Why London is a country hiding in plain sight

by Dr Tim Oliver

2 May 2018

London is the UK’s undiscovered country hiding in plain sight. Despite this, the way London is talked about and examined pays insufficient attention to how much it and the rest of the UK has changed. If we want to understand the modern UK, we need to better understand London.

The Shard London (Wikimedia Commons)

The Shard, London (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

‘London’ is referred to with little or no thought to what ‘London’ is or means

Frequently in UK political, policy or academic discussions ‘London’ is referred to with little or no thought to what ‘London’ is or means. More often than not, ‘London’ is shorthand for UK Government and/or Parliament, and thus the UK’s central political institutions located in and around Whitehall and Westminster. At other times it refers to the ‘City of London’, or even more lazily, to ‘the South’ of England. This all happens despite the area known as Greater London being both the UK’s most distinct and powerful part and a political space that is far more than the governing space of Westminster, Whitehall, or ‘the City’.

Understanding the ‘London bubble’

London’s distinctiveness from the rest of the UK is hardly a new thing. A long history exists of complaints about London becoming a foreign place. In recent decades, however, the gap between the UK and its capital city has grown and grown. The way we talk about London and study it, however, has not grown to keep up.

In politics there is a long-standing tradition of making accusations that the British elite live in a London bubble where power is largely concentrated, thanks to the UK’s centralised, majoritarian system. Yet, how can UK political science appreciate and assess such a claim and how any such ‘bubble’ shapes the UK if there is a failure to see London as more than Westminster/Whitehall and so examine the relationship between the rest of the UK and the 9 million people who live in the UK’s most distinct and economically and politically important region?

There is a wealth of valuable and long-standing work on London by geographers, sociologists, historians and journalists. In most London bookshops it is easy to find large sections dedicated to the many books about London. Political scientists, however, often overlook it, with a few notable exceptions (for example Tony Travers or efforts at Queen Mary University London to study London’s voters). Compared to studying or referencing developments such as those in Scotland or Northern Ireland, we seem to largely ignore the capital city. It is time for greater academic appreciation of London as the most distinct political space in the UK and for it to be studied as such.

London stands apart

On a wide range of measures London stands apart. Its population is the most diverse of any UK region or nation. Non-white and non-UK citizens make up a larger proportion of London’s population than anywhere else. While there are smaller cities and towns with diverse populations, London’s nearly 9 million citizens – larger than the 8.3 million who are Scots and Welsh – makes it the UK’s largest and most unique demographic space.

Economic powerhouse

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf (Credit: iStock)

Studying London’s place in the UK economy is now central to understanding the UK’s economic prospects

London’s economy towers over the rest of the UK. From 12 per cent of the UK’s population, London generates about 23 per cent of UK GDP. That economy is also the UK’s most diverse and resilient. London was hit hardest by the 2007 financial crisis (the cause of the crisis might even lie within it). It also rebounded quicker than anywhere else. This is because London is not just the big banks of ‘the City’ – indeed, the financial services industry itself is a multifaceted one, reflecting London’s English, British, European and international links. London’s economy is often portrayed as relying on banks and financial services, but it is the home to a variety of organisations and sources of employment, from large charities to builders and cleaners. That is why studying London’s place in the UK economy is now central to understanding the UK’s economic prospects.

The metropolis is also a global media and transport hub. Its tourism industry is by far the UK’s largest. It is a worldwide centre for design, IT, research and universities. Whether through the ‘flat white economy’ or the multinationals of ‘the City’, London has the UK’s most dynamic and productive economy. That is the extreme opposite to a large number of other areas of the UK. There have been numerous attempts to rebalance the UK economy away from London - and the South East - and repeated failures to do so. Analysis of the UK’s political economy requires an appreciation of how London’s needs might or might not affect it. 

Specific needs and policies

The urban geography of the metropolis means its needs and policies – whether in housing, transport, policing, energy, the environment, health, welfare and so forth – are on a scale and unlike those of any other region or political space in the UK. The politics in other UK regions and nations sees a constant balancing act between urban and rural, while in London the focus is entirely urban. London’s needs also include some of the worst extremes in the UK: the highest levels of inequality; chronic housing shortages; overloaded transport infrastructure; the largest numbers of immigrants; and unique security needs ranging from the large number of prominent terrorist targets and the copious amounts of dirty money flowing through the City to the everyday and low-level crime and policing issues. Because of London’s size, what happens to it can shape or warp wider UK policies.

What London lacks in the nationalist politics found in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and increasingly in other areas of England, it makes up for in its internationalism. According to the 2011 census, Londoners are the least likely in England to identify as English and the most likely in the UK to identify as British. London’s citizens tend to be younger than the national average and more highly-qualified. They also report being more liberal and more internationalist in their political preferences. In a country where a key emerging political dividing line is between social conservative and social liberal, London is the heart of the latter. Analysing London, and how the rest of the UK view it, provides important insights into the EU referendum result, how Brexit is unfolding, and the 2017 general election result.


City Hall (Credit: iStock)

What London lacks in constitutional powers as devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it makes up for in formal and informal political power in a variety of ways. Its sheer size means London’s concerns can (but not necessarily do) register more in the minds of decision makers. As a global city, and home to the UK’s diplomatic community, London can sometimes appear to have more in common with New York City or Tokyo than Birmingham or Aberdeen. Its own political actors and institutions wield varying levels of power, whether as the Mayor, the Greater London Assembly, or its 32 boroughs. Then there is the informal influence London has on the UK’s elite - whether because they make their homes and lives in places such as Notting Hill or St James’s, or because it is where the main UK-wide media, think tanks and civil society institutions are based.

Despite all this, study and analysis of growing differences within the UK focus on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England has received increasing attention, thanks in no small part to the work of such programmes as the British Academy’s Governing England project. Nevertheless, it is clear that analysis of the politics, economics or constitution of the UK too often overlooks London and sees it as shorthand for other things. The United Kingdom is often far more united than it is often given credit for, but it remains the case that the study of UK politics needs to reflect more closely on a capital city that is the UK’s undiscovered country hiding in plain sight.

Dr Tim Oliver is an Associate at LSE IDEAS and Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute. 

Find out more about the British Academy's project on devolution and governance in England


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