BBC Two’s Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest details the divide between the capital and the regions. Alwyn Turner traces how London ended up holding all the economic, cultural and political cards
The yowls of anger and anguish were inevitable. When, earlier this year, Boris Johnson laid claim to The Beatles as part of London’s heritage, he must have known he was – even by his own high standards – courting controversy. “They recorded their stuff in London and it was London that helped propel them around the world,” he pointed out, and the protests were not confined to the group’s native city of Liverpool. It was bad enough that London sucked in the wealth and talent of the country, many complained, without the perceived note of triumphalism to rub it in.
What made the outrage even greater was the fact that Johnson’s argument was self-evidently true. The all-conquering progress of The Beatles depended entirely on them relocating to the capital in search of a record deal. And the music they went on to make, despite its nods back to their childhood home, was shaped by the like-minded people they encountered there. In 1965 The Daily Telegraph published an article headlined “London: the most exciting city in the world”, and the myth of the Swinging Sixties was born. But no one believed it applied to the whole country. The following year Time famously gave its cover to the city and was quite clear that London was the only place that mattered in the world, let alone in Britain: “It swings; it is the scene.”
Nor was there anything particularly new about the process. A century earlier, the Gateshead-born singer George Leybourne had been discovered performing in Manchester; brought to London by a shrewd promoter, he developed a caricature of the metropolitan swell and, with the song Champagne Charlie, became the first true superstar of the music halls.
Back then, London had been in a phase of rapid growth, ending the 19th century with a population five times larger than it had been at its outset. Other cities – Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester among them – might have been growing by even greater multiples, but still they were dwarfed by the capital. The 1901 census showed that 18 per cent of Great Britain’s population lived in Greater London, up from 11 per cent a hundred years before. Despite the driving force of the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands and North, nowhere else came even close to the numbers of London’s huddled masses.
This was despite the minor part played by manufacturing in the city. Instead its role as the centre of the country’s banking and trade, established in Elizabethan times, ensured its continued significance as the Empire grew. The building of the docks provided direct and indirect employment opportunities that resulted in a new influx of immigrants from elsewhere in Britain and from the colonies. Jewish, Irish and Chinese communities were perhaps the most visible manifestations of London’s expansion, but were far from being alone.
The pattern was well established. The story of Dick Whittington coming from Gloucestershire in the hope of finding streets paved with gold, and ultimately making his fortune in trade, dated from the 14th century. The popular version of that tale, first published in 1604, emphasised the rags-to-riches narrative and went on to be one of the great myths of Victorian pantomime. Whittington effectively became the patron saint of the capital’s newcomers, a symbol of what was possible.
In his footsteps came a wave of writers who were to cement London’s cultural dominance. Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw. They were not cockneys, of course, but all made their name in London and used the city as a springboard to international acclaim.
As seen by the rest of the country, worse was to come with the creation in 1922 of the BBC. From a standing start, ownership of radio sets rose to three million by the end of that decade, to nearly nine million during the 1930s, and for the first time there emerged a national secular culture. John Reith, the BBC’s first and most influential director general, may have been Scottish, but the tone of the broadcaster was from the outset unmistakeably that of the South-East. An advisory committee, under poet laureate Robert Bridges, began to standardise the pronunciation of hundreds of words from Mozart to garage, using the middle-class voice of the Home Counties as its base.
For some, this was a godsend. London comedians had previously been excluded from variety theatres like the Glasgow Empire on the grounds that audiences simply couldn’t understand them; now the bookings began to come (though Southerners were still likely to be bottled off stage). It was, however, largely one-way traffic. For most Northern comics, Broadcasting House was the gateway to success. And that meant toning down anything that sounded too broad: there was little left of Liverpool in the radio voices of Arthur Askey or Tommy Handley.
In more recent times, the BBC has sought to play down its London-centric bias, but it’s still there. The regional franchises historically awarded to ITV companies produced the soap operas Coronation Street, Crossroads and Emmerdale, set in Salford, Birmingham and Yorkshire; the BBC equivalent is EastEnders. And while Doctor Who is nowadays made in Cardiff, the Doctor’s most popular travelling companions – Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – have been explicitly from London. Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor proclaimed his Northern origins (‘lots of planets have a North’), but his successor, David Tennant, concealed his Scottish tones in favour of an estuary accent.
In any event, the decades of London-based radio and television had already done their job of flattening out regional variations. That is one of the charges laid against the capital. Another is that, by attracting the talented and the ambitious, it has drained the rest of the country. In the Fifties, the Angry Young Men were celebrated for articulating the voices of the provinces, but the heroes of the literature, from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim to Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, dreamed of throwing off their small-town shackles and escaping to London. This was the aspiration of the time, and the process has only accelerated, so that 58 per cent of the London workforce is made up of graduates, compared with a national average of 38 per cent.
For socialists, the answer to this imbalance could have been found in a redistribution of cultural wealth. But from its creation in 1946, the Arts Council has focused its money on the great institutions at the heart of the Empire. By 1965 Jennie Lee, then the arts minister, was pointing out that arts funding was skewed towards the capital, yet the situation persists. A report in 2013 found that for every £10 spent per capita in London by government on the arts, only 70p was spent elsewhere in the country. Even allowing for touring companies, that discrepancy was hard to ignore. Jim Hacker in Yes Minister once described arts subsidy as “a middle-class rip-off”, but it’s also possible to see it as a metropolitan rip-off.
