3 May 2012

The myth of “planet London”

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“London might as well be on a different planet from the rest of the country”. As voters in the capital go to the polls to elect a Mayor today, the statement above has become an increasingly popular meme in the national media (perhaps paradoxically as the media is often among the most London-centric areas of British life). The debate was sparked by Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange penning a “planet LondonSpectator cover essay looking at “the great divide between the capital and the country”.  Since then, commentators have piled in. John Harris of The Guardian argued that a “roped-off metropolitan mileu” was one of the “most poisonous legacies” of the Blair-Cameron era.

Ian Jack suggested that  “the wonder is that anti-metropolitan anger has been slow to find effective expression”. But how far does this growing media narrative about “planet London” stand up? Certainly, there are many distinctive things about London. O’Brien’s initial Spectator commentary offered a well informed and evidence-based guide to most of the key socio-economic differences. It is the largest city in Europe. The capital is richer, overall, though it contains wide internal inequalities.  Inexorably rising house prices have changed the city, a theme explored in John Lanchester’s novel Capital. Where the “planet London” media narrative may go too far is when it extends these socio-economic and demographic differences to build a claim that this underpins a very different London world view, which sets the capital apart from the rest of Britain.

This claim is usually that the capital now holds “metropolitan” values which are global, cosmopolitan and rootless, leaving national identity and allegiance behind. Such commentary sometimes lapses towards a miserabilist anti-London loathing. Professional controversialist Rod Liddle has blogged that “I’ve always found it a little hard to put into words why I don’t like London. It’s an inchoate thing, really, and something which is difficult to express. But I don’t like the place and resent having to go there every so often. I suppose, at root, it’s because there are very few people like me living there.”  Sometimes, champions of London’s diversity  offer a surprisingly similar mirror account, celebrating just how cosmopolitan and different it is from everywhere else. London is more ethnically diverse than the rest of the UK. (London does remain two-thirds white; though it may, perhaps, contain too few people like Rod Liddle in some other respects).

Londoners are less likely to want immigration reduced, though they are joined by Scots in this, as Oxford University’s Migration Observatory has reported. But this theme of “planet London” is very easily exaggerated. If the “planet London” claim about a distinctive London worldview were true, we would expect to observe it in evidence across a range of other public attitudes. A “planet London” effect would show up in two ways: there would be large differences in how Londoners think about national identity, allegiance and pride, rejecting traditional attitudes to these topics which matter to most people across England and elsewhere in Britain. In return, we might well also expect most people across the UK to reject any identification or association with London, as nothing much to do with them anymore, and to express a growing sense of resentment and grievance instead. YouGov’s polling on identity for British Future’s new This Sceptred Isle publication offers little evidence to back up what the “planet London” thesis would anticipate. The poll of 1479 respondents in England included 196 Londoners, as part of a 2400 UK-wide sample.  This fairly small regional sample suggests caution about any overly firm conclusions, but there is little support here for the idea that Londoners think very differently about either English or British identities from other people in England.

Rather than resenting London, most non-Londoners say that they are proud of it. Against those tests, a “planet London” theory doesn’t stand up. Perhaps it isn’t very surprising  that Londoners are particularly proud of London.  90% of Londoners say that London makes them proud to be English, while 8% say it doesn’t. But that sense of English pride in London is also shared by a strong majority of 73% across England, expressed by 78% in the rest of the south, by 69% of people in the Midlands, and by a clear majority of northerners (63%) too. Those regional north-south differences do show that “pride in London”, while shared by most people, is less unifying than other aspects of English pride. 24% are either not very proud or not at all proud of London, which is a larger negative minority score than for the Queen (17%), Shakespeare (11%), the Lake District (11%) or the countryside (5%).  So English pride in London (held by 73% to 24%) appears to be, like Welsh pride in Cardiff (75% to 21%) somewhat more contentious than Scottish pride in Edinburgh (86% to 13%). But the poll does not suggest fear and loathing of London across the rest of England: only 7% of people are “not at all proud” of London, rising to 9% in the north and the Midlands. That is fewer than half of those in the north (20%) and the midlands (27%) who declare themselves “very proud” of London.  Across England, overall, it is striking that people express more pride in London as a source of English pride than they do in their national sporting teams, which score 68% for pride, while leaving 28% unenthusiastic.

