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.

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The UK needs a devolved government for London

tim oliver

London is the UK’s undiscovered country and it is time we recognised it as the UK’s fifth constituent part by granting it the devolved political powers it deserves, says Tim Oliver. He argues that London’s size, unique population, economy, politics, identity, society and place in the UK, Europe and the world all add up to make it stand apart from any other part of the Union. A devolved government would not only benefit the capital but would more than any other constitutional change help to rebalance the UK towards a federal union. 

‘End London rule!’ has been heard many times around the world. It was heard regularly enough from some Scottish nationalists during Scotland’s independence referendum. It is also muttered increasingly around an England (whose population makes up 85% of that of the UK) run from London by one of the most centralised states in the developed world.

With London taxpayers the largest net contributors (by a long way) to the rest of the UK, the idea of ending London’s rule – or propping up, as Londoners might see it – of the rest of the UK is one we will all hear loudly in May when Londoners elect a new Greater London Assembly and Mayor.

Yet the elections in May that will get the most attention will be those in Scotland. The focus on north of the border, and to a lesser extent Wales, Northern Ireland and debates about ‘devo Manc’ for areas such as Manchester distract from the biggest question facing the UK: how to manage the place in the Union of its giant capital city.

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