You can see exactly what Gordon Brown and his think tank Our Scottish Future were thinking when they commissioned a poll about ‘common bonds’ across the UK. It was a shoo-in, wasn’t it? It is axiomatic of British Unionism that we are ‘one community’ bound together firmly by Strictly Come Dancing and the love of a good knees-up whenever something happens to a member of the Royal family.
You can see quite clearly why they scheduled it this week – billing a Thursday night meeting run by the think tank as a ‘rally’ is a bold move given the general level of failure for Scotland’s pro-union forces to amass in numbers in a way that doesn’t look like a riot. A bit of in-the-bag opinion poll news/propaganda to drum up interest made perfect sense.
What is quite a lot harder to understand is why they still went ahead with the media launch once they got the results of the poll. Because the results are pretty dire for the cause of unionism. It turns out that if you put 20 Scots in room and ask them about their ‘common bonds’ with London (by which we really mean the Greater London area), you can’t get four of them to say they have any.
I’m not sure whether or not I’m personally surprised by this. On the one hand, a sociologist would quickly tell you about the difference between ‘functional communities’ (ones that operate on direct shared experience and cooperation, like a local community) and ‘imagine communities’ (groups of people who se themselves as ‘the same’ even if they never meet).
People tend to overstate ‘community’ and ‘bonds’ when it comes to imagined communities because it’s really identity that binds them together. But on the other hand, Londoners have to deal with the endless British failures in the same way the rest of us do. Doesn’t that create solidarity?
It is here where it seems to me the Our Scottish Futures move backfired. Because clearly it doesn’t. Even Brown himself puts this down to disillusionment with ‘London-centrism’. Or let’s put it another way – we’re not feeling solidarity with London for our travails, we’re blaming them.
Let me start by being clear that this isn’t quite fair. ‘London’ is a place filled with people and it’s not hard to find people who aren’t doing personally well out of the ‘London miracle’. London is filled with poverty. Equally London is a young, metropolitan city. It didn’t vote for Brexit, or Truss.
It isn’t difficult to make the case that the young London professional is as hard hit (perhaps more-so) by the UK’s terrible housing market as anyone. I lived in London and it can be great – but it can also be hell.
“We’re going to dismantle your economy and then explain you’re not important because you have no economy” – yeah, talk about ties that bind
And yet, make no mistake, the UK’s problems are very largely down to London. It is a remarkably avaricious city. It has a swaggering ideology of its own supremacy which blinds it (as a political entity) to how people feel about it. And it takes and takes.
The average European capital city has twice the GDP-per-head of the rest of their nations. Capital cities create and attract wealth. But London is so, so different you end up doing a double-take – it has five times the per capita GDP of the rest of the UK. And how you see this is central to how you view London.
Because what Londoners believe is that this happens because London is brilliant and earns this money fair and square and is actually probably a bit too generous in sharing some of it with the rest of us. We hear this all the time – it is the ‘engine of our economy’.
But as we can see, what the rest of the UK believes is different. They see London as rigging the economy in its own favour, centralising everything and grasping anything it can – while failing to support the rest of the nation in a way that gives them a fighting chance to catch up.
And what one of those groups believes is a lot truer than the beliefs of the other. I mean, when Boris Johnstone says (as Mayor of London) that a pound invested there is worth more than a pound invested in ‘Strathclyde’ he is telling you two things. First he is telling you that he is celebrating the rigging of the economy in favour of London and plans to do it more.
Secondly it tells you he doesn’t care enough about ‘everywhere else’ to note that ‘Strathclyde’ had ceased to exist more than a decade before he said it. But picking on Boris is pointless because he is just clumsily phrasing what is a generally-held view – if ‘the north’ and ‘Wales’ were kind of important when Britain was an industrial economy, they just aren’t if it is a financialised economy.
And yet whose idea was the financialised economy? “We’re going to dismantle your economy and then explain to you that you’re not important because you have no economy.” Yeah, talk about ties that bind.
This is the thing; people are pissed off with London and they are 100 per cent right to be. The UK housing market is run on the basis of a strategy for London asset prices. Banks are ‘a London thing’ and are always bailed out and protected. Expenditure on almost everything in London is much, much higher than anywhere else – and they think that’s ‘natural’.
(Seriously, HS2 is inordinately expensive and generally contemptuous to anyone other than London, arts spending in London is 15 times higher per capita than outside London. The total public investment gap between the North of England and London doubled between 2019 to 2021, from a difference of £1,513 per person to £3,008…)
What I find really amusing about all of this is that this was basically my entire pitch during the independence referendum in 2013 and 2014. The SNP (at the time) and Yes Scotland were both totally convinced that criticising London or the UK was a mistake and so didn’t do it. I looked at this and very specifically concluded it was utterly daft.
Because then as now the strongest reason for Scottish independence is that we exist in a state which is not managed in our interests. In fact I suspect a lot of what are seen as ‘common bonds’ with places which aren’t London are basically a sympathy for the fact that things aren’t managed in their interests either.
Gordon Brown seems wrapped up in his ‘you, me and everyone else, huddled round our TV, drinking Tetley and watching Coronation Street’ conception of the UK, a place of love and fraternal feelings
This was seen as a radical position in 2014 – and yet very shortly afterwards it became absolutely UK policy and economic doctrine. This happened because it is overwhelmingly, patently, inarguably true. Call it what you want (‘levelling up’ if you must, ‘Northern Powerhouse’ if you have a longer memory), but it is a recognition that the UK is fundamentally the most regionally unequal nation in Europe. By miles.
Seriously, you will not now find a credible economist in Britain who does not recognise that this is a serious issue. Many now realise it is an existential issue – if other parts of the UK start to question ‘the deal’ (“we’ll make you poor through policy which makes us rich so we can send you charity – you’re welcome.”), the UK is in trouble.
And they are. Wales is thoroughly pissed off. Brexit was two things – a racist rant at Europe from the south and a strange anti-London rebellion in the north based on neglect and the sense that the politicians who had screwed them over wanted them to vote Remain so fuck them. Northern Ireland is on the slow process of walking out the door.
The fundamental problem for the UK as a political entity is that it is two political entities – the City State of London and everyone else. And ‘everyone else’ is fragmented. Go on, see what news about events in Wales, or Yorkshire, or Cornwall you come across in an average day. We suffer collectively and yet alone.
It is very hard for the UK to get out of this. The UK is a one-trick pony; inflate London, let the wealth spill over (a bit). It has no coherent strategy for an economy which isn’t basically that. They’re all petrified to challenge this (look at Starmer…) even as they know it is leading to the break-up of the UK if something isn’t done.
After all, look at the relationship over time between economic growth in UK regions compared to the UK average. Basically the Midlands manage a whisker above average, London miles above average and absolutely everyone else is below average. Overwhelming the average Briton gets screwed by London. And you want to know why the UK is falling apart?
It is only four or five years since, in a debate with a well-known unionist think-tank, I raised this and was told my numbers were wrong and the UK wasn’t overly centralised. This was pure ‘alternative facts’ and no-one could credibly say this out loud anymore.
And yet Gordon Brown didn’t seem to realise this. He genuinely seems wrapped up in his ‘you, me and everyone else, huddled round our TV, drinking Tetley and watching Coronation Street’ conception of the UK, a place of love and fraternal feelings.
But I think that they have probably learned something important from this, which is that culture is all very well but it can’t trump economics forever. This is really how the Union falls apart. Which kind of leaves one remaining question – has the SNP learned anything, or does it still think that a row over gender reform or recycling bottles is what is going to cause the UK to separate?