In shorthand, Britain’s EU problem is a London problem. London, a young, thriving, creative, cosmopolitan city, seems the model multicultural community, a great European capital. But it is also the home of all of Britain’s elites—the economic elites of “the City” (London’s Wall Street, international rather than European), a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations. It’s as if Hollywood, Wall Street, the Beltway, and the hipper neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco had all been mashed together. This has proved to be a toxic combination.
For the rest of the country has felt more and more excluded, not only from participation in the creativity and prosperity of London, but more crucially from power. That gap had begun to yawn dangerously in Thatcher’s 1980s, when deindustrialization in the North and the finance and property boom in the South East meant that growing inequality acquired a grave geographical component. London was not the sole beneficiary. There are pockets of London-like entitlement scattered all over the country—in university towns like Brighton, Cambridge, and Bristol, in select neighbourhoods of Manchester and Leeds. But the big money—and all those elites—remained firmly in London. In recent decades it has felt as if the whole country had been turned upside down and shaken, until most of the wealth and talent had pooled in the capital. One of the most striking features of this period has been the turnaround in London’s educational performance; in the 1990s, it had among the worst educational outcomes in Britain, today it has the best. Some of this is owing to immigration—striving immigrant groups are helping London’s schools to thrive. But some of it is owing to a different kind of migration—talented and ambitious young people from all over the country thronging to London to teach. London’s gain is the rest of the country’s loss.