Behind these cultural manifestations is a long-standing belief that London is also calling the shots in terms of the economy, with a concentration on financial services in the City at the expense of manufacturing. In vain, it appears, does London protest that it is the largest net contributor to the nation’s reserves, in terms of income and corporation tax and of property charges: council tax is higher, and it accounts for a disproportionate element of stamp duty and inheritance tax. This, the city’s detractors argue, only reflects the fact that it owns an unfair share of the country’s wealth to start with. Every property boom in London further distorts the national economy.
A similar charge is made in politics. The current Government is seen as being out of touch with the electorate not merely because of the individual wealth of its members but also because – with due apology to William Hague and Eric Pickles – it is seen as being metro-centric. So too is the Opposition. The choice is between Notting Hill and Primrose Hill. And even the fact that media reports assume such districts mean anything outside the M25 is a source of irritation; the only way a part of another British city can guarantee national recognition is to stage a riot. London’s dominance has contributed to the antagonism between the electorate and the governing class.
And in that gap Ukip has found room to grow: the party is regularly denounced as a south-eastern, suburban, saloon-bar operation, but it is certainly not the product of London. Despite the standard shorthand of “London and the South East”, the city has actually detached itself even from its geographical surroundings to become, along with New York and Hong Kong, a world city that transcends national origins. Politically it is firmly to the left of its neighbouring counties, despite the celebrity endorsement of Boris Johnson as Mayor.
Again, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1971, Michael Palin visited friends in Guildford, Surrey, and noted in his diary: “They talked about ‘London’ as a descriptive term for all rather suspect, critical, Left-wing, un-British opinions.” The image of the city as the home to what was becoming known as the liberal elite arose in the Sixties and has never quite been shaken off. The reforms that had characterised the second half of that decade – the abolition of the death penalty, the facilitating of divorce, the legalisation of abortion and male homosexuality, the outlawing of racial discrimination – had been achieved despite widespread public distrust. The result, according to Enoch Powell at the time, was a “gulf between the overwhelming majority of the country on the one side, and on the other side a tiny minority, with almost a monopoly hold upon the channels of communication”.
The politician who argued that case most effectively was Margaret Thatcher, especially in her first decade as Conservative leader. “I’m a plain straightforward provincial,” she explained. “I’ve got no hang-ups about my background, like you intellectual commentators in the South East.” And the liberal elite – most notably those sections in receipt of state subsidy – responded with fury, attacking what Jonathan Miller called “her odious suburban gentility”. Yet it was during her premiership that the Big Bang facilitated the transformation of the City, local councils were diminished in status and the decline of the manufacturing North was accelerated.
Ideologically, Thatcher’s greatest foe was not the trade union-dominated Left, led (for want of a better word) by Michael Foot, which was already fading, but the new metropolitan Left that had emerged from those campaigns of the Sixties, symbolised by Ken Livingstone during his time as leader of the Greater London Council. So provocative was the GLC that, using a sledgehammer to crush a nut, the Thatcher government abolished the authority altogether.
It was a short-term display of power that failed to achieve its objective. Because while Thatcherism won the economic argument, Livingstone won everywhere else. In the Eighties, when he was being called “the most odious man in Britain”, he was pilloried for advocating a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland, for demanding the Metropolitan Police change its approach to ethnic minorities, for providing pensioners with free bus travel. Who would have foreseen then a future in which a Conservative-led government would legislate to introduce same-sex marriages?
We’re now living in a country shaped by Thatcherite economics and social and cultural Livingstonism, brought together by Tony Blair (another born-again cockney) and continued by his self-proclaimed heir, David Cameron. Or at least that’s how London is. Following the banking crisis, the extraordinary growth of the Square Mile’s financial industries has resumed, political and economic power is even more concentrated, and the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony sent out an unequivocal message: the green and pleasant land, transformed by the Industrial Revolution, is now defined almost solely by London. Even the NHS sequence of the spectacle was centred on Great Ormond Street Hospital.
In the eyes of the world, Britain is falling ever farther into the shadow cast by its capital city. The pop music that is exported comes from the BRIT School in Croydon or from the mind of Simon Cowell, the international stars – from Nigella Lawson to Benedict Cumberbatch – are disproportionately Londoners, Britain’s best hopes for the Oscars are Steve McQueen and the special-effects team behind Gravity. There seems no possibility of reversing the trend.
And perhaps the ultimate reason London is so resented is not simply that it holds all the economic, cultural and political cards, and then plays its hand with what is seen as haughty condescension. It is the nagging recognition that the rest of the country will ultimately be obliged to follow its lead, that London will always win. And, yes, that the Beatles did rely on the capital’s infrastructure to succeed.
Alwyn W Turner is the author of A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, published in paperback in April (Aurum, RRP £10.99 + £1.35). To pre-order from Telegraph Books, call 0844 871 1514 or visit