It’s complicated – London, Leave and the view from outside

It started around 9pm on the day after the Leave vote. I was gobsmacked by this twitter exchange and felt compelled to respond to the second of Chris Matts‘ tweets.

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As someone who has lived outside the M25 all my life (bar about 6 weeks) I bridled at the idea that the blame for the lack of connection between London and the rest of the UK should be shared equally. However, there was no reply so I figured that Chris had either shrugged or been distracted by real life outside of twitter. I was therefore really stunned and impressed by this post from Chris in response to the twitter exchange. While I was gathering my thoughts there was a great comment added by Keith Braithwaite which covered much of the ground I was running through in my head. The rest of this post is essentially a mix of stuff that weaves around those two posts (apologies that it is less eloquent and more based on gut feel).

I was born and raised in Manchester through the 1970’s and early 1980’s so I recall quite a bit of the initial Thatcher years and the industrial strife of the late 1970s seen through the lens of TV news and tabloid newspapers, with the occasional flash of real life such as picketing miners at the local colliery. From Manchester I headed even further north to Durham which meant that I was there in the middle of the struggle between the miners’ union and the government, watching as the local villages were deprived of their main source of jobs. I intentionally didn’t head to London after I graduated and began a circuitous tour that took in Bolton, Macclesfield, Manchester, Cirencester, Tetbury, Tickhill (just south of Doncaster) before ending up back in Macclesfield. I think that this life working in IT outside of London has given me a different perspective from many people I know in the industry who have spent a long time down there (some might say it’s just made the chip on my shoulder heavier 🙂 ).

Over the years I’ve visited what was then our local town/city centre or the centres of other northern towns near in-laws (e.g. Gainsborough) and despaired at the depressing, run-down feel of the central shopping areas and the bleakness of the employment options available to people there. Even in Cheshire, there have been times in the past few years when I’ve wandered through Macclesfield town centre, noted that one in every 4 shops was closed down and wondered what future there was for a town trying to survive in the long shadow cast by the Trafford Centre. Many town centres seemed to consist of bookies, pound shops, some chain stores and boarded up businesses. It felt like the life had been sucked out of the town and the community around it.

Change is the one constant in life and you cannot just cling onto the past. As Keith noted our heavy industry struggled in the face of global competition and this is not a problem per-se. However, the problem was that several generations of people were abandoned as there was no plan for them, just an ideological belief that the markets would make things right.

But they didn’t.

All that seems to have happened is that whole communities feel abandoned and uncared for especially with the recent imposition of austerity, bedroom tax, work assessments etc. Despite what the press might have you believe, most people have a sense of pride which they have had to swallow in their hundreds of thousands as they have headed to food banks. Thoughtful, reflective people know that the problems are systemic and structural; an ex-miner can’t just magic up the education and training that would be needed to join the knowledge economy. A friend of mine from university got a job with British Coal helping soon-to-be-redundant miners to find an alternative career. He told how almost every one of them came in and said they wanted to be a driving instructor. All they knew was working down the pit and driving to and from work so that’s all they believed they could offer. The rapid disintegration of their industry left these people with nowhere to go. However, ever since the days of Norman “On your bike” Tebbit, they have been told that it’s their fault they didn’t have a job or, if they had a low-paying job, it was their fault that they didn’t have a better one. Or a better house / car / life.

So far, so rant-y, but where does London fit into this?

From where I’ve stood/sat/slumped over the past 30 years London has appeared to be the major beneficiary of the economic growth since the early 1980’s. The UK is very centralised (unlike, it appears, America for example which has four separate centres for government, finance, software and entertainment) and because of this most of the benefit seems to have been routed through this centre. There have been small chunks of time where the focus has moved outside London in one way or another, such as the music scene in Manchester in the 90’s during Britpop but the gravitational pull of London soon reasserts itself as exemplified by the Gallagher brothers ending up in London. Some efforts have been made to swim against this tide such as the BBC’s decision to relocate some iconic programmes to the regions, such as MOTD to Salford and Dr Who to Cardiff, but these seem to be exceptions to the rule.

From outside the M25 (or certainly outside the home counties) it often looks like London has benefited while most other places have seen an ongoing decline or at least stagnation since the 1980’s. Now you could argue that most of the benefit (aka money) has gone into the deep pockets of a London-based elite but this misses the point a little. London is intertwined with the elite it hosts so when damage done to the rest of the UK by, for example, a financial crash created by the recklessness of bankers based in the City few people have the motivation to disentangle them.

