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Sometimes the most telling events are those that fail to happen. To judge by the political pressures acting on London in recent years, the city should be turning away from the world. Mistrust of international capital has calcified into a permanent force in public life since the financial crash. Immigration is, according to some surveys, the foremost worry among voters. Populist movements against globalisation are thriving across Europe, from Spain to Greece, and even in Scandinavia. New York, that festival of money, elected a mayor, Bill de Blasio, who crusades against inequality and perfidious finance.
London could have succumbed to the trend. Barriers to people and capital might have sprung up. Nostalgia for the 1970s, when the city was parochial but affordable, had a chance of becoming received wisdom. London’s moment at the vortex of globalisation should be fading, with hungrier cities of the east — Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong — all primed to take on a role it has tired of.
Instead, this remains an open city, seemingly happy to take its chances in the world. Bankers have been tarred, feathered and re-regulated but the worst of the backlash seems to be over, with George Osborne, the UK chancellor, announcing the end of the retribution phase in his Mansion House speech this year. Immigration, despite the government’s draconian efforts, continues to grow: the net inflow to the UK was 330,000 in the year to March 2015, and many of those arrivals were London bound.
Seven years on from the crash, our politics remains strikingly undistorted by populist fevers. The UK Independence party scored 4m votes in the May general election, but only one parliamentary seat. In London, the party is a non-entity. And even the most leftwing of Boris Johnson’s plausible heirs as mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, aspires to be the “most pro-business mayor London’s ever had”. Labour itself is seized by firebrand politics, and just elected London MP Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But this event is a curiosity precisely because it jars with the general moderation in the country.
May 7 was, we will come to see, a turning point. A Labour government led by Ed Miliband would have curbed some of London’s globalism, if only inadvertently. Higher taxes on wealth and tighter regulation of business seemed likely. As well as these material disincentives, the sheer rhetoric of leftwing populism may have quelled animal spirits among globally mobile workers or investors. Their marginal decisions about where to locate and invest tend to favour London because the city is so hospitable. There is nothing inevitable or permanent about that, as we may have discovered had the election gone the other way.
None of this means that openness is suddenly the new normal. If London’s exorbitant house prices do not moderate, people locked out of the market may blame foreign buyers, not the rigidity of their own country’s planning laws. Another financial crash — a non-trivial prospect as Chinese equities suffer — would snap voters’ patience with a banking industry they do not much like or understand. British withdrawal from the EU would send some companies to the continent or Dublin; banks already have contingency plans. And politics still gets in the way of new airport capacity for the city, decades after a decision should have been made.
For the time being, though, the creed of openness you might call Londonism survives. Perhaps it is hardwired into this ancient trading city. If so, the decades after the second world war, when the City was sleepy and skyscrapers were proscribed, constituted the real aberration. And the intensely globalised London of the early-millennium boom years, when the banks and the mansions and even the football clubs were up for grabs, was just a return to the laxity of Victorian London, which took in exiled rogues from the continent and allowed fortunes to be amassed.
If liberalism is in London’s bloodstream, then the foreign rivals to its position look less daunting. Infrastructure can be built anywhere, but mores and habits of mind are harder to replicate. Singapore cannot suddenly become a cultural free for all, any more than Paris can fall in love with capitalism overnight. A city, like a person, has its own tastes and aversions, which is why Peter Ackroyd called his opus London: The Biography. These traits are ingrained over centuries and usually linked to the culture of the country to which a city is appended. London’s open disposition cannot be learnt.