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.
Residents report a preference to be considered a Londoner over British, English, or European.
Londoner first, Briton second. That’s how London residents responded when asked how they identify themselves, according to a new report from the Centre for London, a British think tank.
In fact, the proportion of Londoners reporting a strong sense of identity tied to their city comfortably exceeded those who strongly feel themselves to be British or English—and overwhelmingly exceeds those who report a strong sense of European identity.
These findings come during a period of identity flux in London and Britain as a whole. The Brexit referendum highlighted the regional divides in the U.K., and London’s relationship with Europe and the rest of Britain is up for a fraught process of redefinition. There has even been—largely fanciful but still telling—discussion of a separate, post-Brexit visa system just for Londoners, a move that would heighten the sense of disconnect between London and the rest of the country.
At the same time, Britain, along with the rest of Europe, is experiencing a resurgence of nationalisms (the plural is intentional). This is apparent not just in the drive for an independent Scotland, but in intensified Welsh and English nationalisms that leave a collective sense of British identity looking somewhat threadbare.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a receding national identity is being replaced by a metropolitan one—the available data isn’t conclusive. But it does throw up some interesting trends that suggest why a strong sense of London identity may be so resilient.
For one thing, recent arrivals in the city develop some sense of local identity quite quickly. This sense of identity cuts across class, race, and age boundaries far more evenly than English identity, according to the data. And despite Londoners’ increasingly demonizing media portrayal as metropolitan elites, a sense of local identity is actually stronger among the working-class than higher up the economic scale.
There are several possible reasons for this moderate but still clear inverse relationship between social class and London identity. The city’s working-class identity still gets plenty of exposure in British culture—and it’s more explicitly linked to a sense of place and local community than that of wealthier residents. The working class Cockney identity, which was strong in the mid-20th century, may have waned as well. Nowadays you’re more likely to hear a classic Cockney accent among older people, or out in Essex, than among young Londoners, who are now more likely to speak some form of the more internationally rooted sociolect Multicultural London English.
It’s also true that the cultural identification points of working-class London, including football and popular music, remain strong and nationally influential. This continues to be the case even as it becomes more difficult for lower-income Londoners to remain in the increasingly expensive areas where they grew up.
But things are different for middle- and upper-class Londoners. That’s because the city’s affluent metropolitan culture sees itself as national rather than local. It dominates Britain’s media and cultural industries, erroneously presenting itself as a voice speaking for the entire nation. Thus, while affluent Londoners dominate much of Britain’s public discourse, they are perhaps less likely to perceive their own voice as specifically local, and thus have a weaker sense of London identity.
The pull of a London identity nonetheless seems pretty strong across the board—stronger than that of a national British identity. Among respondents cited in the report, the assertion of a sense of belonging to London is pretty resounding. On a scale of 1 to 10, 63 percent of Londoners polled in September 2017 placed their strength of local identity at eight or higher. By contrast, a comparably strong sense of British and English identity was felt by 59 percent and 50 percent of respondents, respectively. It seems it’s somewhat easier (and possibly more attractive) for newcomers to become Londoners versus becoming British.
As a Londoner, it’s not hard to guess why: Non-white and non-British people born in London face very real barriers and discrimination elsewhere in the country. As a newcomer or minority, it takes far less time to be accepted as a Londoner than it does as a Briton. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Britain as a whole. Large, powerful sections of the country’s national media, even though they’re based in London, are jingoistic and xenophobic. Through a mix of promotion and demonization, they adjudicate loudly over who can and can’t be deemed British.
But London itself is too heterodox and shifting to submit fully to this rhetoric. Most lifelong Londoners have grown up with friends and neighbors from elsewhere, and this has become part of their identity. It’s relatively welcoming and flexible compared to, say, Paris, where you can spend half a lifetime and still be considered an outsider.
There’s a more sobering side to the primacy of London over British identity, of course. In an increasingly polarized, fragmented and unequal society, the rest of Britain can seem very far away. Many Londoners restrict themselves to the city and the more photogenic parts of its rural hinterland. When they leave London, it is frequently to another country. This trend figures into the frustrations of other British regions, which sense that decisions are made in a city that, despite being nearby, looks at them through a long, blurry telescope.
We might assume that, in an era where cities are widely reported to be on the rise, this sense of being a Londoner first and a Briton second might be growing—but the data doesn’t really exist to confirm or refute this hypothesis.
While data on ethnicity on London identity is tantalizingly absent, it’s clear this sense of belonging holds true across age and political boundaries. When asked to rank the strength of their identities on a scale of one to 10, “a Londoner” scored higher than 7 across the board, including Conservative and Labour voters, Leave and Remain voters, and all age groups and class groups. Labour supporters were somewhat more likely to report a strong sense of London identity, as were less wealthy Londoners (from classes C2DE), compared to their counterparts in classes ABC1. In no group, however, was a sense of London identity notably deficient. London may be developing a reputation as an exclusionary citadel of wealth, and as a relatively left-wing island in a more right-leaning region, but this doesn’t seem to be chipping away at any particular group’s sense of belonging.
While Londoners’ bonds to city, nation, and state seem relatively strong, there’s one area where bonds are weaker: with the rest of Europe. Most Londoners (64 percent) acknowledged some sense of European identity, but it was only strong for 29 percent of them. This is perhaps to be expected—European ties come after local and national ones across the E.U. Londoners still seem to fit in to a U.K.-wide pattern of low identification with Europe compared to citizens of other European countries, with a national average of 33 percent in the U.K. compared to a high of 77 percent in Luxembourg. Even Europskeptic Greece posted a 44 percent rate of European identification.
Again, as the figures Centre for London cites are arranged on a scale rather than as a binary, this is not comparing like with like. It nonetheless suggests that London’s longstanding (and now waning) role as one of the unofficial capitals of Europe has not sparked an especially passionate swell of European self-identification among its citizens.