Should London + England Break Up? - OZY | A Modern Media Company


A lone-star London could usher in a brave new world in which national boundaries reflect modern realities rather than historical ties.

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

By train, London is just two hours away from the northern English city of Leeds, but it feels like a trip to another country. London’s streets are bursting with sushi bars, Leeds’s with fried chicken takeaways. London has one of the finest city transport systems in the world, while Leeds is the largest metropolis in Western Europe without a mass transit system. In the City of London, with its hordes of suits, you can almost smell capitalism. In Leeds, left-wing community groups gather regularly to protest ever-increasing government cuts introduced by those London suits.

This disparity does not only apply to Leeds; it could just as easily be applied to most regional British cities. London’s wealth, multiculturalism, commercial competitiveness and social identity create a potentially unbridgeable divide. Residents of British towns outside of London have little reason to identify with the mega-city, and Londoners struggle to relate to those outside the capital. So why not amicably part ways?

Economically, London is a towering force. In 2012, it generated 22.4 percent of national output with just 12.9 percent of the population. While London experienced a recession alongside the rest of the country, its impacts were relatively minimal. London had a growth rate of 12.5 percent between 2007 and 2011 — twice that of the rest of Britain.

The new country would be an independent city state, bearing a resemblance to Singapore.

Many argue that other parts of the U.K. are driven forward by London, but Tony Travers, director of LSE London, a research center at the London School of Economics, describes the city as “the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy.” In other words, London’s economy stifles other cities.

In 2012, London is estimated to have attracted 45 percent of the U.K.’s foreign direct investment. The symbiosis between the City of London and Westminster concentrates political attention on high-flying industries at the cost of low-skilled workers elsewhere. Professional opportunity is concentrated in the capital because top businesses and universities are headquartered in London, but vertiginously rising house prices and living costs essentially shut out those with moderate, non-City incomes. 

Given that London is already in many ways a distinct entity from the rest of the U.K., there is a rising chorus suggesting that it be made official. The question of Scottish independence may be dominating the current discussion but perhaps the capital should be next.

Boris, left in background with Ken, right, as Brian is in foreground speaking

Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick give speeches after Boris Johnson wins the London vote for mayor.

Source Corbis

Back in 2000, London became the first city in the U.K. to directly elect its own mayor. Ken Livingstone, the capital’s first mayor, expressed support for a “Republic of London,” and the current mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested the introduction of a ”London visa” to fast-track the best and brightest from around the world into the British capital. It’s also a popular topic among London’s bloggers.

The new country would be an independent city state, bearing a resemblance to Singapore. Since becoming independent from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has implemented a distinctive free trade economic model, becoming one of the world’s most prosperous cities in stark contrast to its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Just sharing a house isn’t a good enough reason to continue a relationship — it may well be time for an amicable divorce.

Similarly, should London leave the United Kingdom, it could build its economic policy around the vast financial power of the City, which would increase its exchange rate and borrowing costs, giving the rest of the island a competitive edge. Second-tier cities could reconfigure their economic policy and build effective transport links that serve a range of cities equally. For the dissatisfied communities in the north of England, it would surely be a relief to see power taken out of the hands of Whitehall millionaires and given to regional leaders who better understand their circumstances.

If London took this step, other global capitals could follow. Many have raised the possibility of an Independent Republic of New York, Hong Kong may once again shake off Chinese control and giants like Tokyo and Mexico City could question what their countries are doing for them.

For London and Britain, ties of history and proximity, not to mention membership in the European Union, would ensure that the relationship between different sections of the island remained close. But just sharing a house isn’t a good enough reason to continue a relationship — it may well be time for an amicable divorce.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories