22 May 2013


Two members of the commentariat fixated on the same idea last week. The London Evening Standard on 14 May ran a piece by Simon Jenkins, London should quit the EU and ditch the UK too, and, the next day in The Times (£), David Aaronovitch explained why it was necessary to Unshackle London from the backward shires.

According to Jenkins:
There is an easy solution to Britain in Europe. Let the rest of Britain stay but let London leave.  
… Its future is global. Its two great industries, finance and leisure, are peculiar to itself. They depend on self-government, on regulatory discipline and on the value of the pound. Financial services are worldwide in application. They are clearly threatened by what Lord Lawson called “jealous European banking officials”, by regulations designed to underpin German bankers and clip London’s wings.  
The new city state would have a physical boundary, roughly that of the M25. Digital mapping would police the circumference, though open borders are no great problem. They exist like those between Gulf states, between Ireland and Ulster, Monaco and France. London already has its own government under its elected “monarch”, Boris Johnson.  
The rest of Britain may have reasons for wanting to “stay in Europe”. It is time for London to “get out”, of both the EU and the UK.
Goodness knows what Jenkins thinks digital mapping is. Aaronovitch saw the problem as being one of culture, typified in PMQs the day before:
… of the six Conservative MPs who stood to ask questions, no less than five were talking about when to have a referendum on Europe. They might as well have been in Caracas.  
… Where they sit for in Essex, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire or Wiltshire, the EU may indeed be more important than it is to me in London. On questions such as immigration, perhaps my metropolitan attitude seems as peculiar to them as their parochialism does to me.  
… Londoners differ from some of their compatriots in attitudes towards the outside world. The pollsters Ipsos/Mori sent me figures for the regional variations on immigration and the EU. Aggregated for January-December 2012, polling showed an average of 21 per cent of Britons naming race relations/ immigration/immigrants as “one of the most important issues facing the country”. The highest figures were the South East with 28 per cent, then the East Midlands, East of England and Yorkshire/Humberside all on 25 per cent. In London it was 13 per cent. This was less dramatically true for Europe/EU. In the South East 10 per cent had it as a vital issue, compared with 5 per cent in London and 6 per cent nationally.  
It is clear that London and the South East are in some ways two different countries and that is why Boris has to be Janus-faced. To become Tory leader he must somehow finesse the fact that he knows a lot of rural/ suburban Tory-Ukippery just doesn’t make sense in the big, competitive, changing world. Like Boris, I do not want to inhabit this parish of 1950s retro enthusiasts.  
… So we may need to secede from the hinterland. And the same is true of our other great cities and university towns which, together, could make an outward-looking, open-minded polity.
So not so much an island state as an archipelago one. Well pundits have to write about something – in 2011 Aaronovitch thought the UK should become part of the USA. And it might have been inhibiting if the position Mrs Thatcher found herself in in 1982 had been remembered:
On the morning of Wednesday 22 September I and my party took off from Tokyo, where I had been visiting, for Peking. Fifteen years remained of the lease to Britain of the New Territories which constitute over 90 per cent of the land of the Colony of Hong Kong. The island of Hong Kong itself is British sovereign territory, but, like the rest of the Colony, dependent on the mainland for water and other supplies. The People's Republic of China refused to recognize the Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, by which the island of Hong Kong had been acquired by Britain. Consequently, although my negotiating stance was founded on Britain's sovereign claim to at least part of the territory of Hong Kong, I knew that I could not ultimately rely on this as a means of ensuring the future prosperity and security of the Colony. (The Downing Street Years, page 259)

London, with its “boundary, roughly that of the M25” (see above and the surrounding regions), would be far worse-placed than British Hong Kong. Being on the coast (see below, right), the former colony could trade with the rest of the world without having to enter PRC airspace or territorial waters and at least produced its own electricity and gas.

Somehow I don’t see “monarch Boris” converting Tate Modern back into a power station. A secessionist London would have to import electricity and gas from the English grids, would be dependent for its water on the English Thames into which it would also have to discharge its sewage. No doubt the supply of all these things, and a few others (like the westward extension of Heathrow or its replacement) could be arranged amicably – at a price and in return for financial services from London. Until BNP Paribas arrives in Bristol and Crédit Agricole in Birmingham. Of course, London has virtually no armed forces apart from the ceremonial, so all defence capabilities including the nuclear deterrent would be in the hands of the Welsh-English-Scottish rump, as would GCHQ. London would be run out of the Mayor’s office because Jenkins thinks that:
The bulk of British government would have to relocate out of the present capital. Because no one would agree on where, departments would be fragmented around the provinces, to the benefit of all. Parliament could relocate, perhaps to Salford or to an Orwellian “Elizabethville” in south Yorkshire. Essex and Sussex would concentrate development around Stansted and Gatwick, relieving pressure on Heathrow.
All quite barking because London, unlike Singapore (above, left), is land-locked and geography dictates that it cannot become an island city-state. But perhaps there is an even deeper flaw in Jenkins’ concept that London’s
… two great industries, finance and leisure, are peculiar to itself. … Financial services are worldwide in application.
He should have read an article in the Financial Times (£) on 7 May, Cornwall beach buoys London’s financial status. It explained that a beach near Bude in north Cornwall in SW England:
… is one of the main landing points for thousands of miles of submarine cables that carry trading data from New York. Britain’s westerly location means data can reach traders in London several milliseconds quicker than competitors in Frankfurt and Paris – a key advantage in the era of high-frequency trading.  
… “The UK is an underwater cable hub for all the financial institutions in Europe,” says Jack Steven, asset manager at the Crown Estate. “The alternative is to go through somewhere like Portugal, which is closer to the US but which historically hasn’t developed capacity in the same way.”  
According to the Crown Estate, about 95 per cent of the UK’s communication, such as email, internet and telephone calls, is transmitted through submarine cables. They are cheaper and more reliable than satellites, which are expensive to get into orbit and vulnerable to collisions with space debris. The shorter the cables, the quicker data can be transferred. It takes about 65 milliseconds to trade between London and New York. From east London it takes a further five milliseconds to Frankfurt.

Anyone interested can learn more about the global undersea cable network (above) on the Guardian Data Blog.

Boris Johnson, to be fair, has not expressed any opinions, as far as I know, in favour of London’s independence, even though Aaronovitch seems to think he is a closet isolationist. A shame when London could so easily be renamed Bojoburg in his honour as its first head of state. I don’t think either Aaronovitch or Jenkins think for one minute that their proposals will ever happen but, as part of London’s media elite, they are expressing their exasperation with the rest of us.  But most people don't live on six-figure salaries, probably getting away with a day’s work a week writing a thousand words or so about whatever they chose, and having expenses-paid lunches in top restaurants with interesting people talking off the record.


  1. What if a London City-State included the following area:

    Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Bristol, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Essex, Greater London, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Wiltshire and West Sussex.

    Along with the following LGA’s of other counties:







    South Gloucestershire






    Oadby and Wigston




    South Norfolk

    King's Lynn and West Norfolk





    Newark and Sherwood


    Bath and North East Somerset


    North Somerset

    South Somerset




    Mid Suffolk

    Suffolk Coastal

    St Edmundsbury

    Forest Heath






    Nuneaton and Bedworth



  2. Thank you for your comment - what a question. I guess you are identifying the area of southern England which shares in London's largesse. However, I wonder if the inhabitants of the added areas share the metropolitan outlook which Jenkins and Aaronovitch admire in their Londoners.