The day after the Brexit referendum result, a tag started trending on London Twitter: #Londependence. London, like Scotland, had voted overwhelmingly to Remain.
Nine months on, and with Article 50 triggered, Scotland’s #indyref2 is in the news again. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will hold a second referendum on independence, and that this time the result will be “Yes”. The scale of the Brexit betrayal, and the clear disregard in which Theresa May holds the people of Scotland, will ensure that. But what of London?
London has more people than Scotland. It has a much larger economy. And, like Scotland, it voted 62–38 to Remain in the European Union. So, why could it not become independent? The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who is turning out to be one of the stars of the Bremain crowd, wrote this article in the London Evening Standard advocating a future for London as an independent city state within the EU. This essay is a slightly closer look at how Londependence might work…
The word is Londependence. It’s not, please note, necessarily “London Independence” — although Londependence is an obvious portmanteau of that phrase. Londependence, like London, is something unique. A new form of codependent relationship with its hinterland, with the country of which it is the capital city — although more on that capital status later. Londependence could be something like Devo-Max for London; it could also be complete independence — but not separation. Whatever its form, sovereignty must always stem from Londoners.
London has always had a special relationship with the rest of the country. Its position at the first bridge over the great waterway that is its access to Europe and a sheltered harbour ensured that it was important to the Romans and, six hundred years after they left, it was where William the Bastard built his castle. To control a nation, you have to control its trade, London controlled much of the nation’s trade, so William needed to control London. But it was not always welcome. William built not a palace but a fortress in London, to impose his power and to protect his court from the London mob. The Tower was a prison, a mark of royal power, and the relationship with London’s guilds was one of compromise and privilege, recognised a hundred and fifty years later in Magna Carta itself. The royal court was never really at home in London, becoming established instead a little further upstream, outside the city walls, at Westminster.
The vibrant spirit of London, its trading dynamic, its connection to the world has spread, grown, transformed and is reflected in London’s people, the most multicultural people in the world. More than three hundred languages are spoken in London — no other city in the world comes close. The old London mob often rioted against incomers, whether they were Jew or Huguenot, jealous of their privileges. But London learned that people moving here make the city great. It is our greatest strength, and those natives for whom it was all too much moved out, abandoning the city and taking their prejudices with them. Their loss, not ours. The old London natives were Cockneys, born within the sound of Bow Bells. Londoners, however, are much more diverse. To become a Londoner, all you have to do is arrive with the right frame of mind, as Dick Whittington did, to find your fortune. The born-and-bred is no more and no less a Londoner than the newest arrival.
This openness, London’s strength, is what we fear is threatened by the new spirit of hostility abroad in the land. Migrants are our lifeblood, and if the flow is choked off our city will lose its magic. We have always been open to the world, particularly but not only to Europe, the great continent on our doorstep. London has thrived within the European Union, because the Union’s commitment to the free movement of people plays to London’s strengths.
The old London of one Square Mile was bounded by city walls, long since destroyed and buried, its existence today marked only by the occasional pair of gryphons where once were gates. The new London, too, has a boundary: the M25, the great circular car-park. London’s influence spreads beyond that of course, but it provides a neat geographical line across which the practicalities of Londependence will play out. London, as an open city, will welcome everyone; but non-London, the rest of England, outside the tarmac ring, asserts its desire to control its borders. With this we must — if we are to make Londependence work — come to some accommodation. Millions commute each day from outside these muros platos, to work in London, most of them by train, along rail networks already suffused with the omnipresent surveillance camera. It is neither practical nor necessary that each journey should be checked and passports verified. The M25 cannot be, in the jargon of the moment, a “hard border”. Let us look instead not at the border but on the rights of people to live, work and settle either side of it; and we accept that there may be some who we would choose but you Englanders would refuse. It is up to you to work out how you would keep them out, but they are welcome here, within the ring.
We, in London, would make our own laws and keep the taxes that we raise. As old London did, we are willing to pay for our privileges by continuing to contribute to the prosperity of England, by agreeing a share of the tax take that you could topslice. We will, first of all, impose a fairer system of taxes on the value of our land, in which so much of our city’s wealth resides. This is the resource we will use to fund our infrastructure, the construction of which increases the value of the land that surrounds it.
As a leader in financial innovation, London will aim to become the world’s first entirely cashless megacity. We will trade with our smartphones rather than paper money.
We will build a new electrically-powered delivery network, replacing the dirty diesel white vans with clean electric vehicles bringing the stuff we need to our homes and work places; and we will in time outlaw the use of the internal combustion engine anywhere within our boundaries.
London — or rather, Westminster — is the nation’s capital. That can continue with Londependence. We will continue to let England meet and hold their parliaments in Westminster, which will become a little enclave of England within a londependent London. We might, however, think about taking over Buckingham Palace and in particular its gardens, adding them to our great network of parks which we shall develop and enhance so that London becomes the world’s first National Park City.
There is much to do to flesh out this idea, to champion Londependence and to keep London developing in its own way as the world’s greatest city. But it is time to start, because the alternative of being closed down by Little England is too awful to contemplate.