London's elite doesn't need a city: it thinks it owns the whole country

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The Independent Online
LONDON, promised Tony Blair last week in his speech on constitutional reform, will get its self-government back under a Labour government. Robbed of democratic control when Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986, the capital will once again have a directly elected central authority.

Not everyone in the Disunited Kingdom thinks that London deserves it. A few days before Blair spoke, Ian Bell of the Scotsman aimed a withering blast at the pretensions of London to grandeur and leadership, in spite of "the squalor of London's filthy streets, of its politics, its dealing rooms and its royal palaces".

His target was not the long-suffering common people of the city, but the arrogance of those who govern and prosper there: "London's unshakeable belief that things and people grow in importance the closer they draw to Westminster". In fact, Bell argued, London was drawing further and further away from the other nations and regions which constitute Britain. He cited Michael Heseltine's monstrous gaffe the other day when he told Radio Scotland that devolution was unnecessary because "Scotland is an absolutely critical part of the UK. It has very serious representation in the English Cabinet..."

Bell's point there was not English insensitivity about Scotland. It was that London itself is becoming provincial. It is increasingly alien not only to Scotland and Wales but to other parts of England. And yet it continues to speak "for Britain".

What is this London, and is it still possible to speak of it as a "city" - a self-conscious urban community with a sense of common interests? The word "London" now has at least two meanings. There is the huge middle- class concentration there: the rulers, the professionals, the thousands of media-makers. It is this "Littleminster-on-Thames" which Ian Bell is attacking. And then there is the other London, the ocean of brick and stained concrete whose population is as large as that of Hungary.

To be a city requires more than houses and people. It needs what Benedict Anderson formulated to define a nation: "imagined community", or the conviction that other inhabitants in distant streets, whom one will never meet or see, share elements of a common culture and react to events as one would react oneself. Looking at London and Londoners, it is not easy to have faith in that sense of cohesion.

It is not just the pathetic ugliness of the place, suggesting that whatever this common imagination may be, it is not a visual one. For me, it is the faces - the worn faces of young women on the bus, yellowish with mauve shadows - and the expressions of chronic distrust, as if nobody hoped to see a familiar face among the drab torrent of strangers. London can seem like a predicament rather than a place, in which most people come from somewhere else and wish they could afford to go back there.

Now and then, an individual has arisen who made Londoners aware of their collective fate. One was Hermann Goering. It is wrong to be too sentimental about the Blitz, but those fiery days and nights did produce a sense of identity and pride. "We can take it," people said, even when privately they wondered how much longer they could.

Another was Ken Livingstone. As the years since the abolition of the GLC accumulate, my own admiration for his achievement only grows greater. He did not change the city much physically or economically; by the time Livingstone took over at County Hall, the financial and political powers of the Council had already been cropped almost to nothing. But Livingstone made a virtue of his own impotence. He was a new mutation among politicians, a creature who thrived and grew more popular on a diet of mass-media hatred and slander. He was also post-modern, because he turned the dying GLC into a spectacle of cheeky innovation and fringe celebration. Watching this firework display, Londoners for a moment shared the feeling that this great clown was theirs, and that his London belonged to them all.

The abolition of the GLC remains a political crime whose impudence takes the breath away. Nobody seriously pretends that it was done for other than party-political motives - to destroy a centre of opposition power jeering at Mrs Thatcher from the other bank of the Thames. As an illustration of why Britain needs a written constitution, a supreme law entrenching individual and community rights against the spite of governments, it could not be bettered. But what is even worse is how weakly London's democrats protested.

It's hard to lay too much blame on the disenfranchised millions. Inhabitants rather than citizens, their sense of holding a stake in London was already feeble. The shocking element has been the indifference of Littleminster- on-Thames. Those who enjoy the sense of being influential and metropolitan - the civil servants and the barristers, the doctors and the journalists, the City gents and architects, the head teachers and the lobbyists and even the passive bulk of the politicians - where were they, the great London middle class, when their own local democracy was being demolished under their noses?

They just didn't feel involved. Parliament, Whitehall, the Law Courts - all that was real to them. But London's own urban democracy was merely part of local government, something which might preoccupy little people but which a metropolitan gentry really had no need and no time for. In the history of normal cities, it has been the urban middle class which has fought most tenaciously to defend the cities' rights and privileges against the encroachments of kings. Sometimes the shopkeepers, craftsmen and day-labourers supported them, and sometimes not. But the bourgeoisie fought because without the freedom of their "bourg" they were nothing - nothing but the subjects of a royal province, as much in servitude as rural peasants.

So what is wrong with the Littleminster bourgeoisie? The answer is part of what is so wrong with British political society. They think that it is the whole country that they dominate - because they have sold out their instinct for local rights to the central power which really does dominate the whole country. They fancy that they are masters, but in effect they are servants. They imagine that they are metropolitans, whose horizons fly beyond London to the limits of Britain and perhaps of Europe - but they have made themselves provincials whose world is the disc enclosed by the M25. They believe that they are democrats. But by betraying London, they have made themselves the henchmen of absolute authority.

It is not easy to find remedies for all this. The problem of London is not just a problem of local democracy, but of the distorted relationship of London to the rest of the United Kingdom. Mr Blair's plan to restore an elected body to govern all London is welcome. (Will Labour propose a directly elected mayor for the capital itself? I hope so, but doubt if Mr Blair would risk it.) The bigger malaise remains, however.

Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, and assemblies for English regions that want them, will help. Evicting central government to some English Canberra - Milton Keynes or Harrogate? - is enticing but not practical. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that power talks. If the Council of London is empowered to do great things which the LCC and the GLC could only dream of and if at the same time central government is stripped of much of its authority and glamour, then even Littleminster will take its own city seriously. And Londoners will become citizens at last.