1. Governance
June 20, 2016updated 02 Aug 2021 9:38am

What would Brexit mean for British cities?

By Ben Rogers

With the polls suggesting that voters could well vote in favour of leaving the European Union next Thursday, those of us who worry about the UK’s cities for a living need to start thinking very seriously about what a Brexit would mean for them.

There is of course no authoritative answer to this. Though the referendum is sometimes presented as revolving around matters of principle, most of the debate has been about the economic and social consequences of Brexit – and we don’t seem to be much closer to an agreement on consequences than we were at the beginning of the referendum campaign.  But there are some points that we can state as pretty certain.

First, while some of our cities are more closely integrated with the EU economy than are others, they are all relatively highly integrated, albeit in different ways.  Perhaps surprisingly, on some measures, the London economy doesn’t as appear as tangled up with Europe as are some other UK cities – recent research by Centre for European Reform and University of Groningen suggests that London is one of the UK regions least integrated with Europe.

But these are largely tricks of the eye. London is a particularly global city, which means a smaller proportion of the capital trade is with other EU nations (as opposed to the world beyond), relative to other cities. That’s true even though, in absolute terms, London and the wider South East are the biggest exporters.      

Moreover, the picture looks very different when we look at other aspects of the London economy.  As Centre for London showed in its recent report Continental Capital, London has the highest proportion of EU workers and students of any region – indeed, one third of all EU residents of the UK live in the capital. All in all, London is not just the capital of the UK.  It is also the undisputed economic capital of Europe.

But all UK cities and regions have highly developed ties with the EU economy, and trade more with it than they do with any other part of the world. Some 10 per cent of UK economic output is traded with Europe, while only 3.5 per cent goes to the US and 1 per cent to China (those figures from the CER and University of Groningen).

Second, while cities are tend to be less Euro-sceptic than the country as a whole – cities have larger migrant populations, who tend to be more pro-EU – the differences between cities are profound. UKIP won less than 4 per cent the Cambridge vote in the last general election, but around 20% in Hull.

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Southern Liberal strongholds like London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Brighton are by far the most pro-EU parts of England. They will feel very disappointed, indeed downright aggrieved, if the UK leaves the EU.

That raises an interesting question. Is the rest of Britain going to become more liberal and cosmopolitan in time? Will we see the Londonisation of the rest of England, as the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe has suggested? In which case, not just London but the rest of the country might come to look back with regret on a Brexit vote. Or are London and other successful global liberal cities diverging from an England that is increasingly global-sceptic in outlook? 

If we knew the answer to that we would know a lot more than we do about the way debates about Europe will play out in cities and the country at large, in a post-Brexit world.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London.


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