Dave Hill: National Politics and the Great Suppression of London
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer delivered their big speeches this week from the same corner of a capital whose importance to the nation they both prefer not to acknowledge
Ever since a backbench MP named Boris Johnson, whom some of you may remember, led the Conservative Party to a major general election victory just over three years ago, much of the UK has been emboldened to believe that its capital is in favor of it is responsible for almost a quarter of the country’s economic output and has a habit of exporting over £30 billion in taxes to other parts of the country each year is indeed a parasite on the people and a place to despise.
The very word “London” has served as a versatile abbreviation for “Things To Be Against”, be it “Remoaners” or “North-Side Divide” or “Metropolitan elite” or a criminal “Third World shithole” full of immigrants. The power of these populist hoaxes has convinced the leaders of our two main political parties that London is a place and Londoners are a people best ignored in the search for electoral advantage, save for the temporary exploitation of all this prejudice against them.
This bipartisan consensus that the capital is at best an insignificance and at worst a monster to be tamed was made clear in this week’s speeches by the leaders of our two main political parties, one of which is a prime minister who is very likely to be losing the fight against him to gain support – and that only with his own MPs – the other an opposition leader whose road to No10 involves long and conspicuously sympathetic stops in places like Darlington and Stoke.
The political geography of our great nation is such that it is stagnant and falling apart, that the corner that still does most to keep the whole place going is eagerly excluded from the prospectuses for national renewal. So how entertaining is it that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer chose their New Year’s presentations from Here East, the innovation campus at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Britain’s most successful example of government-sponsored urban regeneration, ingenuity and ambition of this century.
Starmer’s speech confirmed that Labor, under his leadership, finally knows what their top priority should be – winning a general election – and how to do it. Sunak tried the previous day to reconnect his frayed and soiled party with optimism and skill. Both men have done a good job of doing what they have to do, but underscored that they are effectively declaring to the country that the UK can recover from the damage caused by Covid and Brexit and “repair” decades-old regional productivity imbalances without a revived capital.
As chancellor under Johnson, Sunak presented a budget in which London was hardly mentioned except as an object of displeasure. Labour’s latest document on Renewing Democracy mentioned London almost 100 times, but mainly to help re-use old, familiar images of grievances from the North. Starmer’s speech yesterday reiterated his promising ideas for bolder decentralization along with the sensible, if somewhat opaque, observation that “if the South East goes ahead, ‘redistribution’ cannot be the one-word plan for the rest of Britain”. But it lacked even an implicit acknowledgment that without the economic strength of London and the South East, the investment needed to reduce the rest of Britain’s dependence on the region is not forthcoming for the time being.
Both men are certainly aware of the importance of London’s continued economic strength for the entire country. Both have their reasons for claiming the opposite. None will succeed in rejuvenating the UK unless they help London stay strong.
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