Living on an Island: Scotland and the London Question

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, June 29th 2013

May 2015: Boris Johnson wins the UK general election and declares London de facto independent from the rest of the UK, stating that it will from now on keep the taxes it raises and spend most of the money it needs itself.

Rewind to today. On a regular basis plaintive pro-union voices can be heard asking when Scotland’s constitutional debate will ever end. The answer is that it won’t, because it will never fully reach a final destination. That is because a large part of the debate isn’t about nationalism but about the Scots experience of living in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. And one where we share an island with the powerhouse and pull of London.

London and its surrounding areas has increasingly come to dominate the UK – whether it be politics, economics, society, culture and media. The Conservative Party, if one takes the whole South of England, elected at the 2010 election 191 of its 307 MPs – 62% of the parliamentary party from this part of England. Its only way of understanding and having direct representation from vast swathes of the North is from Lib Dem MPs in the coalition.

London is 12.4% of the UK population and contributes 18% of UK output. Some observers believe that London subsidises the rest of the UK to between £14-19bn which they call a ‘tax export’.

London is a city of enormous disparities – of some of the richest and poorest parts of the UK. It is the most unequal city in the entire developed world with a difference between the richest 10% and poorest 10% of a staggering 273 to 1 – across England it is 96 to 1.

It has become a city of the global rich – of Russian oligarchs, Greek millionaires and Arab sheiks who have a whole support system of gated communities, luxury shops and goods, and servants.

Average London house prices last month hit £509,000, more than double the UK average of £249,000. The London property bubble has seen three boroughs now with average prices over £1 million: Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Camden. According to Rightmove more than one in three London first-time buyers are significantly supported by the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’.

Prevailing stories of pressures on public services: hospitals, schools, law and order and local government are often increasingly Londoncentric stories, a product of an increasingly short-term myopic British politics and media.

Much of the thinking behind ‘welfare reform’, such as the benefit cap of £26,000, is driven by London concerns: of housing scarcities and pressures upon those in average and low income jobs. Communities Minister Eric Pickles has estimated that at least 40,000 families will be forced to move out of London due to this policy; many think it will be much higher. The result will be the slow, steady gentrification of huge swathes of the capital.

The Tory story of London is that this is the powerhouse which pulls itself up by its own efforts, produces the City and attracts the world’s most powerful and rich to live. The reality is somewhat different. London has the highest public spending per head of anywhere in the UK apart from Northern Ireland.

Large parts of public infrastructure spending benefit London: £10bn on the Olympics, £4bn on Heathrow Terminal Five, £5bn on the Channel Tunnel rail link, £16bn on Crossrail, Europe’s biggest construction project in the last decade.

London’s wealthy and affluent are increasingly divorced and living separate lives from the rest of the country. Neil O’Brien, former head of the Policy Exchange think tank and now a special adviser to George Osborne, has acknowledged this stating that, ‘London is like a Potemkin village for visitors. Its population does not represent the UK at all’.

British politics, the economy and wider society have increasingly become about the interests and self-interest of a narrow elite who live in London and define large parts of our public life – whether it be politics, the City of London and what’s good for business and the economy, and society.

Several regions of England such as the Midlands, the North West and North East have little political voice and capital in the corridors of power. Economic growth and regeneration for the North has become based on hanging onto the coattails of London via HS2, with anything challenging this, such as Michael Heseltine’s bold regional development plan of £49bn, left on the shelves.

The inequalities and regional imbalances of the UK drive a major part of the Scottish constitutional debate. They influence questions such as how does Scotland develop its own economic policies different from the interests of London and the South East? How do we make our own priorities in public spending, taxation and services, while competing with the attraction of the world city of London?

The answer of Boris Johnson and a large part of the increasingly Southern focused Tories is to aid the increasing power, prestige and autonomy of London to the extent that it becomes in effect an independent city-state. There is a confidence and swagger in the Mayor’s long-term plan for the city – ‘Vision 2020’ – which is in the language of our debate about fiscal autonomy and breaking free of the shackles of Westminster. What is different is the positive spin put on these proposals in the media, and the wider bolder agenda they have for recasting society which is missing so far from our independence debate.

Scotland’s debate has to recognise that it is shaped by more than concern over constitutions but affected by the distortions and dysfunctional nature of British society and the increasing dominance of London.

Independence and pro-union opinion has to begin to propose how Scotland can survive, compete and make its own priorities on these isles while living close to the orbit of London which overshadows so much of British public life.

This is a huge challenge but we should be aware that unlike the North West and North East of England, Scots have the voice and political capital to develop if we want on a different course as a society. And that irrespective of whether Scotland is independent or not, one of the solutions to our debate might be to either reintegrate London in the idea of the UK or let the Boris Johnson vision of the city float free into the mid-Atlantic.