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From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?
From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?

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1 The (peculiar) case of London

The tensions associated with those places like London which are identified as global city regions are continuing ones. Are they part of the nation states in which they find themselves or better understood through their connections within wider networks? These questions are still more intense when the city – as in the case of London – has been the metropolitan centre of an imperial project, remains a capital city and is at the centre of an extensive urban mega-region. Since the referendum, some have begun to argue that London needs to be understood as a political territory in its own right, positioned within a global network. Others by contrast have complained about its role in stunting development possibilities elsewhere in the UK.

Activity 1 London as a city state

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

In an article published in the Evening Standard David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, argued that London should be recognised as a ‘city state’.

Read David Lammy’s article by clicking on the link below and then return here to answer the following question.

What are the main points that David Lammy makes in setting out his view of the special position of London?

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David Lammy quite explicitly (if not entirely convincingly) sets out to equate London’s position with that of Scotland, both in introducing his argument and concluding it. He cannot, of course, point to a continuing national story for London along the lines that are apparent in Scotland, but he does point to a historical record of past city states. He suggests that the position of London in a changed global context opens up new possibilities. He mobilises the language of devolution and stresses how different London is from the rest of the UK. It recorded a 60% Remain vote and has an economic base that runs counter to the visions he identifies with Brexit, that is, ‘smalltown conservatism, resurgent nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment’. In this context, of course, the nationalism to which he is referring is that of England (or the UK), rather than that of Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

Lammy identifies particular priorities for the emergent city state – increased tax raising powers and separate visa arrangements to enable labour migration to London, even as controls are imposed elsewhere. He stresses what he sees as the need for huge investment to meet London’s housing crisis and the need for policies to challenge the sharp divide between the (sometimes very) rich and poor in the city. From David Lammy’s perspective, London is already a de facto city state even if the institutional arrangements are lagging behind. And he argues that it will become increasingly necessary to recognise this. For good measure, even as he identifies London’s special status, he suggest that the tax raised in London provides a crucial underpinning for social spending elsewhere in the UK. In other words, he argues that money is being extracted from London that should be spent in the city.

David Lammy’s (2017) position is not one that has been taken up consistently as a policy option. There is little active interest in any major new institutional settlement for London. But the general direction of his argument, with its stress on the special status of London, is a powerful one. In his article he refers to a report prepared by the London Finance Commission (which advises the Mayor of London). It was titled Devolution: A Capital Idea (London Finance Commission, 2017) and made a strong case for increased tax raising powers to be transferred to London as a base for investing in transport and other infrastructure as well as housing. Again, a direct reference is made to Wales and Scotland, with the claim that, ‘The precedent for the sub-national operation of tax and equalisation has already been met’ (in this context at least, for the authors of the report take the UK as the nation in question although, of course, that may be understood rather differently from a Welsh and Scottish perspective; 2017, p. 10). London is presented as a possible model for wider devolution in England, particularly in the context of initiatives to create combined authorities and elect mayors for the country’s city regions.

From this perspective London is understood to be a major (maybe the major) metropolitan centre of the UK – the UK’s only global city. In some discussions it feels as if London is somehow floating free in a globalised world, only touching down reluctantly because of the crude expectations and requirements of material existence. But that understates the depth and significance of its connections to the rest of the UK, as well as the role of London in shaping uneven development beyond its borders. The sets of relations through which the city region is defined have a range of consequences – negative as much as positive – for the ways in which uneven development is maintained and generated across the UK. In the next section you will begin to reflect on the implications of recognising that role.