Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The upcoming vote on Scottish independence is about self-determination—and acknowledging that London only loves London.
In the recent sci-fi horror flick Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien touring Scotland on the hunt for human prey. Trawling the streets of Glasgow in a truck, Johansson’s chilling portrayal of an extra-terrestrial predator had a particular resonance for audiences in the U.K. While her hapless prey were Scots, Johansson spoke in a cut-glass Southern English accent, a metropolitan interloper who strayed north of the border to claim her pound of flesh.
Viewed in the light of next Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence (whose Yes and No camps now stand neck and neck), the film's protagonist could be seen as the embodiment of a bogeyperson currently haunting Scotland, a specter hanging over the country. To some, it’s a child-guzzling monster; to others, it’s a huge mothership that has untethered itself from its planet but still looms ominously overhead to block out the sun. The name of this specter? London.
The United Kingdom’s capital, and its smothering influence, is unquestionably a player in the Scottish independence debate. Of course, to suggest that London and resistance to it is the major motor behind the independence campaign would only be further stroking the capital’s ego. Observing the Yes campaign, whose route to maturity is outlined in this fine piece by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, it’s clearly powered by far more than that—more than I have space to explore here. But there is nonetheless a clear sense that the concentration of power and resources in London plays an important role in Scotland’s grievances. For many, pushing for independence is about wresting control away from this increasingly remote and long indifferent Southern power center.
It’s not hard to understand why. This London-scepticism is shared not just by many Scots, but by non-Londoners across the U.K., especially in the North. Both Scotland and most of Northern England have frequently found themselves under Conservative-led governments despite voting for the Labour or Scottish Nationalist Parties. But while this has been a source of resentment for several lifetimes, things have intensified recently. It’s as if the multinational money pot of London has already declared itself independent from the rest of the country, rather than vice versa. The just-over-four-hour train ride from London to Edinburgh may seem tiny to anyone used to the spaces of North America, but it still feels like a gulf indeed to anyone here who travels it.
It’s not just that London is grabbing (as it always has) the lion’s share of infrastructure cash, jobs, and cultural spending. It’s that it is being granted this by an elite that cares passionately about what is happening in the boardrooms of New York and Moscow, but little about the hinterland it governs—beyond a possible role as a place to dump the inconvenient poor or to snaffle up revenues from North Sea oil and gas. If anything, this trend is amplified in the world of politics. While the U.K.’s main political parties used to have many representatives who switched to politics later in life from other professions, the now typical route into political office is by working for London-based lobbyists or think tanks, or possibly in the city’s civil service. For anyone serious about a political career, this is now the best way to go about making it, meaning that Britain’s political pool is being filled from an increasingly small, wealthy London-focused basin.
The credibility of Prime Minister David Cameron and the figures that surround him has increasingly suffered from a public perception that their privilege and narrow social circles have cut them off from ordinary experience outside the metropolitan bubble. And the truth is that Labour’s Ed Miliband is cut from a different corner of that same metropolitan cloth. He looks equally diffident and out of place when touring Scotland, like a well-meaning visitor from the planet Krypton desperately trying to pass itself off as a local.
There have been some attempts to mitigate this pull towards London, such as the transplanting of many BBC jobs to Manchester’s Media City. But with much evidence that the London establishment has long taken a No vote for granted, there’s been little to dispel the sense that both Scotland and Northern England are ruled from afar by those who feel entitled to do so simply because they were born into the purple.
No one outside London is that happy with this state of affairs. Hell, I’m not happy with it, and I’m a Londoner who can actually see the U.K.’s parliament from my kitchen window. Scotland’s advantage over other parts of Britain is that it can use its separate history (it retains a separate legal and education system as well as a regional parliament with limited powers) as a springboard for demanding a different way of governing itself. Whatever the result next Thursday, many people across the United Kingdom would dearly like their own version of the same thing.