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London - the most English of cities?

London is often seen as separate and aloof from England. But there’s a more complex story about its culture, which gives clues about how the capital could help address the nation’s discontent.

Ben Rogers
29 April 2019
London Mayor Sadiq Khan speaking at a St Georges Day event, 2017
London Mayor Sadiq Khan speaking at a St Georges Day event, 2017
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Lauren Hurley/PA Images

Late last year, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan gave a speech emphasising London’s need to make common cause with other cities and regions in campaigning for more power. In it he reminded the audience that London is “an English and a British city”. In one sense the statement is a truism. London is the capital of Britain and also a city in England.

But it was also oddly striking. Both London’s champions and its detractors tend to agree that the capital is the very model of a global city – one that has grown apart from its nation. The idea that London is an English city might be considered particularly unorthodox. Britishness, after all, is generally taken to be more cosmopolitan than Englishness, which, especially among progressives, is seen as being a narrow and problematic, if not pathological identity.

But this is a misread of London and of Englishness – and one with unhelpful consequences for our national politics.

A city state, not an English city?

There is no denying London’s international character. Over the last couple of decades globalisation and urbanisation have gone hand in hand, with wealth and status becoming increasingly concentrated in a small number of ‘world cities’. London has attracted migrants, investors and visitors from around the globe, thus expanding its economic lead over the rest of UK as well as growing and becoming more cosmopolitan.

Little wonder then that Londoners have become increasingly conscious of themselves as having their own cosmopolitan identity which sets them apart from the rest of the country – a process helped no doubt by the existence, from 2000, of a Mayor for London. It’s become common for Londoners to talk about London being ‘another country’ or even a nascent city state. Post-Brexit referendum, 180,000 Londoners signed a petition demanding the capital leave the UK and remain part of the EU.

And if London is a global city first, it is surely a British city second. London is home to the UK's Crown, Parliament and government, but no distinctly English political institutions. Indeed, if a capital is defined as the seat of government then it could be argued that England has no capital as England has no government of its own. In terms of their history, most of London’s great cultural organisations were created after the 1707 Union with Scotland, and are more British than English. This is true of The British Library, The British Museum, The Royal Opera House, The National Gallery and The Royal Academy of Arts, to name a few.

Or archetypically English?

But just in raw numbers, London is by far the biggest English city, in the sense of city with the most English-born residents and the largest number of people who identify as English. The 2011 Census asked respondents for the first time about their sense of national identity. 47% of Londoners identify themselves as English (either exclusively or alongside other identities). This figure was much lower than for any other region and almost half of that of the North East – the region with the strongest English identity. But it still meant that around three and a half million Londoners identify as English, compared to, say, six hundred thousand residents of Birmingham.

In terms of climate, landscape and wildlife, the capital is indelibly part of South East England. Many of the city’s most famous buildings - the Tower, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral - were built before the Union with Scotland. And while England may not have its own government or major cultural institutions, it does have a number of national sporting teams, which have developed as particularly important carriers of Englishness. London is the capital of English sport, and home, above all, to the three leading national games: cricket (Lords), rugby (Twickenham) and football (Wembley). There are many English people who virtually or only ever come to London to watch one of the national English teams play.

London also has some post-Union English cultural organisations, like Cecil Sharp House, established in 1930 as a home for English folk music. London-based producers and labels play a central role in English folk music, which has seen something of a recent revival, as a Englanders seek to reconnect with their musical roots. And while cities like Liverpool and Manchester have played a big role in the evolution of English pop music, many of the more distinctly English bands and singers, from the Kinks through Ian Dury to Lilly Allen and Dizzee Rascal originate in London.

Above all perhaps, a disproportionate number of great distinctively English writers and artists were or became Londoners. Just think of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Fielding, Dickens, Woolf and Orwell, among historical writers. Or Hogarth, Gillray or William Blake among artists. Blake, author of ‘Jerusalem’, England’s de facto national anthem, did not spend his life walking on England’s ‘mountains green’. He was a Londoner through and through, brought up in Soho, and immersed in the capital’s culture and politics all his life. English modes of writing and art are very much alive in the capital today. Peter Ackroyd’s novels and criticism show a remarkable feeling for the culture of both London and England, and the relationship between the two. Gilbert and George, Peter Blake and Sarah Lucas are just a few London artists who draw on and identify with English traditions and sensibilities.

If William Blake was born a Londoner, Shakespeare, England’s national dramatist, became one, and his legacy does much to keep the connection between London and the rest of England alive. It would be rare not to be able to a find couple of Shakespeare plays being performed in London’s professional theatres on any one night, while its rebuilt Globe theatre is an intriguing example of a significant and distinctly English cultural institution.

