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‘We love our city and belong to it. Neither of us are English; we’re Londoners, you see,” wrote Hanif Kureishi in his screenplay for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The film touches on a theme that has become even more powerful since its 1987 release – the idea that to be a Londoner is to transcend nationhood and, in particular, Englishness. Economically and financially, London has diverged from the rest of the country. Culturally and politically, there are signs that its 7.8m inhabitants are doing the same.
As the old tale goes, to be a true Londoner (a “cockney”) one has to be born within earshot of the church bells of St Mary Le Bow in Cheapside. This criterion matches the conception of a Londoner through the popular media in the 20th century – white, working-class and from the east of the city. This is the London of EastEnders, the BBC soap opera, and of songs such as “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner”.
Consider, though, whether that piece of popular wisdom is actually rather inclusive. Before cars, the chiming could be heard for miles around. The bells ask nothing of one’s parentage or ethnicity. They do not call on people to hold any specific points of view. One presumably does not even have to enter the church itself to be a Londoner.
“In other cities, many years must pass before a foreigner is accepted; in London it takes many months,” writes Peter Ackroyd in his magnificent London: A Biography. The capital has been a city of immigrants for centuries, from Romans to Russians. William Wordsworth wrote about how it has “every character of form and face”. Today, less than half of London’s population is what demographers call White British. Few cities in history have consistently changed with so little violence and turmoil.
This does not mean that London is a multicultural cosmopolitan utopia. Inequality and segregation exist as well as community. But the flows of people over the centuries, which have accelerated in the 21st, indicate that for many around the world London is the future. Not just their future but in a very real sense, that of humanity, an ever more bustling urban creed. Ackroyd quotes from Windrush, a history of the Caribbean migrations to London after the second world war. Its authors, Mike and Trevor Phillips, argue that people were not migrating to England but to London, since it was the best way “to engage with the broad currents of modernity”. So it remains.
Today, to be a Londoner is to be part of this mix of modernity, migrants and money. It is to be at the vanguard of globalisation with all the opportunity and risk that entails. Its people are on average more liberal than elsewhere in the country. While it triumphed in other parts of England, the UK Independence party polled poorly in the capital.
A majority of Londoners believe immigration is a good thing compared with only 25 per cent elsewhere in Britain, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. They are more likely to believe that the EU is a positive institution. Londoners are also more tolerant of mixed ethnicity and same-sex relationships.
It is easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that this relative tolerance is an abstract quality that the city passes on to its citizenry. It might be. But it is more likely that the people who go to London (or are brought up there) are more liberal. They self-select.
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing argue that in the US, like-minded people are increasingly clustering together. Something of the same might be happening this side of the Atlantic, suggests Neil O’Brien, the former head of the Policy Exchange think-tank and an adviser to George Osborne, the chancellor. Britons with degrees, for example, are increasingly concentrated in London.
In an essay for The Spectator magazine, O’Brien argued for the existence of “Planet London” orbiting the rest of the UK.
This is a slight exaggeration. Londoners, like people everywhere, have multiple identities. Urban and national identities can sit side-by-side. But it is revealing that when it comes to these national identities, Londoners, especially ethnic minorities tend to see themselves as British rather than English, according to the BSA. They associate Britishness with openness and Englishness with intolerance: to them, identifying as English is choosing the rind of postcolonial Britain rather than the zest.
Questions of identity loom large over British politics. There was the Scottish referendum on independence. A Conservative victory in next year’s general election would kickstart the possible exit of the UK from the EU. The UK Independence party is aiming to win parliamentary seats for the first time. If England turns inwards, Londoners, who face outwards, will feel ever more unusual.