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Last modified: 03 March 2016

Who and what is this London everyone hates?

Another piece like this, getting definitions out of the way so I can write shorter stuff soon.

 

London gets blamed for a lot of bad stuff by a lot of people. It gets an especially rough time from North England and Scotland. According to some, almost every local problem is the fault of “bloody London”.

I find that most people in London don’t notice the moaning. Others are exposed to it now and again but find it easy to ignore. Some people get confused about why the rest of the UK is blaming London for everything instead of taking some responsibility and sorting itself out. And finally, some residents of the capital decide to write words and make television programmes defending London, explaining how brilliant it is, and telling everyone else that they should be a lot more grateful.

London is one of only a handful of World Cities. Such a fascinating, exhilarating, and diverse place is inherently hard to define and different definitions let you show different things.

If you ignore outer boroughs, especially those in the East, London is uniquely tolerant but surprisingly small. Include enough of the Greater South-East and London is the largest city in Europe but also, unusually for a UK city, a Tory stronghold. Definitions are hard.

 

So let me define seven very different Londons that I regularly moan about. I’ll also share some of the phrases that I use to try and be more precise. If you can think of better ones — ideally ones that are widely understood, fit into tweets, and keep the word counts down on blog posts — then I’m keen to start using them.

I don't want to offend people in London, I want to challenge the people running the UK's institutions that just happen to almost all be there.

 

1. Westminster (The UK parliament)

The House of Commons and the House of Lords are both in London. This means that most MPs and a disproportionately large number of Lords spend most of their time there. Hilary Benn represents Leeds Central, Michael Gove is a proud Scot, Jim McMahon is an Oldham man through and through. But all of them, to a greater or lesser extent have experiences, opinions, and ambitions shaped by London.

I think that our government makes poor decision because it is in a remote and unrepresentative city. In an effort to avoid blaming London for this you’ll hear a lot of people like me try and use the word “Westminster”.

 

2. Whitehall (Westminster + the decision makers in the UK civil service).

The vast majority of senior civil servants work in London. I suspect that all of them make considerable efforts to serve the UK with no preference. I am absolutely convinced that, as with the MPs who they answer to, their location biases the questions they ask, the advice they give, and the decisions they take.

I often use the word “Whitehall” to describe this location problem.

 

3. The Westminster Bubble (Whitehall + the influencers, beneficiaries, advisors, and reporters who rely on or were created by them).

Because the politicians and the civil servants are in London, the press needs to be there too. The think-tanks, lobbyists, and charities who try to influence them need to be there too. If you’re in the national press and you need to talk to an expert on something at short notice, you aren't going to look far. It pays to work just a few minutes away.

If you’re a charity or an organisation or an institute looking to raise money or apply pressure to change a law, you know who you need to impress.

I use the phrase “Westminster Bubble” to describe this.

The problem is that the Westminster Bubble has varying definitions. At a minimum it includes only the press that covers the UK parliament. At a maximum it includes almost every UK think-tank, large charity, and lobbying group.

 

4. The British Institutions (The Westminster Bubble + the UK’s national institutions and museums such as The Bank of England, the Supreme Court, Nesta, Imperial College, The Digital and Future Cities Catapult centres, Wembley, the V&A, the Natural History Museum, The British Library, the British Museum, and The Crick Institute).

The British Institutions were created, protected, nurtured, or propelled to power by the Westminster Bubble. London didn’t play much of a role in the creation of TV, but the BBC just had to be nearby. Oxford and Cambridge educated many of those in the Westminster Bubble and their privileged position within English & Welsh education has been protected by Westminster for centuries.

Imperial College, where I went to University, was largely created from the Westminster Bubble. So were the great museums that surround it. More recently Nesta, Digital & Future Cities Catapult Centres, The British Library, and The Crick Institute were created in a similar way. The importance of Wimbledon, the location of the FA and its national stadium, the investment in the O2 arena, were all similarly supported from the Westminster Bubble.

There is no widely understood shorthand for this definition of London and so I always say London.

 

5. The British Establishment machine (The British institutions + those who benefit from and fight to preserve it)

If you’re a politician, a senior civil servant, a charity employee, a lobbyist, a journalist, a museum trustee or employee, an innovation consultant, a senior lawyer, or a policy advisor in London then you see the benefit of Britain's centralised institutions with every pay cheque. But I’ve already covered you.

What if you work at a technology company in Shoreditch. How did the bias of the British Institutions in London help you? Well, it invested enormous amounts of money in one of the world’s best public transport systems so that you could get to work, it centralised a huge amount of the UK’s economy, transport infrastructure, and talent so that it was near to you, and it created and supported national institutions in London that made the economic system that you live in possible.

If you’re a scientist you might be in London because a long chain of decisions by the British Establishment made that more likely. If you work at an airport you might be in London because nationalisation centralised the UK’s aviation system on Heathrow.

And even if you’re none of these things, you still get cheap and excellent public transport, free admission to some of the best museums in the world, proximity to almost all of the UK's national institutions, and a national broadcaster that is much more likely to give your opinions and concerns a national voice.

Here's where that starts to matter. Many of you think that the UK should be less centralised until that means spending less on your transport improvements, moving more of your BBC out of London, or diluting the concentration of British Instituional roles in London that would make it less likely that you’d get a promotion. Then suddenly you convince yourself that investment in London always gives the best returns, and that agglomeration benefits would be lost anywhere else, and maybe the North of England should stick to manufacturing.

You are part of the London system, the product of the British Institutions, and that’s absolutely fine. You're also — and I mean the lump of you not any individual — a barrier to improving the UK.

I know that you’d change your mind if you looked at things from a different perspective just like I know I'd change my mind if I moved to London. When I moan about London, it’s not personal, it’s the system I’m complaining about. I’m confident that if you spent five years living in Liverpool or Manchester or Leeds you’d feel more like I do.

 

Not 6. The City of London

A lot of people call this “The City” but often they’ll just say London. You probably won’t hear me moaning about this because I think the negative impacts of the global financial services industry on the UK aren’t that big.

 

Not 7. Jellied Eels, Chelsea flower show, Smithfield market, Notting Hill Carnival, Romford dog track, Camden Market, all those Vietnamese restaurants in Dalston, Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, Arsenal, Harlequins Rugby Union, Surrey Cricket Club.

There’s lots of really awesome stuff and loads of awesome people in London. I’m not moaning about this stuff. It’s yours, you built it, I always feel welcome when I visit. Thank you.

 

What would stop me being so mean about London?

It's so simple. Move the UK Capital to Manchester and I'll stop moaning about London.

I'll have an amazing world city on my doorstep and a nation that slowly rebalances through growth to become an ever greater example to the whole world. We'll need people in London to push for it because at the moment you control everything. I'm happy to help.

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