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The bombers who struck at London aimed at the city as a whole and not the City, its financial and business hub. Yet this attack on people as they travelled to work was by extension an effort to cripple the places where many were heading – the banks and service sector companies that generate much of London’s wealth.
As Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, wisely observed in his reaction to the attacks, it is a multicultural place, thronging with all nationalities. Immigrants and visitors from Europe, Asia and the US do everything from serving in cafés to working in advertising agencies and trading derivatives in banks in Canary Wharf.
London’s role as an entrepôt city goes back centuries. The City itself has always depended on immigration: the Barings, Rothschilds and Warburgs all came from continental Europe. It is more multicultural than ever these days: investment banks and law firms draw their employees from all corners of the earth. Many investment banks are now under US, Swiss and German ownership.
London has learnt to be tolerant of foreigners – even foreign investors and business owners – because they have been good for the city. In the recent debates over the European Union constitution, the French fear of “the Polish plumber” taking local jobs seemed strange to many Londoners. The more qualified plumbers in an expensive city the better.
The City’s international nature draws other companies to London. They come because there is a pool of expertise and investors in the city as well as cheap flights to Europe and the rest of the world. Were it not so easy both to come to London and to fly out – or to pass through on business trips – London and Britain would be less prosperous.
Businesses as different as Skype, a software company that provides free internet telephony, and Mittal Steel, the leading global steel company, chose London as their headquarters for that reason. Niklas Zennstrom, the Swedish co-founder of Skype, has been able to recruit people from all over Europe who are attracted to the city by its variety of opportunity.
So London would be damaged if the bombs made people afraid either of coming to the city or of travelling around it. Without the freedom of movement and openness to all-comers that have helped to create London, it would be diminished. The bombers were not stupid: they knew that they could strike at the city’s economy by by disrupting its transport.
It would be awful if their tactics worked but I do not believe they will. It takes more than a few bombs – no matter how cruelly destructive – to alter values acquired over generations. The willingness to welcome outsiders, for your good as well as for theirs, is not an easy attitude to acquire but it is also difficult to shake off.
Shutting London to immigrants in an effort to make it safer and more stable – transforming it into a kind of Geneva of the north – would not only be impossible but inconceivable. The businesses that form the heart of the city would protest vociferously at any attempt to clamp down on the open metropolis. The porous nature of London carries some risks but it has brought enormous rewards.
Nor do I imagine the bombs having a lasting effect on the attitudes of potential immigrants. Will somebody from Latvia or Poland move to Paris instead of London because it might be safer? Not only are the chances of being caught in a bombing still small but al-Qaeda has attacked cities and targets across the world.
Finally, Thursday had little impact on the infrastructure of business and finance in London. Not only did many more people die in the attacks of September 11 2001, but the Twin Towers were destroyed and Wall Street buildings were severely damaged. It was a struggle to settle some financial trades immediately after the attacks. In this case, London markets carried on working as normal.
Of course, London’s economy is not immune from the effects of terrorism. Some companies will be affected by the bombs. Tourists may be put off, as they were at the height of the IRA bombings in the 1980s; airlines and hotels could suffer a fall in business. If these attacks were followed by other, more severe, ones it would have a cumulative impact.
The most important question for all companies – large and small – is whether the city grows afraid to be itself. As it happens, I live in the East End of London, close to Aldgate Tube station and the Royal London Hospital, where 200 of the injured were brought. Next to the hospital is is Tayyabs, a Pakistani restaurant that is normally packed.
Tayyabs boasts on its cards: “The clientele is a blend of multicultural London: locals, fashionable East End creatives, city bankers and families, all enjoying an authentic taste of the subcontinent.” So, after things had quietened down on Thursday, I went over to see how business was doing. Sure enough, its blue neon signs were lit, the tables full and the customers looked as varied as usual.
You cannot extrapolate from one restaurant to an entire city but it was still reassuring. Business does not exist separately from society: it is part of the same fabric. If Thursday’s attacks had torn the cloth, they would have achieved their destructive end. But London’s fabric still holds and the businesses that form part of the city should be grateful for that.
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