A Civil Divorce: London, the United Kingdom, and a Sovereign State Along the M25

Credits: Hardy Hewson

Perennially damp and usually overcrowded, the London Orbital Motorway (or M25) encircles a total area of over 1,572km2 and approximately 8.5 million residents. With the exception of the memorably named North Ockendon, the M25 circumscribes the entirety of the Greater London region of the UK, and can claim the prestigious title of Europe’s second largest orbital road after the Berliner Ring (Bundesautobahn 10). That is at least until March 2017, the date by which Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to invoke the now infamous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thereby officially initiating Britain’s exit from the European Union.

By Hardy Hewson

A result of the divisive referendum on EU membership on June 23rd, Mrs. May’s commitment to ‘Brexit’ is precisely what the majority of Greater London’s 8.5 million residents voted against. Beyond the dreary sight of the M25, London is a vibrant and vivacious metropolis—the largest in the EU—that plays host to a diverse range of peoples and over 300 spoken languages. Financially, the city has the fifth highest GDP of any metropolitan areas in the world, possessing the highest proportion of ultra-high-net-worth residents in the world. Owed in large part to the influx of immigration and foreign investment that helped it rebuild from the rubble of the Second World War, London’s development to such a metropolis has come to represent so many of the strengths of the British economy as an open and global trading nation.

It is no wonder therefore then, that the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union taken from London votes alone would have yielded an emphatic 60% vote in favour of remaining. Indeed, the success of the remain campaign was foretold by the majority of financial agents operating on the eve of the election, as the FTSE 100 closed at the highest point for two months on June 23rd. Londoners slept soundly in the belief that the nation had felt the benefits London’s global importance, and that no-one could be as ignorant as to threaten it. How wrong they were.

In many ways, the referendum vote was a protest against the aloofness of London to the rest of the UK. On the ballot sheet that day, many people of Sunderland, Great Yarmouth, and the 263 (of 382) other localities voting to leave saw not only a chance to leave a European project ignorant of their hardships, but to wake the heaving capital from its success-induced slumber. In ticking the Brexit box, they saw not the productive hub of the nation, but the playground of the rich—of the bankers who felt too little of the repercussions of the financial crisis, the foreign gazillionaires, and tax-dodging companies, that the glistening capital hosts. To those looking on, the boundary demarcated by that circling trail of tarmac around London is indicative of the rising inequality between capital and country that has developed on my levels.

This boundary is mostly economic. At a time when investment is in high demand, London is the world’s leading destination of private ventures. As cries for funding in an age of austerity sound around Britain, London appears inundated with new projects, from riverside super-structures and a housing bubble that keeps floating higher to London-based ‘fintech’ companies. As stated in a report by Tim Oliver, Dahrendorf Fellow at LSE IDEAS, “Economically, London as 22.9 per cent of the UK economy matters more to the single market and political union that is the United Kingdom than the 20.9 per cent that Germany is to the economy of the European Union.” At such as high proportion of the national economy, the case for inequality is not difficult to believe, let alone to argue.

However, the unequal nature of life within and without the capital is not simply economic. In a recent report by The Economist, students eligible for free school meals were twice as likely to achieve eight or more GCSEs with grades of A* to B at London schools than schools elsewhere in the country. Culturally London appears advantaged as well, with 70p per capita spent by the government on the arts outside of the capital compared with £10 per capita within the M25. In demographic terms, approximately one-third of Londoners were born outside of the UK, many of whom constitute a part of the youthful and educated electorate that UKIP councillor Suzanne Evans cited as the reason for lack of support for her party in the city. In this light, the capital is resolutely distinct from the rest of the country.

It was with these factors in mind, waking up to the news of Brexit on June 24th, that TechDigest editor James O’Malley petitioned the new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to “Declare London independent from the UK and apply to join the EU.” First and foremost a Londoner, he wrote the following description:

“London is an international city, and we want to remain at the heart of Europe. Let’s face it — the rest of the country disagrees. So rather than passive aggressively vote against each other at every election, let’s make the divorce official and move in with our friends on the continent. #londependence”

It should be stated that O’Malley’s #londependence is no new concept. Either with a goal of greater autonomy for the urban region, or in pursuit of the final aim of a fully-fledged independent state, the question of London’s status within an ever-splintering union has been discussed since the 1990s. A flight of fancy then, the failure of the remain campaign in June has reinvigorated the debate, evidenced by each of the 179,578 signatures O’Malley’s petition received, and the doubling of opinion poll results in favour of a city-state type solution to London’s growing inequality. With Brexit around the corner, we may find that the junction for ‘Londependence’ is fast approaching, and what better natural border than an eight lane wall of slow-moving traffic! Just as the rest of the UK is frustrated by the apparent aloofness of London, so too are Londoners tired of their own form of warped injustice. On October 7th, Bagehot reported in his weekly column of The Economist that, “The citizens of London pay more in work taxes than do those of the next 36 cities combined.” The benefits of an independent London are clear for most Londoners themselves, especially in the event of Brexit. Following the referendum, Peter John, the Labour leader of Borough of Southwark claimed that independence and EU membership are imperative to London holding its position as a world city. His case was not unfounded: “London would be the 15th largest EU state, bigger than Austria, Denmark and Ireland and our values are in line with Europe – outward looking, confident of our place in the world, enriched by our diversity and stronger working together with our friends and neighbours than we are alone.” A referendum question would surely give expression to frustrations of ‘propping-up’ the rest of the country’s economy, a justifiable, although wholly selfish, frustration to have.

The fact of the matter is that London is simply too important to the nation’s economy to entertain the whims of state-building Londoners. As a Londoner myself, I recognise the futility of such a project. London constitutes 12.5% of the UK population, and remains historically, culturally, and most importantly, economically linked to its surroundings. This link is not simply a fact, but the remainder of the mutually beneficial relationship between the urban and rural. London could no more have developed into the world city that it is without the support of its surroundings than the UK could have developed without its ties to Europe. To suggest otherwise is to submit oneself to the same warped narratives that the Brexit campaign proffered in the months before the referendum in June. Tim Oliver put this best in his essay on London’s independence prospects when applied London’s development to the United States:

“By way of comparison, if the USA had a capital city that dominated it like London does the UK then it would be a city of 42.8 million people (bigger than any single state) with an economy equal to that of California and Texas combined. Within it you would find the political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, university, IT, media and communication concentrations found in Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Atlanta.”

Nobody would suggest succession as a feasible resolution to such an imbalanced issue. Instead of independence, the political elites of London should pressure the Conservative government responsible for the future of our relationship with Europe to protect the interests of London as a vital provider for the UK economy. In return, Londoners must do their best to acknowledge the frightening disparities between their capital and their country, and support efforts to ameliorate them. A civil divorce of the kind proposed by O’Malley’s petition is still possible, but if you are willing to spend the money on lawyers, why not opt for the marriage counsellors first.

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