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The siege of London: a capital at odds with its country over Brexit

The following was written for this series of essays, published in January of this year, by Daniel Moylan, a former adviser to Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, and who could take charge of Brexit policy if Boris becomes Prime Minister. 

London has long shrugged off the brooding sense of resentment other parts of the country sometimes feel at its dominance of national political and economic life. After all, the capital, with over eight million people, is a social eco-system of its own, caught up in its own affairs and confident that its net contribution to the Government coffers (over £26 billion a year) is sufficient answer to any regional chippiness.

But London – or those who speak for it – is still in a state of denial about the great revolutionary insurgence that has for the first time in decades challenged its hold on the national narrative. Sadiq Khan, its Mayor and a good weathervane by which to judge the vagaries of metropolitan elite opinion, illustrates this well, first “accepting” the referendum result, then arguing against any form of implementation that would result in change (on immigration or trade), and now explicitly espousing the Remainer ruse of running a second referendum with a question rigged to maximise the chances of reversing the result. The steps the Mayor might have taken, of ensuring businesses had advice and support to prepare for No Deal, of offering encouragement, of travelling abroad to solicit investment in the capital and ensure the world knew of its innate strengths and the opportunities it offered after Brexit – these have all been neglected in favour of belittling a democratic process the result of which he doesn’t like.

It’s hard to find “out” Leave voters in London. From the dinner tables of Kensington to the common rooms of our schools and the trading floors of our banks, those who confess to having voted Leave continue to be given pariah status. Though over 40% of Londoners voted for Brexit, they have gone to ground, silenced now in the wake of the referendum by a prevailing metropolitan consensus that sees only good in our continued rule by foreign powers and that identifies support for Brexit with xenophobia, low intellect, poor education and “the North” (or, possibly worse, “the Midlands”). Hence the vital work done by the excellent Lucy Harris and her friends, the founders and sustainers of Leavers of London, a beacon and a haven for Brexit voters in the capital.

So we know London is not happy with the result of the June 2016 referendum. But London knows about referendums. There was one in 1998. 72% of Londoners (I admit I was not one of them, but I was wrong) voted to have a Greater London Authority consisting of a Mayor and Assembly. It has been a huge success. Few Londoners would doubt that.

Under two charismatic and capable Mayors (and their successor), the city has been transformed for the better – practically unrecognisable from twenty years ago.

And why did Londoners vote for devolved government? Why have new powers been granted to the Mayor since then? Why do people continue to call out for yet further powers to be handed down?

For the same reason the nation voted for Brexit: because people want decisions made as close to them as possible and under their control.

It is logically absurd and flies in the face of human nature to say that on the one hand London should have more powers to govern itself but on the other its air quality standards should be set in Brussels, the quality of the water in the Thames should be decided overseas, and the safety standards of its cyclist-killing lorries can only be changed at the behest of an EU committee. It is ridiculous to believe that devolution to London is good but that key aspects of its laws, from working time to habitats, should be set so as to be applicable with equal force and relevance to London as to the more pastoral quarters of Transylvania or the snow-encrusted fringes of the Gulf of Bothnia.

And when one digs into the practical challenges that Brexit might visit upon London, there is very little to point to.

We are told we are going to face a crisis of baristas. The metropolitan assumption appears to be that for decades to come Poland and Estonia are going to send us their young graduates, their nuclear scientists and their trainee surgeons to pull our coffees and beers for us, while incomes and opportunities continue to rise in those countries and well paid jobs start appearing for them at home. No: this was always a transient phenomenon. It is a “crisis” we are going to have to face some time and we might as well face it now.

Or consider the construction sector. There was a man on the BBC recently, boss of a construction company, who was bitterly complaining that even before Brexit he was having to pay higher wages for sub-contractors in London because of a shortage. Well that may have sounded to the BBC like another Brexit doom story, but it will have been music to the ears of the 40.1% of Londoners who voted Leave, many from the social groups that will benefit from higher wages.

In fact a ready supply of cheap labour has held back innovation and automation. Ask yourself why so few of the construction innovations generated by the Crossrail project have been directed at slimming down the workforce. All that money and only one new machine aimed at saving labour: a tracked vehicle that trundles through the tunnels drilling the millions of screw-holes needed for the brackets that hold the miles of cables. Brilliant. But it is still followed by an army of labourers putting the brackets up, screwing them in and threading the cables. Brexit will change that. It will spur innovation and automation and create new world-leading goods, machinery and ideas for Britain to export to the world.

