1. Governance
June 28, 2016

The European People's Republic of London: Is it time for a new city state?

By Mark Rowney

On Friday, something bizarre happened: a petition appeared, calling for London to become an independent city state; it now has over 170,000 signatures. I’m not surprised: many Londoners are going through an identity crisis. Perhaps it’s just a hysterical reaction to Brexit; perhaps it’s something more.

Thursday’s vote showed clear division across the country. Londoners, the Scottish and Northern Irish hold very different views to the rest of the English and Welsh; city dwellers’ opinions differ to those of country folks.

But, as recent polling by Lord Aschcroft indicates, Brexit isn’t the only dividing line. We have fundamentally different values when examined through some of the biggest challenges facing society – climate change, sexism and globalisation.

Brexit has also weakened Britain. Scottish independence seems likely; it’s easy to envisage the ‘Out-ers’ view not having changed, and tipping the balance doesn’t require many ‘inners’ to flip. The status quo is now inherently uncertain.

As a Northern Irishman, I find my views on the union post Scottish independence challenged. Sticking with Scotland or Eire – both of which will likely retain access to the Common Market – seems the most natural fit. I expect that debate will involve bloodshed, an extremely depressing prospect. Whatever the result, Britain would end; the union would consist only of the Kingdom of England and the Principality of Wales.

Many Londoners would suddenly become foreigners in a strange country. In 2014, 37 per cent of Londoners were not born in the UK; and much of the rest of England and Wales feels a very foreign place compared to London. The polls, the result, and the tone of the campaign, all paint a picture of an insular place. One where it is best to live life like an ostrich; where foreigners are suspected, and windfarms a blight on the landscape. One where Londoners are considered an arrogant elite, to be held in contempt (as Suzanne Moore reiterates).

These are sweeping generalisations and patently false. But nationalistic politics is often dominated by perception and the heart, not facts and the head. And many Londoners are afraid: my Swedish/Polish partner, watching the attacks on Poles on social media, is now considering taking my name, such is her fear.

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Londoners seem proud of London, for good reason. It has a diverse population; vibrant cultural output, from theatre to the carnival; an instinct for tolerance; the best food and pubs in the world; one of the world’s most important economic centres; and the best transport system in the world.

It would only take a minority of voters born in England and Wales to favour London’s independence. I’m not aware of any polling on the views of such Londoners. But the waitress who served me last night wanted out, as did my driving instructor this morning. And #londependence shows at least some English and Welsh are interested, with some commentators expressly identifying London as their strongest identity.

It’s in this context, that the idea of an independent London doesn’t feel nuts. There would be big questions, sure. Would it have a constitution? What would its foreign policy? How do its many immigrants gain London citizenship? What’s its immigration policy for commuters?  

But many big questions are already decided; London’s borders, for example, are well established. There already exists a London government to manage the transition. It’s also economically viable, possessing an economy that dwarves many of our neighbours. There are many city states, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, to look to for answers to some of Londependence’s big questions.

It’s not an impossibility, just a pipe dream. But the very concept of any nation is imaginary. If enough people share that dream, it becomes real.

Some twitter users described Londependence as a “hissy fit”. Maybe it is. But if the conversation continued, it could be a force for positive change.

Mark Rowney tweets at @markrowney

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