London is a bad thing. Everybody knows this now. Britain has had enough of London. Ed Miliband failed in part because he was ‘too north London’ (euphemism) and Chuka Umunna would fail just the same because he is too south London (euphemism). According to one commentator, Britain’s capital is now a ‘Guardianista colony’; filled with the ‘petty moralism’ of the ‘cultural’ elite.
According to another — in the Guardian no less; no fan of his own colony, this guy — this is a city of glass and steel, so different from northern cities of ‘brick and hard stone’, and it produces in his northern soul a sense of ‘cultural alienation’. This, right now, is Britain’s big story. London is soulless and smug, and finally getting its comeuppance for the full half-century it has spent forcing everywhere else to dance to its selfish bloody tune. This is what I keep hearing, and I just don’t know where the hell these people think they’re even talking about.
You may tell me that I know nothing of Britain outside London. I’ll fight you on the point, given that I grew up in one part of not-London and spent many years living in another, although it may not be a fight I’d nowadays win. But you will not tell me I know nothing of London, and the London I know largely gives glass and steel a miss. Over most of it, terraces sprawl. So many terraces that Stephen King, the horror writer, once wrote a scary story about just how damn scary and endless our sprawling terraces were. They stop where bombs once carved dimples out of the land, and concrete sprouted like fungus in a wound. And they are full, these terraces and concrete sprouts, of people who keep a little bit of their heart somewhere else. You cannot be out of touch with Britain in London, for all of Britain is here. Often it plans to one day go home again, but probably never will.
Paul Mason, he of Channel 4 News and the cultural alienation up above, wrote also of the ‘tennis-club belt around London’. It may exist — I only really leave this city to the north — but it is a place as different from London itself as it is from any other part of Britain. Much of London is not rich at all, and even most of the wealthy bits are not remotely of the tennis-club sort. I mean, Wimbledon is, obviously. And Putney. And a whole pizza slice going south-west, in fact, from Chelsea on out. On an electoral map, though, that’s but a small blue sliver. It is not this city’s soul.
For the most part, even London’s wealth has a beard and wants to buy an electric car. In Britain at large, Labour got 31 per cent of the vote. In London, it got 44 per cent, a higher percentage than even Tony Blair got across the UK in 1997.
Think about that. This is a city that voted for its own mansion tax. This is a city which actively voted to drive away rich foreigners who might want to live here, and to reduce the value of its own housing stock. This is a city which heard the rest of Britain complain about how rich it was, and how that wealth should be redistributed, and thought, ‘Yup, that seems fair.’ And sure, quite a lot of Labour-voting London, particularly in its richer bits, will have voted Labour in the fervent secret hope that Labour didn’t win. Still, though. That’s what it did.
I could understand why the south-east and shires might loathe London after that, only they don’t seem to. What I struggle to comprehend is why everywhere else does. Indeed, the places that seem to now loathe London the most are also the places which seem to be the most like London in soul and spirit. Glasgow is remarkably Londonish these days and getting ever more so. Manchester feels like it ought to be one of those new stops on the orange East London line, somewhere between Shadwell and New Cross. You could swap Birmingham and Southwark around and nobody would notice the difference.
If I were of the left, I’d be showing London a bit more love right now. Most of all, I’d work hard to prevent the term ‘champagne socialist’ from being a slur. Allow it to become one and you’re basically giving a free pass to anybody who has champagne to drink it all themselves.
Post-election, though, and particularly in relation to Labour’s sudden identity crisis, you can feel the way the rhetorical winds are blowing. You’d think that relatively rich people who wanted a relatively fairer society would be considered broadly a good thing, even if they are called Tristram, but no. Labour seems on the verge of copying the Ukip fallacy that ‘metropolitan’ is a dirty word. Even though one quick look at what actually happens in Britain’s major metropolis these days really ought to convince it otherwise.
One day, London might actually turn into the city that its detractors think it already is. Its many, many Tristrams, Chukas, Eds and Stellas will look at the rest of Britain and reflect upon the sneering disdain in which they are still held, despite having all the wealth and constantly clamouring to be allowed to give it away. And they will think, ‘You know what? Sod this.’ And thereafter the whole area inside the M25 will look like that vast lake in the middle of Northern Ireland. Blue as blue can be.
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Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
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