Brexit has shown Britain's political class at its least distinguished, but one person has risen above the mass of crawling and cringing members of Parliament – the mayor of London. This week, the day before Prime Minister Theresa May delivered the letter that triggers the process by which Britain leaves the European Union, Sadiq Khan was in Brussels pressing the political flesh. He was appealing to the EU President, Jean-Claude Juncker and its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, not to harm London in a spiteful bid to punish Britain, arguing that to do so would harm Europe as it would break the Continent's big window on the world.
The smooth, dapper and unflappable Mr. Khan is a piece of London – the son of a bus driver and Pakistani immigrant. He is the antithesis of his predecessor, the bumptious and clowning Boris Johnson. More to the point, he has understood, better than most in Parliament, that London is hugely important, not just as the motor of Britain's service-dominated economy but because – more than any other world city – London is globalization in action.
Mr. Khan was Labour MP for Tooting, an inner-London suburb with a huge immigrant population, before he became mayor. Mr. Khan has avoided overt conflict with the Prime Minister; instead he has used his platform to argue the case for the 60 per cent of Londoners who voted to stay in the EU. His message is that London needs a special Brexit deal because London is very different to the rest of Britain – and he is right. London has an even better case to plead its difference than Scotland or Northern Ireland, which both voted heavily for Remain. Prime Minister May's greatest fear is not a post-Brexit economic slump but the dismemberment of Britain. Scottish nationalists are furious, first deprived of independence and now threatened with Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party Leader, wants another independence referendum.
Nationalist politics are gripping Ms. May's government with Highland terriers and Irish wolfhounds trying to bite chunks off the indignant British bulldog. But it's a distraction from the key issue that is raised by the polite, soft-spoken Mr. Khan. In the face of all the angry Celtic pride and English xenophobia lies the vast London metropolis: the crowded, dirty, worktown that is open to all, indifferent to all and disparaged by all. William Cobbett, the early 19th-century champion of rural England, thought London was a boil, the "great wen."
But London pays all the bills; London's tax surplus is divvied up and distributed to pay for the indigent of the rural ridings in England and the Celtic fringe and postindustrial slums of the north of England. It cannot have escaped Mr. Khan's notice (and of millions of other Londoners) that the taxes paid by the hordes of foreign workers in London are ensuring the economic survival of many Northern English towns that voted for Brexit in order to curb immigration. Speaking in Brussels, he remarked that Londoners should not be made to suffer because some people did not want "immigration/talent, even though they might need it."
London's economy is different, dominated by service industries, while manufacturing – which is currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to the weakness of sterling – is mainly in the West and East Midlands and, to some extent, the Northwest. And it is this, the dominance of trading activity and the servicing of trading, that make Britain's capital a peculiar beast, a creature of globalization.
London has been an international city since Roman times, not because of some high ideal but because it was profitable. In his brilliant history of the city, London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd describes it as a living organism that grows according to its own laws. "London has always been a hungry city; for many centuries it needed a permanent influx of foreign settlers to compensate for its high death rate," he writes. But that was also good for business, according to Mr. Ackroyd because the newcomers, perhaps fleeing persecution elsewhere, were aligned with the needs of trade, whether French Huguenot merchants, Jewish money lenders, Irish labourers or West Indian bus drivers. The newcomers did not have an easy time; the history of London's immigration is peppered with riots and pogroms, but the city always assimilates and claims the foreign for its own.
London should survive this severance from Britain's main trading partner better than any other part of the UK. British businesses that make stuff, whether cars or chemicals, are at the mercy of incidental barriers to trade but London did not become a global mecca for capitalism because of a regulation or dispensation. It did so because it was blind to everything except the pursuit of commerce and profit and the enjoyment of wealth. Thus art, theatre, music, food, booze and sex have become part of London's offer to the world.
If Brexit were to kill or severely diminish London, it would be a global tragedy not just because so many would miss London's occasional pleasures, but because the world would have turned its face to the wall.
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