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18 December 2020

Why the simplistic bashing of London needs to end

Many of the attacks on and resentment towards “London” aren’t about the city and the people who live there at all. 

By Jonn Elledge

It isn’t easy being a Londoner sometimes. OK, you’ve got the culture, the restaurants, the transport network, plus all the other benefits of a major world city which has experienced several decades of central government favouritism. On the other hand, you can now find yourself paying £6 a pint, while the price of a bed for a month in what was clearly the living room of a house shared by four strangers will set you back a hundred times that, and, more saliently for the topic of today’s sermon, everyone is constantly horrible about you.

The big meanie this week is Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who on Tuesday morning (15 December) decided he fancied some retweets and expressed his displeasure at the way the Financial Times was covering the interaction between Covid-19 and the economy. The decision to move London back into the stricter tier three had “put business in despair”, the paper’s front page declared. “The very same curbs put business in despair across the North,” Burnham tweeted, “but why only now is it headline news?”

I don’t want to overstate how unreasonable Burnham was being: our predominantly London-based media does have a nasty habit of only treating stories as important when they’re happening in the capital. The summer of 2018 was festooned with “Chaos on the railway”-style headlines, after a timetable change caused a meltdown on the cross-London Thameslink network. The meltdown on Northern Rail over the same period was referenced too, which delighted and baffled northern commuters in equal measure, since that one had already been going on for months and nobody inside the M25 seemed to have noticed.

[See also: The real problem with Northern Rail is the government, not the train companies

Meanwhile, Saddleworth Moor, a dozen miles east of central Manchester, spent much of that same summer on fire. But London didn’t notice that either. I just googled to check when those fires had taken place, only to find out the moor had spent part of this summer on fire too. It feels telling that, until then, I had no idea.

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So I don’t want to go in too hard on Burnham. I, alas, do not command the internet, which went in hard nonetheless, with vast numbers of people pointing out that Manchester’s lockdown had been headline news, and had received coverage on the front of multiple newspapers. Burnham’s defence of his position, as tweeted to the journalist Chaminda Jayanetti, was that “those headlines are not about business impact and need for business support”, which feels like a pretty fine distinction. A better question might have been whether the papers would have still led on that story if it had concerned Sheffield or Newcastle, rather than the more widely feted Manchester – but for obvious reasons that isn’t a question Burnham has any particular interest in asking.

At any rate – he was wrong. Perhaps he hadn’t seen those headlines. Perhaps he genuinely thought they were qualitatively different. But Occam’s razor suggests that he knew there were political points to be scored in him bashing “London”, and the media does have a long history of ignoring the north, so why not? Fires up the base, doesn’t it?

My objection isn’t to Burnham’s criticism of the government and the media for their coverage of the north, but with that word: “London”. When used by those who want to sneer, “London” often doesn’t refer to a city or its inhabitants. It refers instead to, variously, Westminster, Whitehall, the Conservative Party, the Home Counties, the establishment, or the ruling class. In 2016, I recall an acquaintance confidently telling me that the north would save the UK from London’s Brexit. Without buying into the media’s equally fallacious portrayal of all northerners as pro-Brexit and a little bit racist, that was not how things turned out.

[See also: Have we reached peak London?]

The real London has benefited from media attention and government investment that, yes, the rest of the country would kill for. But it also has two of the ten most deprived boroughs in England, and three more in the top 10 per cent of the most deprived boroughs. The real London’s cultural and professional opportunities are balanced by precarity, air pollution and a cost of living that means even relatively good wages leave you with a much lower quality of life than you’d get elsewhere in the country, not to mention a vastly smaller home in which to enjoy it. 

The real London is populated largely by people from elsewhere in the UK, too – people who might have travelled home to their families this Christmas, making how London has handled the pandemic and lockdown relevant to the rest of the country in a way Middlesbrough’s response is not. More than a third of Londoners were born outside the UK, and fewer than half are white British. This is not a comment on Burnham, but nonetheless: attacks on London can, if you’re not careful, read uncomfortably like nativist attacks on diversity and change.

[See also: As London enters tier three, household mixing over Christmas could prove disastrous]

None of this is to deny that London does get attention and investment out of proportion to its size (though since something like a fifth of the UK population live within its orbit, perhaps not to the extent that people sometimes think). Nor is it to deny that this country needs to rebalance its economy away from the capital (a change, incidentally, that would benefit Londoners by levelling out house prices and giving them options).

But it does mean that a lot of the attacks on and resentment towards “London” aren’t really about the city and the people who live there at all. And if you really want to change things, it helps to know who the enemy is.

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