I have argued for some time that London is the
fifth state in the United Kingdom, almost completely separate from England, and
more important than Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, which is in any case a
provisional (mot juste) member of the
UK, its sovereignty transferable to the Irish Republic by referendum at any
And now we have begun to see reports that, rather
predictably, there is supposed to be a ‘brain drain’ from the provinces to
London, and that the supposed economic recovery (how funny that phrase will
sound in three years or so) is largely limited to the capital and its
Well, I never. Actually, London has almost always
dominated Britain, especially since the coming of the railways created national
newspapers and national politics. It’s partly because of our compact size and
our long unified history.
Compare other countries such as Germany, Italy or
the USA, where there are many major cities of equal standing, and the capital
is at most first among equals and often less than that. Even centralised
France probably has more distinct provincial power bases than Britain does.
But something has happened to make the division
between London and the rest much, much more important.
It’s mainly de-industrialisation, which has also
affected London. My own daily journey from London to Oxford is a good
illustration of this – once it took me past the AEC factory that made proper
London buses, Huntley and Palmer’s Biscuits, Sutton’s Seeds and Ideal Casements
in Reading, all now gone, and the coal-fired power station at Didcot, now a
sort of tomb, closed by insane regulations and awaiting demolition.
Or take York, where I was at university. When I
arrived there in October 1970 it had a huge railway workshop, a major glass
factory, and several British-owned chocolate works – but not a single chain
Travelling from Oxford (which then had an
ironworks, a cake factory, a car factory and pressed steel plant, a
brewery and a cattle-market, and now just assembles German cars) to York
by train took me through the vast industrial zones of Birmingham, Derby and
When I see Sheffield now I simply cannot believe
the transformation, and sometimes wonder if I am imagining the great
steelworks. As for the coalmines, it is astonishing how they too have
disappeared as if they had never been.
As for Glasgow, when I go back there now I feel
like Doctor Who, returning to a place he hasn’t visited for about a
thousand years. Look carefully and you will find traces of what was once there.
Instead, the City of London, again transformed by
vainglorious architects, has become a huge smokeless factory turning out funny
money by the ton.
Even there, I can remember, back in 1977, the
thrilling sight of scores of delivery vans beginning to line up in Fleet Street
towards 11.00 pm, as the giant presses began to hiss and thunder deep down
beneath the newspaper offices, still in all their shabby grandeur.
It makes me think back to that period in the
early 1980s when ITN’s old News at Ten
programme had a nightly feature on job losses and job gains. The losses, shown
in red figures, were almost always factories. The gains, shown in blue figures,
were almost always new supermarkets.
They were exciting, unsettling times but I didn’t
truly understand how much of a transformation was going on.
I think that was because by then I was living, as
I did for seven bizarre years, in London. How I used to long to live there. How
glad I now am that I don’t. Unbelievably, I paid rent of about £60 a month (out
of a pre-tax annual salary of £5,500) on a small but perfectly pleasant
top-floor flat in a late 19th century street between Finchley Road
and West Hampstead, quite close to the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing.
I still remember the thrill of having my own
phone, with a number beginning, as they still just did in those days, 01.
Later, after some frantic saving and a family loan, I managed to find an even
smaller leasehold flat in a 1930s block mainly inhabited by Austrian refugees
from National Socialism, for £29,000, which meant taking out a huge loan,
though by then I must have been up to more like £8,000 a year.
I mention these figures because they now seem so
utterly ridiculous, and bear no known relation to anything today. Like most
people of my age, I gasp to think that these properties have now risen in price
to such an extent that I couldn’t afford to live in them now, though I am far
better-paid, in real terms as well as in raw figures, than I was then.
London has become a mad city, its centre entirely
inhabited by the absurdly rich, and serviced by the absurdly poor.
It isn’t quite a Third-World city, partly because
so many people work in London who
don’t live there, and trail in and out each day from commuter towns and
obscure, distant suburbs. They pay the appalling fares, and endure the
disagreeable conditions, because they really have no choice.
