I left London in 2002 more or less by accident. A cousin had casually mentioned that you could get a decent flat in Paris for £60,000, so I crossed the Channel and bought one. I didn’t plan to live in it, but it felt like compensation for never having bought in London. A few months later, after my London flat-share hit trouble, I tried Paris for a spring. I’m still here, now accompanied by a wife and three Parisian children.
But thoughts of returning to London do occasionally surface. The place looks better than I can ever remember it, and the Brexit vote has deflated property prices a touch. Warren Buffett says: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” So post-Brexit might be the time to buy a share in London. Yet even if the city becomes cheaper, I still don’t see that it makes sense for a family.
London starts out with three strikes against: high costs, bad weather and a sprawling expanse that means getting around can take for ever. High costs have a particularly damaging knock-on effect: for most Londoners, money becomes an obsession. You need lots of it to afford a decent life here, so you spend lots of time thinking about money. That’s why so many middle-class London conversations are, famously, about house prices. As John Lanchester, author of the novel Capital, has remarked, the most frightening words in the English language aren’t “I had a very interesting dream last night” (Oscar Wilde’s candidate) but “Did you hear how much they got for that house down the road?”
Median Londoners don’t have much money left after paying for their housing, but they keep bumping into rich people. One evening in my late twenties I went out with an old friend, an investment banker, who let slip over cheap Chinese food that he was on a “seven-figure package”. I suddenly felt depressed about my own perfectly decent income.
In Paris I don’t meet many millionaires. The real luxury in life is not money, but not having to think about money, and that state of being is more attainable in Paris than in London.
Brexit may have the unintended consequence of reducing the role of money in London life. If some rich people like my banker friend are pushed abroad, there will be more air for people like me. However, even before Brexit happens, it is already tarnishing London’s biggest asset: its openness to the world.
London’s era of peak openness only began about 20 years ago. In 1993 the EU legally became a single market, making it easier for continental Europeans to live in London. The Eurostar opened a year later, and then easyJet and Ryanair connected the city to places all over Europe. Meanwhile, London’s financial industry was becoming more global, and the money sucked in people from everywhere.
But in the debate over Brexit — even before the vote for it in June — the British public sent an unmistakable signal to the government that it wanted less openness. I can already see the consequences in my own little working world. As a columnist, I’m always looking for ideas. I often try to find them at conferences.
However, since 2015 the rules governing visiting conference speakers seem to have tightened: in many cases, those from outside the EU now need a work permit to give even one paid talk at one conference. I can’t see most speakers bothering. Either they will break the law and pretend they are tourists, or London’s many conferences are going to get less varied.
Another good place to steal ideas is academia. Since the 1990s, British universities have filled up with excellent academics from everywhere. But imagine a German academic who gets an offer of tenure at a British university now. The department trying to hire her might already be losing its European grants. Then she has to guess: will British employment rules change after Brexit? Can her German spouse make a career in London? Families have to make decisions for the long term, and the Brexit vote has deprived London of another of its biggest assets: predictable long-term stability.
London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, knows that his battle will be to keep the capital open. He may even succeed, especially once the rest of the UK realises how dependent it is on London’s tax revenues.
But for now I prefer to be two hours, 15 minutes by train from London. In a few days’ time I’ll be whizzing over again. I will run around meeting work contacts, then have dinner with a group of friends (none of whom live in London any more, mostly because it’s too expensive). The next day I’ll attend a festival, then go back to raising a family in Paris.