Londoners also reciprocate this warmth towards the capital by expressing fairly similar levels of pride in less metropolitan English icons. 64% of Londoners told YouGov that Yorkshire pudding makes them proud to be English, compared to 67% across England, and 70% in the north.  79% of Londoners are proud of the Lake District (compared to 85% overall) and 89% of Londoners expressed pride in the countryside (compared to 92% across England). Londoners were marginally more likely to express pride in Shakespeare (92% versus 86% across England) and the English language (91% versus 89%) as sources of English pride.

*** What may be a bigger problem for the “planet London” theory is that, overall, the attitudes evidence suggests that inhabitants of “planet London” think fairly similarly about identity and nationality to people across England. As English, Scottish and Welsh respondents were asked about those national identities, most of these findings compare London attitudes with others in England, though all respondents were also asked questions about British identity and the British flag. 80% of London respondents associate the Union Jack with pride and patriotism, as do 80% of people across England (and 78% across Britain overall). The association of the Union Jack with democracy and tolerance resonated with 55% of Londoners, scoring between 53-55% across the north, midlands and south. Londoners (34%) were not more likely to associate the Union flag with modern, diverse Britain than the English overall (37%), with similar results in the north (34%) and the south (38%) and a mildly higher response in the Midlands (42%).

In this poll, Londoners did express a slightly stronger British and slightly weaker English identity than others in England. But the most popular answer “equally English and British” was the response of 43% in London, 44% in the north, 42% in the midlands and 44% in the South. 26% of Londoners gave priority to their English identity (compared to 37% overall), including 12% who said they were “English not British”, compared to 19% across England. Londoners were a little more likely to give priority to their British identity, with 19% of Londoners doing so, compared to 14% overall in England, partly reflecting the stronger priority given to Britishness given by non-white respondents. A similar proportion of Londoners (61%) expressed pride in the St George’s Flag as across England overall (61%), with the north trailing very slightly (58%) and the midlands marginally ahead (63%). Londoners were more likely to associate the flag of St George with racism and extremism (33%), compared to 24% across England as a whole, with this being a concern for 22% in the north, 23% in the midlands and 24% in the south outside London. On questions comparing the importance of ethnic or civic understandings of English identity, London attitudes were only mildly more “civic” than those elsewhere in England. A slim majority of Londoners did reject the idea it was important to have parents born in England to be English (by 43% to 51%) while a majority across England (56% to 41% said this was important). On this, Londoners gave a stronger “civic” belonging answer than Scots, where 52% of Scots said it was important to have Scottish-born parents to be Scottish, with 45% disagreeing. Scots were more likely to reject the importance of being white to national identity, with only 13% saying this was important. 21% of Londoners think it is important to be white to be English, along with 22% across England, with no large difference between the rest of the south (22%), the midlands (23%) or the north (24%), or between white (22%) and non-white (21%) respondents as to the proportion of respondents who gave an ethnic definition where being white mattered.

*** We may well hear more about “planet London” during the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games in the capital. The “planet London” theory would suggest indifference across the regions and nations of Britain at the prospect of a London party. Yet British Future’s earlier State of the Nation poll, conducted by Ipsos-Mori, which asked respondents about whether the Olympics and the Jubilee would lift the national mood as we looked ahead to 2012 found something different. It  found that the Olympic spirit was strongest of all in the west midlands, where 75% felt it would have a positive effect on the mood of the British public, a view shared by 64% across Britain, and 63% in the host city itself. Londoners, perhaps worrying about overcrowded tubes, were more likely to be curmudgeons – with 15% of Londoners joining 15% of Scots in saying the Olympics would be bad for the national mood, compared to 11% across Britain.

The polling found was more enthusiasm in the rest of England (66%) than in London, with slimmer majorities anticipating a positive mood boost in Wales (57%) and Scotland (50%). The good news is that the London Olympics won’t be taking place on a different planet after all. Local crowds greeting the procession of the torch around Britain may gradually be building shared ownership of the Games. When London welcomes the rest of the world to celebrate the Games, the rest of Britain may well consider itself invited.

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