I’ve written at length before on the topic of London vs The Rest of the UK.
It’s a process that started way back in the 80s as London property prices began to outstrip wages at an ever increasing pace, coupled to a migration within the UK, of talented people, essential workers and the young, heading to the Capital in the 1990s and early 2000s. Tony Blair’s policy of encouraging mass-migration from 1998 onwards accelerated the economic growth of London, and the changing ethnic make-up of the Capital.
As explained in the essay published two years ago in Notes From The Margins, money, getting rich quick, or joining the cosy cliques of power and influence, is the social glue which holds London and the South-East together. People there are generally able to forget, or at least set aside, the ancient grudges and sectarian hatred of their home turf, in order to have a better material life. And that money train shows no sign of stopping, despite the Brexit vote, as Google, ASOS and others continue to announce jobs investment in London, seeing it as a separate country, and crucially, an economy with a future – unlike Ulster, Wales, Scotland or the North of England.
Austerity Britain? Not in London my fellow citizens, and you only have to walk the streets of the Capital to see, and feel, the buzz, the vibrancy of the place. Building work is everywhere, massive infrastructure projects abound such as the Supersewer, London Bridge station, Heathrow expansion etc. plus millionaires-only-please apartments, boutique hotels, flagship Swiss watch emporiums, luxury car showrooms et al pepper the streets as the world’s rich continue to colonise our Capital with their funny money, which needs to be laundered by the professionals in the City.
THE GROWTH OF ENCLAVES
There is no doubt that the 2008 financial crash and recession has not impacted anywhere near as profoundly within the M25, as it has across the rest of the UK. Likewise, the social division, the emergence of distinct enclaves, based on religious belief, overseas nationality or local work opportunities, is nowhere near so sharply drawn in Greenwich or Battersea, as it is in Gainsborough or Blackburn.
Although London and the SE has its gated communities, posh avenues where private security vans patrol after dark, and servants from overseas whisper like ghosts from outbuildings, to main houses, via back garden paths, the majority of the population is undeniably integrated. People of all skin colours, backgrounds, religions and sexual preferences work and travel together, eat at the same fast food chains, watch the same tedious football or cricket matches. The overarching reason for existing in London, suffering the noxious traffic fumes and outrageous rents, is the dream of making it big; starting a business, getting promoted to a senior level, or seizing one of the many opportunities that may come your way.
But spend a few days in towns like Luton, Bradford, Blackburn, Wrexham or cities like Manchester, Sheffield or Leeds. It won’t take you long to find areas where one particular language or dialect is the dominant one, where many people do not speak more than a few words of English.
More concerning still, is the long term under-employment of around half of the working age population. Groups of young men – of all skin colours – can be seen hanging around with absolutely no career prospects. Women struggle to find anything more challenging than part-time work in supermarkets, carer agencies or shops. Men aged 45 or older are simply ignored, screened out of the jobs market by ruthless recruitment agencies, who insist on seeing applicants passports so they can discriminate by birth date. In short, there is no career ladder, no upward social mobility, which can act as a salve upon the wounds of ethnic or religious divisions.
It isn’t just a Brexit-fuelled casual racism which stalks the regions of the UK, although there are plenty of white British folk sullenly willing the foreigners out of their impoverished lives. The lack of hope, the grim realisation that things will NEVER get any better, no matter how hard you work, is something which drives all people, indigenous and new arrivals, to settle in familiar tribal surroundings. Form the wagons in a circle, is the unspoken agreement.
You can see this strong community identity best in a place like Belfast, where a peace wall segregates Catholic and Protestant, over 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement. People simply stick together, no matter what, and hold fast to the idea that incomers are not to be trusted, locals set the unwritten rules, and the Police should stay out of matters unless specifically invited in to resolve something serious.
The same mindset can be witnessed in Sheffield or Bradford, Salford or Burnley. You only have to look properly to find it.
EQUALITY, FREE SPEECH AND TOLERANCE ARE THE PILLARS OF PROGRESS
I’m talking equality of opportunity, regardless of gender, age or religion, or geographical location. It’s time to derail the London Economic Express and build a high speed social mobility ladder that has lower rungs across ALL of the UK – Scotland, Wales, the North and Ulster.
There must be freedom to worship any God, or no God at all if you like and those who espouse violence towards rival sects, or unbelievers, must be jailed – and sometimes deported – for the sake of wider social tolerance. A study of the tragic history of Northern Ireland shows how religious differences can be hijacked by those who would send young men, and women, on the fool’s errand of war. We must not lose our love of free speech, the ability to debate issues openly, or laugh at a risque or bad taste joke. Hate Speech is the stuff that Hitler, Pol Pot or Stalin spoke, not a reasoned criticism of men who would rather kill their female relatives, than let them marry a man they loved.
Those who seek to stifle debate by shouting about offending others need to understand that an enforced silence breeds suspicion, jealousy and deep division within society.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING, EVEN IN LONDON
Soon, automation and AI will sweep away millions of jobs and I have news for Londoners – you are not immune from this second Industrial Revolution. You will suffer too. City traders and stockbrokers will be replaced by algorithms, many teachers will lose their positions to glowing screens and self-learning software, and surgeons will find their sewing skill cannot match a robot’s adroit touch.
The answer to this mass unemployment is Universal Basic Income, and a social contract which ring fences certain jobs as requiring the human touch, the understanding that ultimately we all live by the kindness of strangers.
Those who cannot help construct a new social, political and economic future, where all of us may thrive – not just the morally superior virtue-signallers of London – will condemn everyone to a soulless, automated existence, where we seek shelter in divided tribes, simmering with anger. This internal economic and social separation, the segregation of people within the UK by faith, language or cultural heritage, will become a much bigger problem that the slanging match surrounding Brexit.
These problems have very little to do with the EU, these are structural changes that are irrevocable, profound and global. Every nation is going to be affected by AI, from Indian call centre to Turkish car parts factory. How we deal with an increasingly segregated Britain will ultimately define our values, our humanity. Or the lack of it.