The harsh truth is that we have created an economy, not just in London, with an unhealthy dependency on a constant supply of cheap labour, regardless of the consequences for social services and social cohesion, and it is a habit we need to break, Brexit or no Brexit
merely confronts us with the necessity.

Another manufactured London Brexit fear is its effect on the City, the great global centre of financial and allied services that generates a large part of our national exports and of the Government’s tax receipts. Various lobby groups have made complete fools of themselves by predicting the loss of tens of thousands of jobs just as soon as we leave the EU. The numbers to be moved abroad now appear to be a fraction of that. And if even a small number seems bad, remember that banks in London have been shipping jobs to the rest of the world for years now, many of them facilitated by EU Freedom of Movement. When Morgan Stanley moved its back office to Hungary, was that a great Brexit disaster? No, because it happened ten years ago and was therefore to be praised as showing how the Single Market worked for our economy. The inconsistency is breath-taking.

In fact the truth about Brexit and financial services is that the City is quietly thrilled to be leaving a governing regime that has become increasingly inimical to what our European friends call Anglo-Saxon capitalism. And by “Anglo-Saxon”, they mean only one thing: London. They are explicitly hostile to the City and yet there are many people, including our Mayor, who are desperate to see one of our major export industries regulated by them.

Then of course we have the big businesses, outside the City of London. And here it’s impossible not to mention the doom-laden CBI, which is still regretting that we didn’t follow its advice twenty years ago and join the euro. The truth is that CBI members have done
well out of the EU. Not because it has made them more competitive, but because it has allowed them to participate in writing their own regulations, quietly, cosily, and with the help of an army of Brussels-based lobbyists – regulations that are always intended first
and foremost to create barriers to entry and so limit upstart new competitors from disrupting the incumbents, regulations agreed in rooms from which the consumer is always absent. It is our own form of crony capitalism. It is well funded and has a loud voice – and
it is not speaking for the country. It’s simply not true that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” and it’s absolutely not true that what’s good for CBI members is good for the rest of us. It is almost delightful to watch so many London Labour MPs line up with the bosses they would normally excoriate in order that both can argue for the status quo of cheap labour and easy, protected profits.

But the key to that of course is the trades unions. While a handful, like the RMT, continue the leftist tradition of opposition to EU rule, those affiliated to the Labour Party (unlike the RMT), have been wooed and won over by the Brussels machine, which developed a new theology of the “social Europe” in the 1990s precisely to subdue this source of opposition. Since then, the trades unions have been the staunchest supporters of EU rules and regulations – to the point that they claim that the EU, not domestic law, is the source and bastion of workers’ rights. Given the constitution of the Labour Party, it’s more “moderate” MPs, in flight from Momentum, have only the dubious safe harbour of trades unions to turn to if they are to save their seats – and that means espousing the EU even if their voters supported Leave.

In fact the more one dwells on the upsides of Brexit, the opportunities it gives to London for beneficial change, the more one regrets the government’s short-sighted policy of seeking to negotiate a deal that will lock us into European law with no say, and deny us those opportunities. All the more so after the President of the Commission declared in his 2018 annual report to the European Parliament his ambition for a totally sovereign EU, no more pooled sovereignty but a sovereignty fully transferred to a super-state. This made it absolutely clear that there is no status quo in Remain. If we go back now, cap-in-hand, humiliated, we would inevitably be sucked into a project that has shown over forty years that it doesn’t work for us and over which what moderating influence we had exercised in the past would be gone.

London, with its eight million brilliant people, a hinterland that brings that to fifteen million, an economy so powerful that it contributes over £26 billion a year net to the rest of the country, has withstood real challenges and survived. Brexit is not even a real challenge. It is a change and an opportunity.

Just as Londoners took a risk in 1998 and voted for devolution, so the British people showed immense courage and confidence in 2016 in voting for change and the return of their democracy. It is an enormous pity that complacency and timidity meant that on that occasion the capital was found on the wrong side of history. But its resilience and inventiveness mean that it can recover quickly from that. We should set to work to help it do so.


Photo Credit: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.


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