London’s theatre – still the biggest gem in its cultural crown - has shown a strong pre-occupation with national identity in recent years. Both the last director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, and the current, Rufus Norris, have made a point of staging old works and commissioning new ones exploring themes of national belonging and cultural conflict. Norris’s reaction to Brexit was not, like many metropolitans, simply to tut at Leave voters and re-affirm his cosmopolitanism. He called the vote a “wake up call”, warned that the arts have become “out of touch” with some parts of the country, and promised that the National would listen and engage more. One outcome was Carol Ann Duffy’s 2017 play My Country, a conversation between the different regions and nations of the UK, based on public commentary during the Brexit referendum. Similarly Kwame Kwei-Armah, Director of the Young Vic, has launched a programme of videos and discussions, My England, exploring what it means to be English.

One of the best and most successful new plays of the last decade, Jeb Butterworth’s Jerusalem, belongs squarely in this ‘state of the England’ category. Produced by the Royal Court, the play revolves around an aging Falstaffian, tragi-comic hero, Jonny “Rooster” Byron, former motorbike daredevil turned drug dealer and teller of great tales. Rooster lives in old caravan deep in a Wiltshire wood. The play is set on the day of the local country fair, which is also St George’s day and Shakespeare’s birthday, and follows Rooster as he welcomes assorted visitors in search of highs the country fair can’t offer. Jerusalem conjures up a timeless, loamy, emphatically English brew of Fairy Queens and Girls Aloud, of ancient legends and late-night raves, whizz and Robin Hood, all threatened by the forces of modernity in the form of two hi-viz clad council officers set on expelling Rooster from his home. Like the author of the other Jerusalem, Butterworth was born in London and has spent most of his life in the city.

How can London play its part in addressing England’s discontent?

I point all this out not just as a matter of cultural curiosity. England has gained a new power as a source of social and cultural identity and political mobilisation. This renewed sense of Englishness tends to be represented as a problem for progressive politics, on the grounds that the politics of English nationhood is, or has become, firmly reactionary – that every Englander is a little Englander.

England certainly voted for Brexit in higher numbers than the other nations, and support for Brexit is strongest among those who identify as English. But this is too fast. There are many versions of England, including progressive, inclusionary ones - ones at home in the modern, globalised world. Writers like Mike Kenny and Sunder Katwala have written well about the various civic, polychrome versions of Englishness out there. This was an England on display in its World Cup team last summer – a team that, in its “diversity and youth”, as Gareth Southgate put “represents modern England”.

To the extent that English identity is bound up with a sense of grievance, it’s hardly surprising. The nations of the United Kingdom now enjoy their own political identity and democratic institutions, but England does not. Scottish and Welsh cultural, political and civic leaders view their national identity as a source of pride, creativity and democratic possibility, but English elites are generally ill at ease with Englishness. As former Labour minister John Denham has argued in his recent Speaker’s Lecture, if Englanders are more susceptible to narrow and nostalgic forms of nationalism, as manifest in support for Brexit, this is in important part explained by our failure to develop more open and creative versions of Englishness or English political institutions.

If London is going to play its part in answering English discontent and developing a more creative version of what it means to be English in the modern world, then we need to understand, celebrate and develop London’s identity not just as a global capital, but as a British one, and even more, an English one.

What does this mean in practice? Here’s a few ideas. First, the Mayor’s cultural team should actively promote work that speaks to and explores English identities as well of course, as supporting efforts to open up London’s cultural offer to those who feel most marginalised by the capital’s success. Professor Tony Travers has suggested that the Mayor and boroughs should get into the habit of naming new developments after English or British places or their famous children. Birmingham Gardens? Liverpool Square? Alfred Wallace Park, Hepworth Street or Hockney Road?

London’s great cultural institutions (or the Mayor, or the City of London) could develop a programme to showcase the history or current culture of other parts of the nation, inviting Leeds, say, or Cornwall, to exhibit in the capital. I’d love to see the Museum of London staging more exhibitions that explored some of the links between capital and country. These would be small low-cost gestures but ones that would do a lot to address London’s reputation for arrogance and demonstrate its interest in the rest of its nation. Centre for London (the London think tank of which I am Director) has argued that if and when the politics of Brexit become less all-absorbing, the Mayor should launch a ‘London is Yours’ campaign on the model of the current ‘London is Open’ campaign, to bring together these and other measures aimed at strengthening London’s connections to England.

Beyond these cultural initiatives, London needs to find other ways of contributing to England’s political renewal.

Unfortunately, by far the most helpful move - a programme of radical English devolution - is not in the capital’s control. London suffers from its association with our massively overly centralised and increasingly maladroit system of national government. With Whitehall and Parliament cut down to size, London the city would a look a lot less overbearing. Nevertheless there is much the mayor can do to make common political cause with other English cities and regions, including campaigning with them for greater self-government. The Mayor of London and London government need to be out there, making a case for an open English culture and English democratic institutions.

Sadiq Khan is in fact particularly well suited to help here. A Muslim Londoner from a Pakistani family, he appears at ease with his Englishness, among his many other identities. Would he consider developing his passing remarks about London being an English city, and give a speech on London’s place in a new progressive politics of English nationhood?

A different version of this piece previously appeared in the New Statesman.

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