By Ken Livingstone, mayor of London (THE GUARDIAN, 07/04/06):
As so often, a momentous development creates a shorthand. The rise of “Bric”, as the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China are known, is by common political currency the biggest strategic issue facing Britain. And the implications are cultural as well as economic.The shifts are seismic. Trade across the Pacific exceeded that across the Atlantic 20 years ago. North America’s economies will soon be overtaken by Asia’s. In the last century, the centre of economic gravity shifted from Europe to the US; now it’s moving to Asia – and the impact is felt in every London high street. Chinese and Indian industrialisation drives oil prices. The low cost of DVD players, iPods and other electronic goods is inconceivable without Asia. The Economist recently debated whether world monetary policy is now determined more by China than the US.
Those tabloids that think that the rise of the new economies can be viewed primarily through the optic of Britain’s struggle to keep out immigrants are deluding their readers. A practical policy conclusion is that to meet this challenge, Britain must play its strongest hand – London. The visiting card I will take on my trip to China next week, marked “Beijing 2008, London 2012”, is just the beginning of a long process.
Ultimately, the cultural implications will be even greater than the economic ones. People in China and India will want greater political rights and social protection, to match their new economic status – prosperity remains the most powerful tool for creating democracy and welfare states. China’s growth, in particular, has lifted the living standards of hundreds of millions of people more quickly than in any society in history – without following the advice of the neoliberals and the IMF. It has not, for example, pursued a programme of privatisation and asset stripping.
Twenty years ago apartheid South Africa attempted to deal with the first impact of the Asian economies by ruling that the Japanese were “honorary whites” – it being unwise to suggest that Toshiba’s president should be confined to a bantustan. Asia’s rise is now so universally recognised that even much softer forms of racist thinking will not work. The people of China and India will expect to be treated as first-rate Chinese or Indians, not second-rate Europeans or Americans. Inheritors of great civilisations, and now creating the world’s most dynamic economies, they will have the muscle to enforce respect.
For those of us who believe in human equality, this is of course giant progress. Interaction with the cultural richness of the rest of Europe has already liberated us from the shackles of “Africa begins at Calais”. A truly global cultural exchange will open still greater horizons. That which is best in our culture – its contributions to universal civilisation – will survive. Any traits that do not deserve to survive – narrowness, insularity, racism – will be undermined by brutal economic facts.
In both aspects London is Britain’s strongest card. China is the world’s most rapidly growing major economy; London is the world’s most international financial centre, and Europe’s business capital. The economic relation between the two is mutually beneficial. London’s multicultural character is its own trump card. The approach in some parts of Europe is: “Your money is welcome, but please leave your culture behind you.” However, London’s unique multicultural openness says: “Your business is very welcome, and we assume you will bring your culture with you – adding to our city’s creativity.” I know, for example, that this approach was decisive in London beating Paris to the Olympics. Of all Europe’s cities, it is the best equipped to rise to the challenge of Bric.