It was late on a Sunday afternoon. Half a dozen of us were squished onto a rickety picnic bench in a trendy corner of Bermondsey, south London. The festival in the square around us was beginning to wind down and we all began to talk of making a move. The guy next to me, who I’d only just met, asked where I was heading back to. When I answered “Near Coventry”, he responded “Never mind” without missing a beat. I forced out a polite chuckle, but looking at his face, I realised that he was not trying to be funny. He was serious. While he rummaged in his rucksack, I sensed the heat of embarrassment rise up my neck like I was twelve years old and someone had just laughed at my Clarks’ trainers.
I felt belittled, and this comment rankled throughout the journey home. Months later, it still makes me cross thinking about his judgemental tone. At times, I’ve wondered if I’m over-reacting but it’s not the first time that I’ve encountered a similar prejudice about anywhere beyond the M25. British culture is awash with jokes along these lines, such as memes where Londoners question whether their friends outside the capital have access to avocado toast.
While these examples may seem benign, this attitude can have serious repercussions. Sophie, a freelancer in the fashion industry, lives in Manchester and says snobbery about London has cost her work. She believes that she’s “not been booked for jobs in favour of a ‘London stylist’ because companies think a ‘London stylist’ means a better stylist”. In an attempt to overcome this bias, she lists UK rather than a more specific location in her social media bios.
Whether you’re a hipster, a banker or an office worker, living in London bestows prestige and an aura of success.
Sophie understands the assumptions that underpin this preference for London, even if they are false. “I’m constantly frustrated by how I’m seen as less ambitious, less professional and even less talented just because I don’t live in London,” she says. According to this mindset, living in the capital signifies social and cultural capital. Whether you’re a hipster, a banker or an office worker, living in London bestows prestige and an aura of success.
Yet others believe that prejudice works the other way too. When I asked on social media about experiences of London snobbery, residents past and present told me of the hostility they had encountered. Toby, a data analyst who moved there after graduating from university, says: “I always got more of the reverse – people hating on London who never lived there… I never knew anyone in London who looked down on anywhere else.”
Jenna, a teacher who spent a decade in the capital before recently returning to her childhood home of Leicester, says the same. “Since moving back I’ve found people in the Midlands are very disparaging of London, and are really quick to offer an opinion on it. People here are very keen to tell me why they don’t like London and Londoners, even when they haven’t visited or spent any length of time there… I still love the Midlands, but do feel it has a chip on its shoulder.”
This antagonism between London and other parts of the UK is based upon a multi-layered geographical division. At its foundation is a long-standing north/south divide. Professor Danny Dorling is a geographer who has studied this phenomenon from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. In his 2011 book So You Think You Know About Britain?, he cites shocking statistics about longevity that illustrate how significant this split is – and how persistent. In the 1880s, a man born in Bristol could expect to live a decade longer than one born in Liverpool. Today that gap has fallen to between two and three years, but the difference between other places remains pronounced. Men born in the wealthy London borough of Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live thirteen years longer than those born in the deprived borough of Glasgow City; women, eleven years.
The 2007 financial crash and ensuing credit crunch hit the north hardest and made towns near the borderline more economically vulnerable
Prosperity plays an enormous role in creating this gulf. On the map that Dorling and his University of Sheffield colleagues created to chart the north/south divide, a diagonal line runs from Bristol across to just south of the Humber estuary near Grimsby. This places much of the Midlands along with the entirety of Wales into the northern section. However, Dorling also believes that because the 2007 financial crash and ensuing credit crunch hit the north hardest and made towns near the borderline more economically vulnerable, the divide is now deeper and further south than previously.
The south east and London
Seguing into the north/south divide is the rift between south east England and the rest of the UK. London and its surrounding counties, such as Surrey, form a prosperous enclave in the bottom corner of the country. This is another crucial fault line in British society in the twenty-first century. In a recent article in the Guardian, its economics editor Larry Elliott presented the results of the Brexit referendum in these terms, with the affluent south east voting to remain in the EU while long-term industrial decline led to a leave vote in the north.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this overall picture. The north is not just populated by the white working class. There are pockets of affluence such as Harrogate in North Yorkshire, as well as racially diverse communities such as those across the urban Midlands. Conversely, the tragedy of the Grenfell fire provides a cruel reminder that London’s wealth is not shared equally among its inhabitants.
[London] is a golden goose that keeps the surrounding area supplied with a flow of wealth
Despite these caveats, the extent to which the south east’s prosperity separates the region from the rest of the country cannot be denied. But even within this bubble, there is another division – this time between London and its environs. As the packed commuter trains heading into Waterloo, Victoria, Liverpool Street and other stations daily attest, the city is a golden goose that keeps the surrounding area supplied with a flow of wealth. The Home Counties depend on London’s success to maintain their privileged position.
Employment opportunities across all levels of the economic spectrum also attract a continuous influx of migrants from other parts of the UK and beyond. It’s an old story; since the fourteenth century, folklore has shared the tale of Dick Whittington seeking his fortune on the London streets that he’d heard were paved with gold. It even remained true during the recession of the late noughties, with Dorling reporting that in the twelve months prior to March 2010, an additional thirty-five jobs were created in London for every one new post in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Various other factors reinforce the capital’s centrifugal pull. Although we have devolution, regional mayors and not forgetting the DVLA office in Swansea, Britain is a highly centralised state. Political power is largely concentrated in London, as is the country’s arts and culture scene, notwithstanding odd cases such as the BBC’s move to Salford. All this can generate ill-feeling and it’s clear the north is not without its reasons for resenting the south.
The stronger London’s sociocultural dominance and economic success becomes, the greater its magnetism
Yet the pre-eminence that causes this rift is also the reason that others love London. The same factors that cause animosity attract generations of new arrivals from the rest of the UK and the wider world. These factors have made London not just a major city but a global city. This becomes self-perpetuating: the stronger London’s sociocultural dominance and economic success becomes, the greater its magnetism. Once in this cycle, as we are, it becomes harder to tilt the balance back towards other parts of the country, however much talk there is of the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and high-speed transport connections.
It is these two contrary responses to London’s unique place in twenty-first century Britain that feed the antagonism between the capital and the provinces. Those in the country (including no doubt some of the city’s own residents) who dislike London’s domination and believe that it is damaging for other areas, including where they live, are hostile towards the city. At the same time, there are those who, like the guy on the picnic bench, turn the opportunities that London offers into snobbery – and it seems the economy is stacked in their favour.