We need to talk about the London question

In this post Tim Oliver considers how London is talked about in UK politics, how we can assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK, and how London’s place in the UK can be managed. He suggests that there are three broad approaches that can be taken to the ‘London question’: the status quo, separating the UK and/or England from London and devolved government for London.

Anybody calling for more talk about London inevitably receives looks of exasperation from people elsewhere in the UK. Surely we already talk about the metropolis enough? Despite repeated calls for change, the UK’s economy, politics, media and much more remain imbalanced towards the capital city. It is that dominance – or sometimes the perception of dominance – that makes it all the more important that we talk about London’s power and place in the UK and how to manage it.

To come to terms with London’s place in the UK, this blog post briefly considers three issues connected to several questions. First, how is London talked about in UK politics? Second, how can we assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK? Finally, how can London’s place in the UK be managed?

London calling

Samuel Johnson may well have said that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, but today people outside London might well be tired of hearing about the place (Londoners are equally sick of hearing that quote). London is talked about in UK politics in eight broad ways.

First, it has been described as the UK’s dark star, sucking in people, resources and energy from across the country. The bright lights of London have long drawn people from across Britain and the wider world. ‘That great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’ was how Dr John Watson described Victorian London. Today that appeal has reached levels where the rest of the UK lives in the shadow of London. This is in large part because London is a global city that has become the UK’s undiscovered country. Other areas of the UK might have diverse populations and needs, but it’s London’s size, status as capital city, distinct outlooks (being home, for example, to the ‘metropolitan elite’) and unique needs (in housing, transport, health, security, global links and so forth) that can make it one of the UK’s most distinct political spaces.

As the UK’s most diverse and resilient economic area, London can appear to be what keeps the UK economy afloat. With 12 per cent of the UK’s population, London produces 23 per cent of UK GVA, about 30 per cent of all UK economic taxes, and on its own would be the EU’s seventh largest economy and one of the richest countries in the world. At the same time, London can be seen as the UK’s biggest financial drain. Government investment pours into London to the detriment of elsewhere. For example, £1500 more is spent on transport spending per Londoner than on people in the North of England. The rest of the UK also picks up the tab when London’s economy overheats or the City of London’s attitudes and policies help cause a global financial crisis that plunges the rest of the country into recession followed by a period of austerity.

Like any capital city London is the UK, being shorthand for UK government or the UK (and/or England) as a whole. Yet the comparison is not always fair or adequate. London’s population and economy is larger than a majority of EU member states and its needs are not the same as those that UK governments pursue in UK-wide policies designed to reflect the needs of the whole of the UK. At the same time, the UK is London thanks to it being the home of the political, media, government, diplomatic and business elite whose domination of UK policy making mean that London’s needs can often be seen to shape those of UK government more than those of other areas.

Finally, as much as London can appear a thriving city today, the fear of London Falling is never far away thanks to Brexit, tensions in the global economy, technological change, changing travel patterns, a shifting global balance of power, unaddressed racial tensions, and escalating living costs. The world is littered with cities that once boomed as international crossroads. Yet London can also be Britain’s Future, a glimpse of a Britain (sometimes described as a ‘Singapore on Steroids’) powered by a free-market, deregulated, globalised, service based economy run by a diverse population and especially a mixture of cheap and high-skilled, high-pay migrant labour.

The UK’s all-powerful undiscovered country?

The above views contain two recurring claims: that London is now a place apart from the rest of the country and is its most powerful part. But how can we test these claims? First, we can look to the things we can clearly measure for both London and the rest of the UK. We can look at London’s demographics – ethnicity, religion, languages, education background, immigration, and age groups – to see how distinct its population is. Comparing London’s economy with the rest of the UK is also reasonably straightforward, whether in terms of inward investment or GVA. Political leanings can be seen in elections, referendums and polling. Data on housing, poverty, education, racism, sexuality, policing and so forth also offer a rich source for analysis.

Second, before we can measure and compare London we need to define what it is we’re measuring. We can take a politically defined geographical space for London, mainly that set down as the boundary of Greater London as used for the GLA and Mayor of London. But this is a political boundary, one that like any border can and has been redrawn. Is ‘Greater’ London the greatest single part of a much larger London? Or is it an enlarged – and thus greatly exaggerated – version of a smaller London? Defining the edge of a city is of course a never-ending problem for cities, unless they have a clear geographical boundary. London can be said to extend far beyond the boundary of Greater London, and beyond the man-made geographical barrier of the M25. Some critics of HS2 claim it threatens to turn towns as distant as Crewe into commuter-towns of London. Nor is this to argue that the space defined as Greater London is in fact London. Some inside it, not least on the edges, might well resist the idea of being identified as part of the metropolis when they have more in common with counties such as Surrey or Essex. London, it has often been said, is a collection of villages. People in Zones 1 and 2 can live very different lives to those in the outer zones of the underground network. Then there are the two cities that define London’s heart: the City of Westminster (the political and administrative centre) and the City of London (its trading centre). The ultimate test might be whether London can be defined as a nation, with Londoners united by a common and shared history, culture, traumas, political setup, and needs. The idea of a nation – an imagined community – reminds us we need not define London in a physical sense. London could be defined as something in the mind, an identity, an idea, and one that takes London beyond the confines of the UK and England to a global level, such as the idea of the global city of ‘Ny-lon-kong’.

