralised national government somewhere else.
One Times Radio listener messaged to say: “A lecturer in London Studies at a London university wants London to remain as the capital. What a surprise.” But actually, I’m agnostic about the issue. It would be seriously expensive to set up a national government base somewhere else, and if only the House of Lords or another component moved it would probably make the workings of government less efficient (and with a higher carbon footprint).
I’m not sure London needs to be the home of national government to be economically viable. If that changed, it might at least end the argument that London supposedly gets more than its fair share of public spending because MPs work there. But I’ve never been convinced by this case. Given that MPs live in their constituencies and only go to London for work, surely experiencing the contrast between the two would radicalise them against the capital?
There is also a much deeper issue here. Making the UK a more regionally equal nation would involve serious commitment and long-term effort. The vast majority of our nation’s jobs are in the private sector, and although government plays a significant role in creating the environment for its growth or constriction, it does not directly control it. By contrast, it does decide where civil service jobs go and it is easier to move those around. Some of that could prove useful, but much of it is tokenistic.
“Levelling up” remains important and greater growth outside the capital continues to be in the capital’s interests too. But silly ideas like moving the House of Lords to York, or Stoke-on-Trent, are unpopular for a reason. They may be headline grabbing, but they are unlikely to deliver local economic transformation. A serious and lasting reconsideration of how and where power sits in this country just might.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,671 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 23rd June 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
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