Argument

London Should Secede From the United Kingdom

But since it’s tough to put Buckingham Palace on a trailer, quasi-independence is the next best thing.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image was created with an iphone) A view of a rainbow behind Tower Bridge on November 10, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10: (EDITORS NOTE: Image was created with an iphone) A view of a rainbow behind Tower Bridge on November 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Several years ago I was invited to a dinner of British journalists, diplomats, and intellectuals headlined by an informal statement meant to be debated over the course of the evening: “Resolved: London should secede from the U.K.” I was struck by how ready my dinner companions were to perform the relevant cost-benefit analysis – and how quickly they identified the rest of Britain as a liability sapping London’s finances.

Londoners have often treated national independence for their city as an enjoyable thought experiment. They would be wise to now treat it as a plausible reality.

Beyond the stunning act that has become Britain’s vote to leave the European Union lies a deeper message: Democracy is not destiny, but devolution. Ceaseless entropy — the second law of thermodynamics — applies to politics as well. The more countries democratize, the more local populations seek greater self-rule.

As the aftermath of Britain’s referendum has shown, this is a process that can inflict its own traumas. Britain doesn’t just stand to lose its attachment to the EU, which it has been a member of since 1973, when it joined the European Economic Community, a precursor to the bloc; it will probably also be forced to endure the dismemberment of the United Kingdom, which was formally proclaimed in 1707 with the union of England and Scotland. Within hours of the announcement of the final Brexit vote tally, Scotland announced that it would seek to reprise its unsuccessful 2014 independence referendum. Scottish voters had overwhelmingly sought to remain in the EU and are now liable to sacrifice their membership in the U.K. to retain those European ties. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein movement is calling for an immediate referendum on unifying with EU-member Ireland rather than risk having a rigid international border placed between Irishmen.

These developments do not suggest the EU is a dying supranational bureaucracy. Small statelets such as Scotland — and would-be sovereigns such as Catalonia and Veneto (home to Venice) — now regularly reject the academic fiction of harmonious multi-ethnic liberal democratic nation-states, but they are interested in maintaining membership in regional confederations. According to their concrete cost-benefit calculations, Scots, Catalans, and Venetians clearly prefer Brussels to London, Madrid, and Rome.

Londoners, who, like the Scots, voted by a wide majority to “Remain” in the EU, are similarly aghast at what their populist and parochial countrymen from the Midlands have wrought. They used to feel a natural right and privilege to run the entire country to which they belonged. Now residents of London would just as soon divorce from Great Britain. That’s an entirely understandable impulse.

Many Brits voted for Brexit as a resentful protest against the political and economic elites who reside in London, but the contribution those elites make to the well-being of Great Britain is immense. Eighty percent of jobs created in the U.K. since the financial crisis have been in London, which is growing by 1 million people per decade. More than half of British university students head for London upon graduation. London’s gross value added per capita to the U.K. economy is more than $150,000 per year, more than triple that of the next largest contributor — which, as it happens, is the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. If Scotland withdraws from the U.K., London will be forced to bear an even greater burden for the sake of propping up England’s depressed and depopulated regions. For Londoners, old and new, this doesn’t seem a price worth paying.

The hurdles that stand in the way of a national capital that wishes to secede from its own nation are significant, and I’m not aware of any precedents. London doesn’t share the historical and geographic circumstances that have enabled today’s few truly sovereign city-states such as Singapore, Monaco, or Bahrain to succeed: London is not the product of decolonization or a princely protectorate. It’s easier to imagine cities like Lagos or Mumbai achieving quasi-independent city-state status in the decades ahead. Those places are maritime centers with long histories of global connectivity in regions — Africa and South Asia — that are still working through the boundary adjustments that began with decolonization three generations ago.

But secession needn’t be London’s goal. There is a wide spectrum of federalist arrangements available to the city, on a continuum ranging from unity to devolution to autonomy to outright independence. London has plenty of room to maneuver to assert more control over its own policies short of building a moat around the city.

London has already experimented with ways to win more autonomy within Great Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has for years been steadily pushing a program of fiscal devolution that would reduce London’s overall fiscal burden. Under the rubric of “Big Society,” Westminster has provided paltry infrastructure loans to cities such as Manchester and Sheffield to develop their own urban regeneration plans. But these are loans, not grants or investments; they must be paid back. As a capital, London has been treating the rest of the country like the International Monetary Fund treats client states, lending to them but seeking to minimize its own skin in the game. No wonder the pro-Brexit regions wanted to slap London in the face.

London has been toying with going it alone in other ways as well. Even on the most sensitive matter of migration, for example, Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit campaign’s main figurehead, proposed during his stint as mayor of the capital a “London visa” to fast-track the immigration of foreigners essential for the city’s financial and education sectors. Brexit voters might want to have fewer immigrants as neighbors, but London knows that its prosperity depends on keeping its pipeline to foreigners open. That Johnson has been able to so cleverly play both sides of this issue — promising Londoners the connectivity they crave while mayor, but pandering to the heartland as a national politician — explains why he is the front-runner to be catapulted into 10 Downing Street as the country’s next prime minister.

It’s also precisely the ambition of someone like Johnson that explains why London can’t and won’t ever formally secede from the U.K. If London were an independent city-state, that would mean that Johnson was effectively just mayor of London again, but with Royal Guards protecting his home. The British monarchy, for its part, would no longer have anything to preside over. Buckingham Palace would be a mere tourist attraction, not the nominal seat of the head of state.

But that won’t happen because London still wants to rule over a country. It just wants the country to pose as little a burden as possible on its own prosperity.

Photo credit: Paul GILHAM/Getty Images

Correction, June 28, 2016: The U.K. has been a member of the European Union (then the European Economic Community, a precursor to the EU) since 1973. A previous version of this article mistakenly said the U.K. had been a member since 1971. 

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