London Is Special, but Not That Special

Not so long ago there was a beer commercial on British TV in which two pointy-headed aliens order a pint in a rural pub. “Up from London, are we?” the barman asks politely.

If the rest of Britain often views London as a planet from outer space, Londoners often view other Britons as beings trapped in a previous century. “London seems no longer part of Britain — in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops and cities trying to imitate London — but has developed into a semi-independent city-state.” So says Adam, a character in “The Body,” a novel by Hanif Kureishi — one of the sharpest contemporary observers of London life.

It is one of the ironies of capital cities that each acts as a symbol of its nation, and yet few are even remotely representative of it. London has always set itself apart from the rest of Britain — but political, economic and social trends are conspiring to drive that wedge deeper.

London has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. It absorbs more than half of all immigrants to Britain. In the 2011 census, 80 percent of all Britons defined themselves as “white British”; barely half that number (45 percent) did so in London. There are more black and Asian people in just one London borough, Newham, than in the whole of Scotland.

Economically, too, London is startlingly different. The capital, unlike the country as a whole, has no budget deficit: London’s public spending matches the taxes paid in the city. The average Londoner contributes 70 percent more to Britain’s national income than people in the rest of the country. While Britain’s recession has been deep and unforgiving, in London it has been relatively shallow. Between 2007 and 2011, the city’s economy grew by nearly 12.5 percent — almost twice as fast as in the rest of the country. London’s real estate is worth more than all the property of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined.

The distinctness of London has led many to clamor for the capital to pursue its own policies, especially on immigration. The British prime minister, David Cameron, is a Conservative. So is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But they have diametrically opposed views on immigration.

Driven by a perceived political need to adopt a hard-line stance, Mr. Cameron’s coalition government has imposed myriad new restrictions, the aim of which is to reduce net migration to Britain to below 100,000. Driven by the real economic needs of London, on the other hand, Mr. Johnson has campaigned for looser rules. Earlier this month he called for the creation of a special “London visa” to allow talented tech experts and fashion designers from around the world to get jobs in the capital. It would be, he suggested, “a clear message to the elite of Silicon Valley or the fashionistas of Beijing that London is the place they should come to develop ideas, build new businesses and be part of an epicenter for global talent.”

The numbers being discussed are small — of the 1,000 visas the government currently sets aside for “exceptional talent,” Mr. Johnson wants 100 reserved for London. In a city of more than eight million, that might seem insignificant. But the symbolism is deep. London, it suggests, is different, and therefore should abide by different rules.

It should not.

I believe in freedom of movement and view the current government’s restrictive attitude as both socially and economically misguided. Yet I fear that a special London policy will only exacerbate existing divisions.

It is likely to deepen divisions between the capital and the rest of the nation, increase resentment of an “out of touch” political elite and make it more difficult to overhaul Britain’s deeply flawed immigration policies. It also raises practical problems. Would London visa holders be banned from living or working in the rest of Britain? With freedom of movement between London and Paris, do we really want to restrict workers’ movement between London and Manchester?

Those who argue a special case for London often point out that the attitudes of Londoners to diversity are more liberal. A survey for Oxford University’s Migration Observatory showed that while 69 percent of Britons thought that current levels of immigration should be reduced, just 46 percent of Londoners thought the same.

While such figures do reveal differences between the attitudes of Londoners and those of the rest of the nation, they can also be misleading. Just 8 percent of Londoners favor more immigration. In other words, almost six times as many Londoners want to reduce immigration as want to increase it. A YouGov survey, published in June this year, showed that the capital’s increasing diversity was welcomed by only 39 percent of Londoners, while 37 percent were hostile to its “ethnic makeup.”

London attracts some of the richest people in the world, but it is home also to some of the poorest people in the land. The three most deprived areas in Britain are all in London — Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney. Almost a third of children in London live in households officially deemed to be in “income deprivation.”

The polarization of wealth and the polarization of attitudes to diversity are not unrelated. A key reason for popular hostility to immigrants is that to many people, particularly within working-class communities, immigration has become a symbol of unacceptable change.

When the first wave of postwar immigrants arrived in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a period of rising wages, full employment, an expanding welfare state and strong trade unions. Today, Britain’s manufacturing base has all but disappeared, working-class communities have disintegrated, unions have been neutered and the welfare state has begun to crumble. The Labour Party has largely cut its roots with its working-class base, and many voters feel voiceless and detached from the political process.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. From the beginning, however, politicians on both sides of the spectrum have presented immigrants as a problem, even a threat. And while the forces of globalization or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party are difficult to grasp, one’s Bangladeshi or Jamaican neighbors are easy to see.

Almost inevitably, immigration has come to be seen by many not as something that has enriched their lives but as something that has diminished them.

Even in London there is considerable hostility to immigration from those who experience life from the wrong end of a polarized city. Unemployment, low wages, inadequate housing, long hospital waiting lists, poorly performing schools — these are the products of bad policy and a lack of investment. Nevertheless, many blame immigrants for London’s social ills.

For London to have its own exclusive immigration policy would exacerbate the sense that immigration benefits only certain groups and disadvantages the rest. It would entrench the gap between London and the rest of the nation. And it would widen the breach between the public and the elite that has helped fuel anti-immigrant hostility.

I value London’s diversity, and its openness to the world. But this has to be a national debate and a national policy. A London-only policy would do little to foster a more open, cosmopolitan outlook, either in London or in Britain.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and the author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath.

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