Occasionally, highly educated Londoners half-jokingly, half-wistfully suggest the city should declare independence from the rest of the country.
They really mean independence from provincial England, whose values and political priorities they abhor. They aspire to live in a city friendly to business and the successful – an open-minded city, open to the world. Would they get that in a democratic London state? In a word: no.
While London has a large number of successful, liberal-minded professionals, it has at least as many people worried about the supposed negative impact of the city’s wealth and success on ordinary people. Some of these people struggle themselves; others simply reject the laissez-faire capitalist model that some want to create. Either way, there are not enough votes in London for a Singaporean model.
There are a few areas where the independence movement would be happy. London would undoubtedly vote to re-join the EU. It would remain much more diverse than the rest of the country and more positive towards multiculturalism – not just accepting of a multiracial society but positive about different cultures asserting themselves. (That said, polls suggest Londoners favour restricting the numbers of new migrants – presumably because of perceived pressures on public services and housing.)
But London would also be much more likely to vote in a Corbynist government than the rest of the UK. I do not just mean a Labour government – we have a moderate Labour mayor, and many would be happy for this to continue. But (just as has happened in New York) London is much more likely to vote hard-left. While the Conservatives lead Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour nationally by 13 points, in London it is only by four points. Add a couple of Brexit wobbles, and the lead could disappear.
This reflects many Londoners’ core values. Just before the last General Election, think tank Policy Exchange produced in-depth research into people’s values and political priorities. While most people across Britain said their most important value was “family”, in London this was considerably below “fairness”. This is important: family suggests you think the most important unit is outside the state; fairness suggests you think the state needs to intervene to even things up. Londoners are the most likely people, along with those in Scotland, to say government can be a force for good, rather than that its size should be restricted.
Furthermore, like other British people, Londoners think the way the economy works is unfair for the majority. Despite living in one of the world’s great capitalist cities, where millions of people’s livelihoods are dependent in some way on the wealth created by the businesses that operate here, people are not convinced about the power of the market.
YouGov polling this week did show Londoners hostile to the idea of a £1m legal limit for annual earnings. But previous polling showed that, by more than two-to-one, Londoners would support a 50p tax rate for those that earn over £150,000. They even agreed with the proposition that the 50p tax should be kept even if it did not bring more money in, because it is morally right that the rich pay more in tax.
There are upsides to an independent London. We would finally deal with the housing crisis we face in the city: sheer mass, public irritation would see to that. Londoners’ very extensive use of paid childcare would also demand action to reduce costs. Public transport might also improve for the same reason.
But people who want to live in a mercantile city state should not be looking to set one up in London. They will not like to hear this, but the polls suggest that the best place to do that might be in Surrey and the home counties. Polls of those who live in the South show they are the ones that truly believe in capitalism. An independent South might not have the same glamour, but it is the real home of capitalism in Britain.