The census suggests a huge gap between the lives and concerns of Londoners and their fellow Britons
Concluding a year of exceptional London triumphalism, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been swanking, pretty much non stop, about the capital’s superiority to everywhere else, including its host country. Speaking recently at the CBI, he claimed for London, rather than Britain, the success of the jubilee, at which Prince Philip contracted cystitis in the rain. London, not Britain, hosted the Olympics; London, not Britain, is “the world centre of banking and finance”. Given a chance, he will even boast about London’s falling murder rate.
Although, to his great credit, Johnson does not use the word “buzz”, that famous but hard-to-pin-down London phenomenon which is apt to have evaporated by the time you reach journey’s end in, say, Edgware, some of his claims to London’s pre-eminence are contested. There are not, possibly because of the high oligarch murder rate, more Michelin-starred restaurants in London than in Paris. But it cannot be denied, as Johnson told the CBI conference, that just as New York is the go-to megacity for cockroaches, London can claim to be the world’s premier venue for rich litigants. No self-respecting foreign gangster or oligarch would think of suing anywhere else.
It is just another sign of Johnson’s originality that, where others might see only a minute group of interdependent shysters who shovel money from one hiding place to another, at the same time that they help push London property prices to levels of undreamed-of inaccessibility, Johnson recognises a precious income stream of which some minute fraction cannot but end up as minimum wages for Londoners. Even the meanest A-list litigants, he suspects, do not wash their own underwear.
“I have no shame”, Johnson declared, “in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires if you want to take him to the cleaners, tahlink, take him to the cleaners in London. Because London cleaners will be grateful for your business.”
As for libel suits. “I would never encourage anyone to sue,” Johnson said, “but if one oligarch feels defamed by another oligarch, it is London’s lawyers who apply the necessary balm to the ego. And it is those rouble-fuelled refreshers and retainers that find their way into the pockets of chefs and waiters and doormen and janitors and nannies and tutors and actors and aromatherapists – and keep the wheels of the economy turning, and put bread on the tables of some of the poorest and hardest working families in the city.”
We look forward then, to many further London panegyrics in which Johnson shows how the capital’s most despised characteristics can be re-invented as peerless assets. Take London pigeons, and the way these vermin reduce the burden on the health service by giving old bird-women a reason to live. Notice, how, when it snows in London, the streets are left ungritted, saving money and, in this picturesque condition, assisting keen skiers and sledgers. Admire the way London’s abject arrangements for cycling keep all but the bravest off their bikes, thus boosting public transport revenue and helping nervous drivers.
Visit its hard-working estate agents, and see how grateful they are for London’s flourishing house prices, which at an average £444,393 ensure that poorer provincials will never be tempted to add to the colourful rush-hour congestion. Applaud the way lax banking regulation has helped make London great. Actually, he has already done that one: “We can’t solve the banking crisis by imposing more regulations than our rivals in other European jurisdictions.”
Even before Boris Johnson became a full-time London supremacist, with a tendency to depict the relationship between the capital and its country as that between a mighty benefactor and his useless family dependents, Ken Livingstone had joked about the case for separatism. “Having been to Singapore,” he said in 2006, “and seen how successful it was I think anything short of a fully independent city state is a lost opportunity, with its own foreign and defence policies thrown in.”
Since when, the widening of economic and cultural differences between the capital and the rest of the country would have ensured, even without the Johnson line in PR, that the interests of Londoners looked more and remote to fellow-Britons, and closer and closer to the preoccupations of fellow city-state residents from New York to Rio de Janeiro.
The evidence of the new census, showing that white ethnic British are now outnumbered in London, is unlikely to assist understanding. Not necessarily because this is a ratio that would feel unusual in many other regions and outlandish in some: the ostensible London melting pot obscures social divisions which ensure that many privileged Londoners move in circles that are quite as white-British as Budleigh Salterton, and much less so than those in Boston, Lincolnshire.
Rather, the census figures provide yet another pretext, along with developments in London education, London housing, London budget cuts, London arts, London policing, for a London-based political and media class to continue to dwell on local, occasionally parochial stories that may be irrelevant to millions of non-Londoners. And these are covered to the exclusion of equally important, possibly more punishing developments in the lives of people who are less likely than ever to disturb the ruling, southern metropolitan class.
The strain posed by immigration on London’s social services will appear as far more pressing than the strain on Hartlepool of having no jobs. The loss of one London library will look infinitely more serious, to judge by the national coverage, than the loss of over 30 in Yorkshire. And the more, as they must, most journalists and MPs come from London and the south-east, the more unobjectionable such assessments will seem.
Even Londoners, swelling with pride in their prodigiously declining murder rate, know that if they leave the city, they, along with their children, might never afford to come back. And what spiralling rents and the use of internships are not already doing to depress geographical mobility will be completed if ever Osborne decides, by entrenching unequal regional pay, that two cultures should be matched by two economies. Of course, this is fine if you like your political leaders drawn, as they are now, from London (Cameron, Miliband), or for mild variety Buckinghamshire (Clegg).
If the BBC’s recent relocations to Salford were, as often alleged, purely a symbolic gesture to appease licence payers, which have required absurd and expensive shuntings back and forth of hyperventilating celebrities, they did at least offer some resistance to the big message of the London Olympics: we rule.
Short of moving the government out of London, to somewhere independent of Johnson’s noble bankers, there are still ways the government can show the regions have economic purposes beyond dependency on the gifts of a domineering capital city, and almost any of them would be less disgusting than keeping visiting trophy wives in aromatherapy treatments.