This week, my partner Lynne drove my daughter Hannah, a car full of Hannah’s possessions and – as ballast – me from Manchester to Catford, south-east London.
The experience, as well as being vital to Hannah, who was moving jobs and flats, was instructive because I’ve become increasingly worried about the future shape of Britain, particularly if the Scots vote for independence at the referendum in September, a potential result which I don’t think many people, including me, have thought through.
I’ve written quite a lot about the divide between the South-East, and particularly London, and the rest of the country and if I kept better files, I could tell you when I first suggested that London was effectively in a different country from the rest of the UK and even the rest of England; a view which – because of the huge distortions in the South-East property market, the fact that more than a third of London residents were born abroad and the presence in the capital of unimaginably rich people – has also started to worry many other provincial Britons.
The fear is that we’re living in the wrong Britain; that there are parts of the islands whose purpose is to feed the bloated cuckoo which is the London-centred financial services industry, while the rich get richer and the rest of us have to endure lectures about the importance of pulling in our belts – and this is not entirely metaphorical; I once watched a hedge sparrow which incessantly fed a young cuckoo until the worn-down sparrow looked to be at death’s door while the cuckoo grew almost too fat to fly. I couldn’t work out which of the two birds I should admire most, the selfless one or the successful one, but I did conclude that the race is not always to the noble, or indeed the useful.
However. On our visit to Catford, we stayed overnight in Greenwich, which is very close to Catford but which straddles two worlds – on the one side there are council flats, fairly ordinary take-aways, Asian groceries, small houses (admittedly at enormous prices), and unpretentious, even slightly seedy, pubs full of English-born customers of various colours. It’s not a foreign country.
But across the river is Docklands and Canary Wharf; an extraordinary place which looks like a steroid- (or possibly cocaine-) enhanced version of Shanghai or Dubai. It’s doesn’t look like anywhere else in Britain and actually, since most of the businesses based there are foreign or global, there’s no reason it should.
The question is whether, if Scotland splits off (unlikely but perfectly possible), the rest of the former United Kingdom can carry on as usual, and I think the answer is No.
London is a great international capital because it was once the hub of a huge empire, of which Scotland was once a very important part.
Stripped of Scotland and the empire, there’s no need for us to have an overblown, all-powerful capital served by thousands of MPs and civil servants; we can, in the English regions and not just Wales and Northern Ireland, devolve ourselves.
David Lloyd George noted, about a century ago, that there was a divide between the “progressive North” and the “semi-feudal”, Tory-dominated South.
There still is, but I don’t think Yorkshire, Cornwall, or other regions (even including south-east London) need to seek a divorce from London-centric England, just a civilised separation.