What Britain gets wrong about its Capital City is how the book is subtitled, but it’s also about what London gets wrong about what the rest of the UK thinks about London.
Written by Jack Brown, who is also a Lecturer in London Studies at King’s College London, the book has a somewhat academic style, presenting facts and arguments backed up by a lot of footnotes.
It is however a very useful collection of facts and arguments about why London isn’t the evil sucking monster draining the rest of the UK dry, but also why having a city as dominant as London has become is also not that good for the rest of the UK.
London’s great accident was that Westminster and the City were separate cities that later merged, and while the City helped London’s trading wealth to grow, it didn’t have a monopoly on trade, with Glasgow and Liverpool later rivalling the Capital in trade.
London’s streets were never paved with gold, but the rumour of great wealth for Londoners has never died out. That the Capital contains some of the poorest parts of the UK is an inconvenient fact that people try to overlook when presenting anti-London arguments.
The great unknown today is whether the government’s levelling up agenda is designed to make other cities richer by being better, or richer by making London poorer. One is going to make the UK as a whole better off, and one leads to economic stagnation.
The headline-grabbing ideas of moving civil servants out of London has long been dismissed as a bad idea, mainly as it shifts money from A to B and doesn’t lead to more wealth being created for the UK as a whole.
Various UK governments have experimented with shifting people out of London in the past. We should remember that between WW2 and the Falklands War, London’s population was shrinking as a consequence of government planning. The decay in public transport in the 1970s and early 1980s was mainly because it’s difficult to argue for investment in a service that looked like it might not be needed in a decade or two.
The surge in London’s population over the past 40 years wasn’t because of government interference, but the exact opposite as it took a more hands-off approach to managing the Capital, and 20 years ago returned a degree of centralised power it had accumulated to a locally elected Mayor.
The current government seems determined to undo that hands-off approach, but to what end?
The UK is already one of the most centralised governments in the Western world, and arguably, what helped London was to have a local government covering a large conurbation, with modest powers but with enough political clout to persuade.
That’s a model that’s slowly being developed in other cities at last, and if the levelling up agenda means stronger regional economies, then everyone benefits.
Will surging economies elsewhere lead to less carping about London though?
Where the book might be weakest is that it presents the facts, and does so succinctly and effectively, but the difficulty with political debates are that facts support the debate, but the debate is rarely won because of the facts.
People will more often than not decide on the emotions raised by the debater.
It can after all be understandable when people living in less well off parts of the UK look at London through the prism of only seeing the financial City and the ceremonial heart of Westminster they will see a city full of wealth that they feel is denied to them.
The poor in London are as hidden away as they are in most situations across the world.
The book notes that one of the few times that people outside of London felt fondly about Londoners was during the Blitz when so much of the city was destroyed and Londoners shared in the misery of war.
However, all the facts in the book about how the UK as a whole would be worse off if the levelling up agenda results in lowering London isn’t going change minds.
I have enough experience of writing about London to know that one mention of an upgrade locally will inevitably lead to someone on social media commenting that the North is losing out. And even if you present facts that this is entirely London funded, or that it’s less than is being spent in their region, the facts don’t change minds.
You only have to sit on the sidelines of the HS2 debate to see how facts about what the railway is for barely register with the anti-lobby. Likewise for the modern bane of covid-deniers, climate change deniers, etc. Facts don’t matter.
It doesn’t help either that Mayors of other cities repeatedly take pot-shots, often based on incorrect facts at London — the soundbites win them elections after all.
And that’s why the facts matter less than trying to find an emotional argument, preferably one that doesn’t involve a repeat of WW2.
That said, if you want a book packed full of useful soundbites, supported by footnotes for when your facts are challenged at the dinner table, or want to get a clearer understanding of the issues, then this is a refreshingly digestible book to read.