(By the way, I was surprised to find the word
‘suburbs’ in the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible the other day, the 23rd
Chapter of the Second Book of Kings since you ask, in a passage about the
stamping out of pagan idols. I had always thought of it as a 19th-century
These daytime inhabitants give London a middle
class clientele, moderating the extreme divisions between the super-rich and
their super-poor servants.
Also, central London still has the physical shape
of a mixed city in which ordinary people actually lived.
It will take a while for its new role to turn it
into something more like what it really is, a super-glossy, unaffordable heart,
fringed by overcrowded dormitory zones for service workers, while real life
What will happen if the Funny Money Factory
fails, I tremble to think. Detroit may offer some lessons, but London is
unique, and its decline will be unique too.
As it is, I feel a sense of crossing a frontier
each morning and evening, somewhere in the wilderness between Slough and
England, for all its many problems caused by
de-employment, overcrowding, insane overuse of motorcars, globalisation,
commercial cloning and mass migration, is a different experience from London
and feels different while you are there.
And London is also the first part of the country
to have an explicitly republican form of government with a directly-elected
chief executive, elevated above the common herd, and a (currently) weak and
I am perpetually amazed that more people aren’t
interested by this. Constitutional flux, leading first to disorientation and
then to radical change, is one of the great ‘achievements’ of the Blair-Campbell
Readers here will know that I suspect the next 2015
United Kingdom general election, if Scotland has not by then seceded, will be
the last to be held under clear first-past-the post rules.
Almost every new political formation created in the
last 30 years from the EU Supreme Soviet to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies,
and the weird Belgianised construct which sort-of governs Northern Ireland, has
used some kind of proportional method.
Oddly enough, the London Mayoralty, alone, has
taken a partly American, rather than a European direction. Even that contains a
form of transferable vote if there are more than two candidates for mayor (as
there always have been) , and a party list system as well as direct
constituency elections for the GLA.
True, some other lesser cities have also chosen
to have mayors, but they simply lack the London Mayor’s powers and status, especially
powers over the police, and access to the national media.
The Mayor of London is supposed to face question
time before the GLA, in theory like PMQs, but in fact not.
The session hardly ever attracts any attention.
They don’t elect him. He has his own independent mandate and can ignore them if
In fact it will probably be in his interest to do
so some of the time, just as Governors of US states often make their names by
defying, or defining themselves against, their own legislatures.
He is also a national politician, whereas they are not.
The other interesting thing is the way in which
the post de-politicises its holder.
Neither Ken Livingstone nor Al Johnson have much
connection with the parties they nominally belong to, and Mr Livingstone was actually
chucked out of his party.
The Mayor of London lacks rural constituents, or
many elderly ones, and is compelled to be economically and socially liberal,
keen on multiculturalism, a booster for big buildings and grand projects.
If he doesn’t like such things he had best not
stand for the post, because there would be no point in holding it. The post
holds him, rather more than the other way round, which is actually the case
with an awful lot of supposedly desirable jobs.
The only significant difference between the two
incumbents so far is the extent of the congestion zone in which cars are
charged for entry. The other difference is that Mr Livingstone’s political
career was ending when he got the job, whereas Mr Johnson’s may be just
beginning. Or it may not.
Both men, being strong individuals better suited
to Presidential politics, found the House of Commons, a very jealous place,
hard to handle, and performed disappointingly in it.
I wonder if Mr Johnson really does have that much
of a future there, especially since the Tory party is (alas, too late) on
the slide towards the great skip where it has long belonged.
Perhaps we shall have an enjoyable paradox, if
Scotland and Northern Ireland, and surely then Wales too, leave the Union, of
London doing the same, and Mr Johnson becoming (oh, irony of ironies) a major
figure in the politics of the EU.
What, then, of the rump of England, shorn
of London and cut off by bristling frontiers from Wales and Scotland? Shall we
have our capital in Milton Keynes and make Sailing
By our national anthem? Or will it be even worse than that?
An independent Cornwall beckons. Time I
started learning my ancestral tongue.