Walking through the London streets of Year Zero, we decided to do something about it, and begin the movement toward a separate state. Crazy? Sure. Impossible? No.
This is a good news story. For now.
Some of the most brilliant ideas – the zipper, the safety pin, the aeroplane – happen in a flash of fury, madness or despair. Not all make it, but when that spark lights the fire, you know you are onto a good thing.
One of those great ideas is for London to become a sovereign city state.
In fact, there is a solid case for it. And like all brilliant ideas, once it has hatched, it flies. A petition for a referendum for Londoners to go it alone is online and is going viral, to use that fashionable word. What started as a joke, a knee jerk bit of stick-it, may well become an inevitable reality. Our premier historian Simon Schama has said repeatedly that the United Kingdom will break up. It is not if but when.
Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, always on hand with constitutional detail, explains the logic: “The Scots can do it and the Welsh can do it. They have much smaller economies than we do. Like us, they voted not to leave the EU. We feel this is a totem, a measure, of how different London is.”
I understand this to mean that it is a bit like the execution of Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, whose conflicts with parliament led to civil war. His execution was decided in the same chambers where the Labour Party is holding its secret plotting on a leadership coup.
London thrives on a can-do mentality, on fantastical architectural projects, garden bridges over the Thames. It agrees on its self-image as international, diverse, open-minded, and progressive.
The idea for the City State of London pre-dates the EU referendum. But when we were discussing it at the time of 2014’s Scottish independence referendum in The Old Bank of England Pub, a stupendously grand affair in the former Law Courts, we were the fruitcakes among the cupcakes and other fine English tarts in the display counter. It was laughed off, even though a poll showed that 20 percent backed the concept and some major private banks claimed it would be fact by 2035.
Well, fruit cakes no more. Kindred spirits think alike and have come out. The beauty of it is self-evident. It needs no spin doctors, no expensive campaigns, no clever posters – it sells itself. On the first day of Year Zero, I was out in the street trying to cheer everybody up. My people were down. With no gurus available, the horoscopes as clear as ever, no political leaders picking up their phones and with the leading Brixiteers having a “well-deserved rest” in their country cottages, somebody had to mop up tears. Optimists and tattoo artists are the best people to deal with chaos theories.
I said, “Let’s start a city state?”
The mood swing was instant. The new “disenfranchised” were on their smart phones signing the petition and quick to pick up on the Leave propaganda. Enough has been said about deep divisions. No analysis can match the 1960 classic Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti on the dynamics of the crowd and “the pack”. It took one look at “the younger generation” who feel betrayed, to know where this pack is going. There was unanimous support to build a “high wall around the M-25”, the motorway around London, “to keep the nincompoops out.” Do we hear the echoes of the great orators of the ancient city states to keep the barbarians at bay?
Also on The Big Smoke
- Britain is out of the European Union – But where?
- London’s new mayor – from a Londoner’s eye
- CAW: Brexit be done, and the markets fell
- Death for Brexit: Our global writers thoughts on Britain leaving the EU
“We must take control of our borders,” cried a girl, clearly surprised she had it in her. Good point. Since 2007, and the economic crash, more migrants have come to London from within the UK than from the whole world put together!
“How about an Australian-style points system,” someone volunteered. At least that would keep most of the English out, because they would not qualify. But pragmatism quickly wins the day and such a system is like the dodo. London thrives on a can-do mentality, on start ups, buying an old London bus and turning it into a bar, on painting over Goyas, fantastical architectural projects, garden bridges over the Thames. It agrees on its self-image as international, diverse, open-minded, and progressive. In such a city, nurses and doctors, bus drivers, fire fighters, teachers and garbage collectors deserve a good salary, and sane working hours so that they too can enjoy the gold belt.
London’s economy is estimated to be the same size as that of Sweden. And yet the mayor of London and the assembly have less power than the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales. Sadiq Khan says that greater powers on taxation, local spending and so on are “vital”. In short: it needs the same powers, at least, that New York has.
New York and its metropolitan areas would rank as the 15th largest economy if it were a nation. San Francisco has an economy equivalent of that of Thailand. Windy, deeply divided and troubled Chicago has a GDP akin to Switzerland. Londoners have the progressive maturity to see, borrowing from the more pleasant Swiss life, that they made sure they voted a batch of Green Party people into the Assembly.
London has 12.5 percent of the population of Britain, but it literally keeps the show on the road. The population, forecasted to be 10 million by 2020, is larger than those of Scotland and Wales combined. Londoners contribute 70 percent more to the UK national income than any other part of the country. In real money, that is a difference of £16,000 per person! One in five pounds earned by a Londoner, props up the population at large.
A sovereign London, or a London with a special status and devolved powers, like New York, may well become an urgent necessity. The pound has plummeted to a 31-year low against the US Dollar. There is no Plan B. In fact, there is no plan at all.
“Cash cow no more!” That may be shouted in the heat of the moment but it has a ring to it. You can only insult and blame a people so much. The victorious – gloating, “How does it feel to be punched on the nose by the working classes!?” on BBC Question Time with David Dimbleby – may get instant gratification, but beware of that proverbial brutal boomerang. To bite the hand that feeds you is a universal fact, but it may bite back.
There is a school of thought that city states will replace nation states in a global economy. Kenichi Ohmae, whose job description is “Japanese management guru”, peddles the idea for a superlative fee, that cities are driving forces rather than nation states. We already knew that of course from the days of ancient Rome, Athens and Carthage, and the great Renaissance merchant cities of Venice, Florence and Genoa. London is comfortably on cue. It has always been an island within an island. A number of the top merchant banks in the city of London date from the times of city republics like Antwerp and Hamburg, and were founded by Huguenot-Protestant and Jewish refugees.
But a sovereign London, or a London with a special status and devolved powers, like New York, may well become an urgent necessity. With a flick of the wrist, a tick of the pencil, the United Kingdom went from being the fifth largest economy in the world, to the sixth. The pound has plummeted to a 31-year low against the US Dollar. There is no Plan B. In fact, there is no plan at all.
London historically always has a plan. The irony is not lost that the new saviour may be a banker! Mike Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, immediately stepped in fresh from the ballots to reassure that he has £250 billion in liquidity funds to cushion the mess.
Seen from this vantage point, without the “shackles” of the English hinterland, the Out Regions, the future is gold – literally, as the gold prices are rising. Let’s play Civilization – let’s turn the pyramid upside-down for a moment. Look at the potential magic, dancing above the rubble.
How would you vote?