What is the point of London? What is the point of any capital city? Does London exist merely to house its beleaguered people in crowded, dirty, unaffordable streets? Is it, more grandly, a centre of power and influence, its pre-eminence a lucky upshot of the roaring progress of the River Thames? Or does London stand for something greater, something timeless? Does it stand instead for the very idea of British democracy?
It was the Ancient Greeks who conceived the model for democracy and nurtured it in their capital, Athens. That city-state gave an equal voice to every native-born man. One man: one vote. It was a revolutionary concept, and its democratic ideal long outlasted the fall of the civilisation that gave birth to it. Today, democracy lives on but it is under siege by populists throughout the West.
Perhaps London does see itself as a kind of city-state, entire and separate from the England beyond. The #LondonIsOpen message, nourished by the Mayor of London and others, suggests a place that has its own values and its own insuperable idea of freedom.
When a new, Brexit-free country named “Scotlond” – a Frankensteinian merger of Scotland and London prompted by their common majority votes for Remain – was called for by some following the EU Referendum, it seemed for an instant that lefty London might at last be about to unshackle itself from the rest of England.
There is a hubris inherent in this, informing an attitude London would do well to watch does not get out of hand. Perhaps the suspicion that the capital sees itself as being above the rest of the country is unfounded. Perhaps the huge difference in the Brexit vote within and without London does not suggest a nation that is torn asunder. But whether the best or the worst is true, London in 2018 has an opportunity to lead the fightback against mindless populism on behalf of rational democracy. The question is whether it will rise to the challenge.
That will not come about through platitudes or slogans. Twitter campaigns and e-petitions will do little to arrest the assault on British democracy, for it is under serious assault, led by extremists on both wings of politics here and elsewhere, borne out of a disaster capitalism that has been festering for decades and which now threatens to mutate out of control.
Where, then, are London’s big thinkers? Its dreamers, its poets, its philosophers and its artists? Maybe they are here but are yet undiscovered. We had better hope they are discovered soon because, for now, London seems unready to offer the country anything more than a patronising sigh and a groan as we head face-first out of the EU. London must not sulk. London needs to lead.
If there is greatness in London’s future and not just in its past, then it will be derived not from hermetically sealing itself off from the rest of England, but from leading a democratic revival in the country. This will take time and courage and a coordinated effort, but democracy, like all mankind’s greatest creations, is a terribly fragile thing and it needs constant nurturing to survive.
Soon, spring will be upon us and the dark days of this bleak midwinter will fade into memory. It is to be hoped that in the year ahead, London will lead the charge against the grave danger of the populism so quickly engulfing the land. For if a counter-attack on behalf of democracy cannot begin in our greatest city, then it will never begin at all.
Sam Stopp is a Labour councillor in Brent and chair of the Labour Campaign To End Homelessness. A frequent and very welcome contributor, Sam’s previous pieces for On London can be read here, here and here.
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