Sunday, 16 November 2014

London, England, Britain and Europe: Places Apart?

Tim Oliver considers approaches to understanding the United Kingdom and its relationship with the EU.

Academics are often as guilty as many others for lazily using ‘London’ as a catch-all term to describe the UK, UK Government, the financial institutions of ‘the City of London’, England, or ‘the South’ or South East of England. Of course, as the UK’s capital city this usage can often seem logical enough. But London is a place in itself, a city of millions with a distinct population, an economic and social system with its own needs and interests, a place with an identity and politics of its own.

At a time when attention is fixed on Scotland it is worth remembering that it is not just Scotland or areas such as Wales or Northern Ireland that are distinct political spaces. London, an area with a larger and faster growing population and economy than anywhere else in the UK, and the UK’s most powerful cultural and political centre, deserves more attention. And, for this author and others, it deserves its own fully devolved government. The ‘London question’ – how the rest of the UK relates to its capital city that is fast becoming another place – is one of the most pressing questions in British politics.

There are many political topics which we could use to examine London’s distinct politics: transport, the environment, inequality, race relations, policing, economics, identity and so forth. One area where a clear distinction has begun to emerge is on the matter of Europe. Of all the areas of the UK it is London that has the biggest interest in the UK’s relationship with the EU. If, as has been argued repeatedly, the EU is important to Scotland, then so too is it important – and arguably more so – to London.

Londoners are not exactly what some might term Eurosceptic ‘Little Englanders’. UKIP have long under-performed in the capital. The 2014 European Parliament elections continued this trend, London seeing UKIP’s second lowest regional vote after Scotland. Voting patterns reflect opinion polling that shows Londoners have more comfortable view of the EU. Recent polling by Chatham House found Scots and Londoners hold similar views on the EU. This similarity between Londoners and Scots has been clear for some time, as shown below in the data from the British Election Study Continuous Monitoring Survey.

Question wording: “Overall, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of Britain’s membership in the European Union?” Source: Source: British Election Study Continuous Monitoring Survey, June 2005-December 2012 (pooled monthly cross-sectional surveys). Weighted data.

There are four reasons that could lie behind this more comfortable view of the EU.
First, a large part of the material wealth of London is tied to the economic vibrancy of the European market. London is Europe’s global city, its richest region to which European citizens and businesses flock to do work. Britain might not be in the Euro, but that does not stop London handling more euro foreign-exchanges than the Eurozone combined. A survey by Deloitte showed that London hosted an estimated 40% of the European headquarters of the world’s top companies. Alongside 60% of top non-European companies have their regional base in London. Companies such as Goldman Sachs and the Lord Mayor of London have warned of the cost to London and the UK of an exit from the EU. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, is no avid Europhile. But even his recent report on options for London-EU relations, while offering several options including withdrawal, made clear that even in the event of a withdrawal a close relationship with the EU was vital for London’s economic interests.

Second, London’s international population also makes it more likely to view the EU more positively. Over a third of Londoners were born outside the UK, with white-British still the largest single group but now 45% of London’s population. That young Europeans especially have flocked to London has not passed unnoticed in the press. London’s has long adapted to influxes of new arrivals, being home today to the largest BME community in the UK. As Tony Travers argues, ‘The word Londoner is an entirely inclusive concept’. This is not to argue that London has been without its problems, as the 2011 riots showed. But London has a long experience of dealing with the political and social tensions immigration brings. And while in other parts of the UK people might complain about Polish plumbers, in London anger – especially over house prices – is likely to be directed towards Gulf Princes or Russian oligarchs.

Third, London’s population makes for a unique identity that is a mix of English, British, European and global identities. That more Londoners think of themselves as ‘British’ than any other part of the UK helps instead of hinders London-EU relations. As research by the IPPR has shown, Euroscepticism is more likely to be found amongst those who associate more closely with an English identity. This difference should hardly come as a surprise given that in large areas of England London can appear an increasingly alien place. UKIP’s own campaign in 2014 was in part ‘anti-London’. ‘London’ has become a by-word for something that is distant, strange and out of control. As one defeated London UKIP councillor argued, UKIP’s poor performance was because of London’s young, educated, cultured, media-savvy population that can’t understand the heartache felt by the rest of the country. This might have been picked over for her insinuation that UKIP supporters elsewhere are old, ill-educated, uncultured and that the ‘media-savvy’ were somehow duped by media criticism of UKIP. But her warning that London is becoming a place apart from the rest of the UK has been echoed numerous times elsewhere.

Finally, for Londoners the government and political systems of the UK and EU do not appear as distant or uncontrollable. London is blessed with more political representation and networks than any other part of the UK. It is home to the UK’s royal, political, government and legal centres, main financial and business communities, media hubs, think tanks, diplomatic community and has its own elected assembly and mayor, to say nothing of the city state that is the ‘City of London’ and its Lord Mayor. It is London’s links with these that cause resentment elsewhere. Too often UK government can seem to be London government, governing in the interests of London rather than the UK. When David Cameron vetoed an EU treaty he did so to protect the UK’s financial services industry, and while the sector is of interest to the whole UK, it is an industry overwhelmingly centred in London.

So does this mean that London will vote to stay in the EU should the UK ever face an in-out vote on its EU membership? We should not overlook that while Londoners are more positive about the UK’s EU membership, this is hardly overwhelming. The same applied to Scotland where there are limits to how far support for the EU will go. As the earlier polling shows, just over 40% of Londoners and Scots disapprove of the UK’s EU membership. The London Mayoral and GLA elections of 2016 could coincide with a period of renegotiation of UK-EU relations, meaning the issue could be a live one in the elections. It is likely that if the UK government seeks to renegotiate the UK-EU relationship then one aim could be some concessions for ‘the City’. If granted then support of Londoners could be assured. Equally, should the EU try to crack down on London, or appear to turn against it then support for the EU could decline. 

Perhaps the most difficult situation would be if in a referendum London voted to remain within the EU while the rest of the UK, or more likely large areas of England, voted to withdraw. Some worry this could drive the Scots from the UK. It could also provoke long-standing complaints from London that the rest of the UK is a drain on its wealth and damaging its future. Londoners will likely resent being labelled “Little Englanders” when their city is – and voted to be – connected to the EU and outward looking. It could be that an in-out referendum helps to politicise London’s identity politics within the UK.

How likely this scenario is depends on how well entrenched Londoners opinions are about the EU. Given London’s strong international identity, it may be that support for ditching both the UK and the EU could grow. Despite London’s incredible power and place in British life, it remains an under-researched political space. Further work is necessary and highly likely given the Scottish referendum, growing English nationalism and the continuing accelerated growth of London.

Dr Tim Oliver is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Washington D.C. The opinions expressed here are his own.


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