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.
A new report shows a widening gap between the British capital and the rest of the country.
The gulf between London and the rest of the U.K. is growing. So say many Londoners themselves, according to a new report released Tuesday from the independent think tank Centre for London. Compiled in the wake of Britain’s Brexit referendum, the report suggests the city’s residents are anxious and pessimistic about the near future, and they predict the U.K.’s capital will drift further away from the rest of the country and lose some of its economic vigor.
If the report’s findings are correct, Londoners’ minds are a somewhat troubled place right now. At 52 percent, a majority thought that London’s economy would suffer between now and 2020 as the government works toward leaving the E.U. The young were especially pessimistic, with 68 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds thinking Brexit would have a negative effect on London’s growth during this period. People over 45 were more optimistic, but in no age group did a majority think that the immediate future would bring an economic uptick for the city. This is having an alienating effect for many. When asked if they felt distant from the rest of the U.K. after the referendum, 41 percent agreed, against 31 percent who disagreed.
As you might expect for people who feel like they’ve been caught in Brexit’s crosshairs, almost everyone thought the imminent downturn they predicted for the city mattered a lot: 81 percent agreed that London’s continuing success was essential to the good of the whole country.
Look closely at the opinions expressed and you can see that Londoners are diverging from the rest of the country in what they want — or at least away from Britain’s current national government. While the government has vowed to restrict freedom of movement for migrants between Britain and the remaining 27 E.U. states, the report shows that Londoners’ overwhelming priority is maintaining access to the European single market, which 59 percent felt was the most important issue. By contrast, only 29 percent believed an end to the freedom of movement should be the political priority. This alone doesn’t place the government in the wrong, of course, but it suggests a growing fissure between the city and the government it hosts. Possibly as a way of managing this gulf, 57 percent of respondents wanted more political power for the city.
That doesn’t mean that Londoners thought their city’s global role was going to end any time soon. A comfortable majority of 58 percent thought London would still be a key global capital in a decade’s time. The question now is how it will stay there. Given that the country’s Brexit strategy is still entirely unclear, it’s not surprising that there’s no obvious answer yet.
A Wednesday conference organized by the Centre for London nonetheless suggested a few possible answers. Addressing the conference, ex-government adviser Charles Ledbeater said London needed to decide on one of several possible courses. It could fashion itself along the lines of Singapore — as a de facto city-state where connections with economic superpowers such as China or India were as or more important than those with its immediate hinterland. It could also feasibly realign itself as a national center, where links with the rest of Britain became more prominent than its international links. A further alternative could be to function as a sort of E.U. exclave, with its own visa program and different rules for engaging with the union’s 27 member states from the rest of the country.
These different models may not be mutually exclusive, but they would all require major shifts — shifts whose potential disruption makes Londoners’ anxieties seem not all that paranoid. But if, as the report suggests, the gulf between the city and the rest of the U.K. is widening after the Brexit vote, London could be not so much a cautionary tale as a model for how to manage tensions within an atomizing nation-state. In countries like the U.S., where political lines are being more clearly drawn than ever between major metropolitan centers and outlying rural areas, it could be highly instructive to see the path London embarks upon — and if that journey is successful.