“Seething, international, colourful.” “The epitome of modernity.” The source of an “inner freedom that I’ve kept to this day”. Even without context, Ursula von der Leyen’s odes to London, where the European Commission president studied for a year, have always been handsome. And then you clock that she is describing the city in 1978, before the reversal of its postwar depopulation, before the Big Bang, before, even, Dishoom. She should have been there in 2006, I want to say, but she would still be honing the adjectives.
The definition of a great city is that only dedicated urbanists notice its malaises. To most sensibilities, the pulse and richness of these places never fluctuate. This is even or especially true of those who flinch from such things with conservative distaste. Tokyo Story, that jewel of world cinema, regrets the disruptive and deracinating force of the Japanese capital . . . in 1953.
Even a bad London is a miracle, then. It is one reason to bet on the hometown I have not seen for 16 months as it steps gingerly into life after the pandemic. But there are others.
Last month, Boston Consulting Group and The Network, a group of online recruiters, surveyed over 200,000 people across 190 countries. They found what they found in 2014 and again in 2018. London is named above all cities in the world as a destination to move to and work in. The propensity to move at all is down, which should harm all global cities in absolute terms. But if London’s relative lure is holding, it will take immigration laws of special obstinacy to diminish its world status.
No doubt, respondents underrate the eventual cost of Brexit. But then which is the other plausible capital of Europe? Amsterdam is up to second in the survey, but its metropolitan area amounts to around 2.5m people. Paris does not make the top 10 (I never said they were discerning respondents). As recently as 2016, Berlin was poorer than the German national average.
For raw vigour and 24hr-ness, Pacific Rim cities are in a distinct class, even before we factor their success against the pandemic. I expect Bangkok to all but levitate as Chinese and US cash engorges south-east Asia, the century’s most contested region. Within the west, though, London and New York constituted a league of two before the pandemic and probably will long after it. Even if the spread of English as a second or joint-first language trims their advantage, try cloning that “inner freedom”. It is a cultural looseness, an absence of the codes and etiquettes that can make even the largest continental European cities tricky for outsiders.
As for domestic talent, despite the efforts of every government in my lifetime, London will remain El Dorado. For two reasons, the eternal quest to “rebalance” the UK should always provoke a wince. One is the prefix “re-”. It implies a recent and therefore recoverable parity between cities. The truth is that London’s monstrously superior scale holds across time; only the runners-up change.
The other error, flowing from the first, is the politician’s conceit: the overestimation of policy against the ingrained past. London dominates because England has been whole for longer than the more balanced nations with which it is invidiously compared. Neither Germany nor Italy unified until the late 1800s. Hamburg, Florence, Munich and Turin had centuries to grow as ducal capitals or sovereign states. France is much more England-like in its ancient integrity. Oh look, Île-de-France accounts for 30 per cent of national output.
These are not disparities that will answer to ministers of the crown or other ephemera. They will not answer to the vaunted end of the office, unless you believe there are no offices in Leeds and Manchester. A Zoom-enabled dispersal of workers does not per se mean a smaller gap between elite cities and the second tier.
If London loses people, it will lose them from an all-time peak of around 9m. Even a lasting net outflow of 2m (I will dine at an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse if that transpires) would leave the population around its 1978 level. In my frame of reference, that is getting on for a ghost town. To at least one young student, it fairly seethed.
Email Janan at [email protected]
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