Even if you go with the argument that most of the benefits have gone to an elite, it does feel like there is a certain amount of trickle-down that’s happening in London that does not happen elsewhere in the UK. In general terms and for the wider national or world economies I think that trickle-down economics is a discredited myth but I think there are pockets of exception where secondary industries cluster round elite ones. One example would be from our own software industry where the investment banks have funded a significant chunk of the London-based IT community over the past 30 years. These software professionals have, in turn, used local shops and services meaning that the money from the elite industry has found its way into the pockets of shopkeepers, cleaners, etc. If the elite industry or individual kept the money to themselves it would mostly disappear into an offshore tax haven (after all, there is only so much underwear, food or gadgetry any one individual can buy) whereas if it goes to the local software community then a far bigger percentage of it will get passed on (hopefully they all have to buy underwear). In this respect I believe that ordinary Londoners have benefited from the presence of the elite industries, corporate headquarters, etc. in their midst in a way that few other places in the UK have done because these elite industries have clustered around London as it is the central power hub. Looking across the glittering London skyline it’s easy to see why people would get more of a sense of economic wellbeing than if they were to look across the skyline of, say, Doncaster (sorry Donny…) and this may well have obscured the level of inequality between London and the regions for those who don’t get out to Donny very often.

Obviously, it’s not all about money (although my mum recently told me that it’s easy to say that when you have some) and it was notable that the other areas in England that voted Remain were cities that had long-standing immigrant communities, such as Leeds, Manchester and Leicester. The presence of people from other cultures has become part of the landscape in these places with celebrated areas such as the curry mile in Rusholme and Chinatown in Manchester city centre, but I also know from personal experience that Manchester and Leeds are comparatively prosperous which, I think, lessens one possible source of tension. Other areas with more recent immigrant populations and less prosperity seem to have seen things differently. If all you have is a zero-hour contract job and you’re on the 4th strike of a six-strikes-and-you’re-out regime it’s not surprising if people get scared and resentful.

Personally I’m frustrated and sad that we have ended up in such a mess and annoyed that a small band of politicians have put our collective futures at risk. Leaving the EU will just make us smaller and less relevant to the 21st century. As one friend said, the world is interconnected these days and the UK is in danger of pulling out it’s plug.

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One thought on “It’s complicated – London, Leave and the view from outside

  1. So I grew up not that far away in much the same circumstances. I’ll never vote Tory because Thatcher destroyed my town when she destroyed the shipyard. That was close on 30 years ago and I don’t think its ever recovered.

    Most people who know me now probably think of me as an aggressive London elite’er, and I’m all for independence, London independence that is. But I want London to leave because I think that would be better for Maccelsfield, Doncaster, Birkenhead and especially Manchester and Birmingham.

    Frankly, I got out of the north and into London in my twenties purely for my own benefit: “if you can’t beat them join them” so I did.

    London is very different to the rest of the country. In terms of wealth, in terms of attitude, in terms of immigration and in all sorts of other ways. But London controls the rest of the country. It sucks the best out of the rest of the country and crowds out activity elsewhere.

    (I love the idea of HS2 but all its going to do is allow more people to get to London quicker and drag more wealth with them.)

    Similar patterns can be seen with Paris and France and especially with Moscow and Russia. But its different in the USA and Germany. These countries have federal structures and as a result states, cities, lander can make their own rules and prosper in their own right. They can compete directly (New York and Chicago) or specialise (San Francisco, LA, Houston.) That doesn’t happen in England, France or Russia because everything important happens in one place.

    (BTW You think Britain is over centralised, try Russia but there are other dynamics at work there too.)

    If London left then the capital would move to … Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds? Hard to see Bristol, Reading or Southampton hosting. With the capital a bit further north the politicians and civil servants would be closer to the people there, physically and mentally. Without the pull of London then those cities would prosper more.

    And in some instances – like banks – what is good for London really isn’t good for the rest of England. We need two sets of rules.

    Of cause the catch is, if London was to leave its hard to see us imposing immigration barriers, it would still be very connected to the hinterland – the way Monaco is to France, Vatican City is to Rome and so on. So all the problems would not go away over night but with the power brokers elsewhere they would respect those areas more.

    Ironically, within a European Union smaller states (Scotland, London, Catalonia) are far more practical than outside the EU. With the exception of Switzerland, small states don’t have enough leverage themselves but as part of a larger entity they are viable.

    Perhaps what I really want is for the UK could move to a federal structure. Scotland, NI, Wales, we need to break England up somehow, London is clearly different, its hard to see other easy splits.

    So yes, I want to see London break away, London is where I live, I think it would be good for London, but they are not why I want it to break. I want London to leave so the rest of the country can prosper – or at least be forced to address their own issues.

    Whats more, I expect to see it happen in my lifetime.

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