I have been deeply interested in the increasingly fractured relationship between London and the rest of the UK for some time. As a lifelong Londoner, I am aware that the capital has its flaws, but I also know that many perceptions of the city that have become increasingly prevalent in the national debate are simply inaccurate. This grinds my gears. And the issue matters more and more as London enters a period of real challenge when bashing the capital has become expedient for all political parties.
The rationale for the BBC Radio 4 documentary I’ve made was the upcoming tenth anniversary of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, when London represented Britain to the world. Boris Johnson was Mayor of London and proudly celebrated the capital’s importance to the UK. Not long after the Games, Johnson urged the government not to spread London’s “jam” too thinly across the nation. He said the best route to national prosperity was to pile more “jam” into it.
How things have changed. Following the Labour’s capture of Westminster and Wandsworth councils last week, a Conservative “source” told journalist Lucy Fisher that the party’s success in the capital “will just reinforce the notion in working-class people’s eyes that they are now the party of the metropolitan elite, of Remainers”. There are no working-class people or Leave voters in the capital, of course…
In fact, Labour, though making overall advances, lost as many councils in the capital as they won. But the comment from the source spoke to a caricature of London and Londoners – a belief that “real people” live elsewhere and the capital is populated by out of touch elites who are, somehow inexplicably in charge of everyone else.
This view is what the documentary sought to challenge. To make it, we got out and about in my home borough of Waltham Forest, from a church hall in Highams Park to the Waltham Forest Islamic Association on Lea Bridge Road. We visited the Gleaner’s Café on Hoe Street and rocked up at a mutual aid group’s food stall, just round the corner from my home.
Throughout, we met Londoners who, far from being exclusively ‘“Rich Remainers”, were patriotic, parochial, pious, poor or precarious – interesting, kind-hearted people who were even friendly. How’d you like that? There’s a bit of studio time with experts like Cathall councillor Naheed Asghar, Rotherham leader Chris Read, Centre for London’s Nick Bowes, and former Boris Johnson mayoral campaign adviser Jo Tanner. And, of course, we visited the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where, to ensure that the metropolitan liberal elite was properly represented, we met On London‘s Dave Hill. (You are completely fired: Ed).
Inevitably, many conversations with fascinating people didn’t make the cut in a half-hour programme, but we’ve captured some of the London the stereotypes conceal.
London On The Line is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 16 May at 8 pm and is repeated on Wednesday 18 May at 11 am. Image from BBC.
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