I want to talk about the EU Referendum, London, and history. And I want to flag up my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop on 4th July.
History first: a slippery term. We use it to refer both to the historical process, the raw sequence of past events; and also to the study, interpretation, and teasing out of meanings from that process. Historical interpretation is always about a past which is addressed from the standpoint of the present. It always involves a dialogue between past and present and – at its best – a new understanding of the past in the light of the present, or vice versa, or both.
So let’s talk about past and present. Let’s talk about yesterday and today. Yesterday – 23rd June 2016 – was the day when we all voted in the EU Referendum. Today – 24th June 2016 – is the day when we learned that we had voted to leave. By any measurement, this is an historic moment, a dramatic moment. It is also, in my view, a catastrophic moment. The 17 million people who voted Leave have set us on a course which will blight and belittle this country for the rest of our lives.
As for the national and regional breakdown of the vote, as expected, Scotland and London were the two great strongholds of the vote to Remain. The Scottish case is, I think, well understood: a direct outcome of its national politics over the past 15 to 20 years, including the 2014 Referendum and the current domination of the SNP. But what about London?
I think the London vote, and the divide between London and the rest of England and Wales, is the latest manifestation of an historic truth which goes back to the Civil War: that London is not part of England; that London is its own place.
What characterises London, and has done since the seventeenth century, is its sheer size, its weight, by comparison with the rest of the country. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, London was an average-sized European capital city. But by 1650 when Cromwell was in power, London’s population had grown five-fold. By 1700 it was the largest city in western Europe. By 1800 it was a city of a million people, an unprecedented urban phenomenon. No other capital city matched it either for size, or for the sheer weight of its economic, political and cultural dominance.
London’s population growth was based not on native Londoners having lots of children, but on sustained inward migration from the rest of Britain. The city’s death-rate was sky-high because it was over-crowded, filthy and disease-ridden – but immigrants continued to arrive on such a scale that, despite this mortality, it still grew.
And this had dramatic economic consequences, because each migrant from the countryside to London was one less agricultural worker, and one more urban consumer. London’s growth depopulated parts of the countryside, and gave farmers both an incentive and an opportunity to rationalise and reorganise agriculture on a capitalist basis in order to feed the city’s enormous appetite. Similarly with clothing: cloth trades were London’s biggest industry, again organised as a highly competitive sector, from petty-bourgeois artisans at the top end to deadly but profitable sweatshops at the bottom. And similarly with building: the absence of any city-wide administration meant that London’s suburbs simply sprawled outwards into the surrounding countryside, facilitated by the building-lease system which split risks and profits between landowners and builders. London drove the commercial logic that led to Britain’s emergence as the world’s first capitalist country.
London’s phenomenal growth was not a pleasant process. It involved enormous violence and misery. It was only in the nineteenth century that city-wide institutions started to appear to tackle dirt, disease, poverty and poor housing. I am not arguing that London was – or is – intrinsically nicer, or more sophisticated, or more advanced, than the rest of the country. What I am arguing is that London was – and is – utterly different from the rest of the country. It was – and is – a different place, in which politics and culture work in different ways. It was – and is – a city predicated on migration, in and out. It was not – and is not – England’s biggest city, but rather an extraordinary urban prodigy adjacent to England.
And I reckon London’s vote in the Referendum is the latest reflection of this difference. What we do with it, whether we can put it to work against the catastrophic consequences of Brexit, isn’t yet clear. But getting a grasp on London’s unique history should at least give us food for thought.
I’ll be tackling some of these issues in my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop in Upper Norwood, at 7.30 pm on Monday 4th July. All welcome. For more go to http://booksellercrow.co.uk/event/making-london-suburb/?instance_id=151