No escape from Mammon? The Shard, near London Bridge. Photo: Cityscape Digital
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Leader: The London question

The capital’s economic dominance ensures that investing in it will produce a higher return than in other regions and makes it difficult to justify investing elsewhere. This logic merely tightens London’s stranglehold. 

The referendum on Scottish independence is not a vote about Scotland,” Danny Dorling writes in his essay on page 26. “It is a vote about London.” More than for any other comparable European country, the capital of the United Kingdom – Europe’s only true megacity – dominates national life. With just 13 per cent of the population, London produces 22 per cent of the UK’s wealth; through major projects such as Crossrail, it swallows a disproportionate share of its infrastructure funding. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that per-capita transport spending in London is 500 times as much as that in the north-east of England.

London’s economic dominance ensures that investing in the capital will produce a higher return than doing so in other regions. That makes it difficult to justify investing elsewhere. This logic merely tightens London’s stranglehold. Consequently, when the Yes Scotland campaign warns Scots of the dangers of voting No, it makes references to being ruled not by the English but by London. Indeed, in his New Statesman lecture in March, Alex Salmond likened London to a dark star, “inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”.

On the question of the north-south divide, it is tempting to view the UK as a rich country in which only a few de­industrialised regions have fallen behind. However, it is London and its wealth that are the true outliers. New figures from Inequality Briefing showed that Britain has nine of the ten poorest areas in the whole of northern Europe. In parts of Wales and in Cornwall, the average income is less than £14,000 a year: once living costs are taken into account, this leaves residents poorer than many in the former communist states of eastern Europe.

Inner London, by contrast, is the single richest region in Europe. If our leaders and the deracinated plutocrats who gather in the capital seem unconcerned about the relative poverty of much of Britain, it is because they live within the walls of Versailles.

This is not only iniquitous; it is potentially disastrous for the rest of the country. It puts increasing pressure on housing stock in the south-east of England, driving up prices and leaving many of us ever more addicted to debt. It raises the cost of doing business in London, rendering the capital increasingly uncompetitive, while draining skills and expertise from other regions. It forces people to commute ever longer distances to work and leaves them captives of our train companies. Worst of all, it makes the national economy especially vulnerable to global financial shocks.

The leaders of both major parties are belatedly discussing devolving power from Westminster to the English regions and additional powers to the other nations of the UK. The main cities, meanwhile, are being encouraged to follow London’s example and set up combined authorities: resurrected versions of the old metropolitan counties, back from the dead to plot grand regional infrastructure plans.

However, all these plans are built on the assumption that the Treasury will retain ultimate control of the purse strings. New powers would be exercised only on sufferance from Westminster. It is unclear, too, whether political devolution will be enough to solve the problem of London’s dominance, without incentives to encourage private investors to invest in the regions. That might require some kind of regional banking system such as exists in Germany.

Professor Dorling proposes a different path: a return to the sort of government intervention that has been unfashionable for a generation. He favours more regulation of private rental markets; more publicly funded housebuilding; and changes to land use rules, such as the greenbelt. It would require having a plan for London. “The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally. It reacts rather than instigates,” he writes.

If we are serious about reducing London’s stranglehold over the United Kingdom, trusting to the free market will never be enough. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.