LONDON’S great success over many centuries has stemmed from its adaptability. It has attracted talent and money from around the world. It has been outward-looking, sending argosies to the Levant, trading with an empire and more recently acting as the world’s favourite financial centre.
Like all such success stories in the UK, it attracts its critics. Current jealousy of London’s success is directed to the rich people who dare to come and live in the centre, and to the banks that are part of the concentration of finance in the City and at Canary Wharf. Where other countries would be proud to create a mighty centre of world commerce, in the UK it has its detractors who want to pull it down.
The present attacks on bankers seem to think bad banking and London are synonymous. I have no more time for a bank that needs public money to survive than the next man. Indeed, I wanted RBS to be put into controlled administration, with loans not share capital to keep the important parts going while adjustment was made. The bad bits should have been closed down, and the good bits sold off. The poor state of RBS in 2008 does not make me anti all bankers, nor determined to do the City down.
I seem to remember that the headquarters of RBS was in Edinburgh. In its glory days it was a Scottish success story. Why then is it now evidence of the foolishness of London relying on bankers’ gold? Many London-based banks traded prudently and needed no state help. Many bankers in London and elsewhere do good work helping their customers and earning an honest living.
The same is true of Northern Rock. If the Bank of England had acted as lender of last resort when the wholesale markets dried up we might have had a happier outcome. Instead the bank went down, and taxpayers were obliged by the last government to put in large sums of bailout money. In its days of achievement Northern Rock was hailed as a great North East success, with its headquarters in Newcastle. Only once it became a pensioner of the state did we hear that London was typically living off the taxpayer, with assistance for one of its own.
I suspect the Scottish and northeastern provenance of the two failed banks was an important consideration in the previous government’s mind when it decided on such an expensive comprehensive rescue. I wonder if it would have acted as charitably had it been a bank called Surrey or Kensington that had gone down?
London was once a great trading city. It had its own well-developed docks, wharves, and warehouses. It was a major world centre for trade in commodities and finished goods. From brewing to building materials, from electricity generation to light manufacturing, London was an important manufacturing centre in its own right. The ribbon development on the main arterial roads in the 1930s shows that a decade written off as a dark age by many had its brighter sides, with rising prosperity and many new jobs in adaptable Greater London.
In recent decades London has accepted industrial and dockyard decline and has moved on. What greater image of London’s ability to change and earn a new living could there be than the skyscrapers rising from the old docks around Canary Wharf? London has quietly added the London Eye to its heritage skyline of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, and this year adds a whole new Olympic Park to its transformed eastern approaches. There is a dynamism about the place, a willingness to take risks, an optimism that allows Londoners to shake off old ways of working and earning, and to find new ones.
As a result many rich and talented people come to make London their home. Their ideas and their money helps fire the new waves of investment and activity that a thriving city needs. I hope as the crowds start to come to London for the Games, we will all welcome them and be proud of what London, our capital city, has achieved.
At its best it blends the old and the new, the traditional and the exciting. As one visitor from Russia said to me when showing him around parliament, “You are a country at peace with your past”. There on the walls are portraits of the rebels and the establishment, the Puritans and the Catholics, the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. They all went to make the UK what it is today.
John Redwood is the Conservative member of parliament for Wokingham.