The Problems of Living with Capital-ism

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, May 5th 2012

London is ‘the world city’ of these isles, a place which attracts and pulls talents from across the UK and the world: on a par with New York, Paris and Tokyo.

Yet the London love-in of our political classes, media and business elites is fast pushing things to breaking point.

We have had to endure Boris v. Ken as if it were a national contest, and this week the militarisation of the London Olympics and Heathrow chaos have dominated the airwaves.

As UK politics and society increasingly fragment and become more diverse, the London classes have dramatically narrowed their notion of the UK to their golden city. London has increasingly become the UK and sometimes even reduced further to the concerns of the narrow corridor of Westminster and the City of London.

The Olympic military operation signifies a fundamental change in how Britain puts on big occasions. We have seen a full-scale military exercise, ‘Operation Olympic Garden’ across the city. In summer, 13,500 troops will be deployed along with RAF Typhoons, helicopters, Royal Marine snipers, surface to air missiles on civilian buildings, and the Royal Navy’s biggest ship, HMS Ocean.

A total of £1 billion will be spent on Olympic security, Scottish Police will contribute hundreds of police, and Strathclyde Police will spend £3 million of public money on the games. All to aid London achieving a military security lockdown unprecedented in British history.

There has been the saga of Heathrow airport queues with people coming to Britain facing delays of up to four hours. Heathrow missed all its performance targets for non-European travellers last month and the computer system for visa extensions has collapsed. First, the government blamed the weather before conceding something had gone badly wrong. It is still insisting this chaos is nothing to do with UK Border Agency cuts.

Then there is the controversy over the housing benefit cap of £26,000. This is seen as having huge London consequences with Eric Pickles private secretary suggesting 40,000 families might be uprooted from the capital; London councils have suggested up to 250,000 people could be at risk of their homes forcing a mass migration out of the capital. Newham council have offered to place tenants in cheaper accommodation in Stoke-on-Trent, while Westminster have considered moving tenants to Nottingham and Derby.

Public infrastructure across the UK is over concentrated in London according to a recent study by academics John Tomaney and Andy Pike. They identified the £10 billion London Olympics, Heathrow Terminal 5 £4 billon spend, and the Channel Tunnel Rail link’s £5 billion as regional spending. Greater London infrastructure investment on airports and rail is an astonishing £45.6 billion, considerably more than that the entire Scottish Government budget.

There is an arrogance and entitlement amongst London’s elites. They openly believe that what is good for London is good for the UK. Take Boris Johnson, newly re-elected mayor of London. In a ‘Huffington Post’ interview last week he said, ‘A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde’, and went much further, claiming that ‘you will generate jobs in Strathclyde far more effectively if you invest in parts of London’. This is regional trickle down economics; concentrate on those areas doing well and somehow it will spread out to those less well-off.

London is the shining beacon to the free marketeers and trickle down apologists. It has become ‘Londongrad’, a playground for the super rich of the world, for tycoons, playboys and all kinds of dodgy money.

From across the globe, Arab sheiks, Greek millionaires and Russian oligarchs flock to London and its ask no questions mindset. This has produced a whole eco-system of luxury shops, goods and support services to featherbed this overclass.

This ‘world city’ is increasingly diverging from the rest of the country, the real ‘separatism’ that is happening in the UK. Neil O’Brien, head of right wing think tank Policy Exchange has acknowledged this, reflecting that ‘London is like a Potemkin village for visitors; its population does not represent the UK at all’.

The free market vision of London as the epicentre of the rich, successful and internationally mobile, leaves a huge part of the city excluded and with sizeable parts of the population in relative poverty. London might be a ‘world city’ and a Camelot on the hill to some, but it is also the most unequal city in the entire developed world.

Massive government spending and subsidies aid the wealth and money of London. Despite what the free market fantasists say London is the place with the most public spending per head, apart from Northern Ireland. At the same time the London class dare to lecture us on ‘the Barnett Formula’ and portray Scotland as ‘Skintland’.

The increasing concentration of British politics and media on London is a symptom of our manipulated democracy and distorted political system, a culture which increasingly focuses on the interests of the uber-winners and the narrow global classes who inhabit the world of ‘Britain plc’.

Part of the current Scottish debate which is rarely articulated is the influence of how we deal with the unequal island we live on and the power and pull of London. Scotland has institutions and a voice to counter this to some extent, while the North of England is left with little political muscle, reduced to the status of ‘Flyover Britain’.

The fantasy solution to all this would be for London and the South East to declare independence from the rest of the UK and sail out to the mid-Atlantic, to become a new Singapore/Hong Kong, a vision not far removed from Conservative right wing opinion.

What is coming is the anti-London backlash, a reaction across the UK against the insular obsessions of the capital’s super-rich and their apologists. This will be aided by the militarisation of the Olympics, airport chaos and housing benefit changes, and even more the concentration of our politics on London.

This battle will take place in London as well with Iain Duncan Smith’s government department cleaners this week telling him they cannot live on the statutory minimum wage, but need a living wage.

This popular revulsion has been a long time building. London is not the UK, and the London super-rich’s interests are not those of the capital city. Instead, this is a symptom of a rotten economic system, crony capitalism and a society which needs to fundamentally rethink its values.