If we can define London as a space, and if we can measure how different that space is to the rest of the UK, then our final challenge is to assess how powerful it is. A straightforward approach would be to compare London’s centrality to how it would play out if replicated in other states. If the USA had a capital city similar to London then it would have a population of 43 million people (bigger than any single state) with an economy equal to that of California and Texas combined. Within it would be found the political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, university, IT, retail, transport, media and communication concentrations found in Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Atlanta. One need not be familiar with US politics to know how powerful such a city would be, or how much it would be resisted and resented by the rest of the country. We can look to other measurements of political power: London’s representation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords; the success of London’s politicians in reaching high office; catalogue the number of political voices Londoners have (UK parliament, European Parliament, Mayor, GLA, local councils); look into the frequency with which London’s needs are discussed in the media; assess UK government policy for whether it advantages or disadvantages London; and of course follow the money to see if London gets more than it should. But how do we assess the informal influence of networks, neighbours, shared experiences and frustrations that come from living and working in the same city? Finally, are we assessing London’s political, economic, cultural, social and diplomatic power or all of it combined?

Answering the London question

Let us for the moment assume that Greater London has become the UK’s ‘undiscovered country’ that exercises undue influence over the rest of the country. How then can this be managed?

A status quo of no change to the powers of the Mayor, the GLA and London’s boroughs would likely depend on there being no changes elsewhere that spark demands from London, such as devolution of powers to other cities or regions in England. There could be some additional powers, such as tax raising ones, but these are likely to be limited and much less than those devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Finally, there is the option of reversing the Mayor and GLA. Abolition might sound farfetched but this is exactly what became of the Greater London Council and its final Mayor Ken Livingstone when in 1986 Mrs Thatcher turned her fire on it for opposing her policies.

A second set of approaches would be to separate the UK and/or England from London. This comes in two forms. First, move the UK parliament and/or government out of London. This has been proposed on numerous occasions with the growing need for a multi-billion pound refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster being seized on as an opportune moment for parliament to trial alternative locations (although how far from London this should be is unclear). Whether parliament – to say nothing of HM Government or the diplomatic community – would be keen on moving is another matter. Nevertheless, deprived of its capital city status, London would become a city like New York or Shanghai and UK government would be freed from London’s influence.

Another alternative would be to create an English Parliament. Locating such a parliament in London would merely reinforce London’s dominance. Locating it outside (although, again, how far outside would be a key question) could allow a distinct English political space and system to emerge from out of the UK’s shadow. In turn that would allow English politics and government to operate without undue reference to London or other distinct areas such as Scotland. Alternatively, it could be that an English Parliament and government is formed and remains in London, with what is left of UK government moves elsewhere to a new UK capital city.

Whether it is UK and/or English government that stays or leaves London, the continued power and uniqueness of London will more than likely remain one of the defining issues of UK/English politics. This will certainly be the case if Londoners demand that a newly located UK and/or English capital relinquish controls over London and – crucially – most of London’s taxes. As the richest and most populous region, London could also be the best-represented and powerful part of the new parliament(s). It would likely dominate an English Parliament located in London, transferring some of the complaints of London-centrism from UK to English politics.

A third set of approaches would avoid moving UK or English government out of London. Instead a devolved government for London would see the GLA and Mayor acquire powers similar to Wales or Scotland. The UK parliament and government would remain in London, but be no longer required to think about or able to shape the running of the capital city as they did before. Granted, this would pose a ‘West Ham question’, a London version of the West Lothian question, asking why London MPs should vote on non-London English or UK matters. This (and similar issues connected to moving the UK parliament and creation of an English Parliament) would add to the existing problems of a quasi-federal United Kingdom. An extreme alternative is London becoming an independent city state. This can sound absurd, but might not be so if in future the UK were to breakup, the government or capital of England were to move out of London, London’s population continue to become less British/English and more global, and global cities around the world continue to emerge as interlinked centres of international power. In such a world, Londoners might feel little obligation to remain a part of the UK or England.

About the author

Dr Tim Oliver is a Teaching Fellow in British Government and Politics at UCL. From 2015-17 he was a Dahrendorf Fellow at LSE IDEAS.

2 thoughts on “We need to talk about the London question

  1. Pingback: Because they say so! | Verfassungsblog

  2. Great article. The comments about London echo those made about Sydney (sometime referred to as ‘shitney’ out of jealousy) in Australia today, but even back at the time of Federation.

    I think you only have to look at how Sydney today in particular, but also the rest of the Australia until maybe 10 years ago treated Canberra (the newly created capital) to see the risks involved in moving Parliament to a new location, especially if it was effectively purpose-built.

    Great article.

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