Brian Wilson: London not a ‘great big evil thing’

Scots have always found the English capital irresistible and a great place to live and work, writes Brian Wilson

London is a city of opportunities but also a city that has its problems. Picture: Getty
London is a city of opportunities but also a city that has its problems. Picture: Getty
London is a city of opportunities but also a city that has its problems. Picture: Getty

There was a ripple of media excitement this week when a Scottish Nationalist MP declared that London should be looked upon as “a source of opportunity” rather than as “a boil on the back of our leg”.

Since millions of Scots have acted on the same premise over several centuries, this may not seem like a particularly ground-breaking bolt of enlightenment. Given its source, however, the mere expression of a truism was deemed newsworthy in these curious times.

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Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, prefaced his revisionist remarks with the sentence: “We’ve always had this thing in Scotland that London is this great, big evil thing, but we need to learn how to deal with it.”

I’m not sure which “we” Mr McDonald purported to speak for. One can understand such sentiments prevailing within his own circles. Personally, I don’t know any Scot who regards London as a “great, big evil thing” in spite of extensive efforts by those of Mr McDonald’s political disposition to convince them of it.

On the contrary. I know a large number of Scots who can’t get enough of the place. They feature prominently in the media and music industry. They run banks, start businesses, serve in bars, watch the Premiership, meet interesting people, fall in love and lead their lives to the full in one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities.

Overwhelmingly, they are there because they choose to be. Hard as I try, I cannot recall any of them pleading for mercy from this “great big, evil thing” to which they have been condemned. Without awaiting Mr McDonald’s guidance, they have concluded that London is indeed a “source of opportunity”.

Alex Salmond, who has selflessly returned to London yet again, took a different view. He described it as the “dark star” which sucked resources from the rest of Britain. Habitually, he used “London” as a euphemism for “England” when bemoaning the myriad injustices allegedly visited upon Scotland.

Even more annoyingly from that one-dimensional perspective, London not only offers opportunities but shares problems with us. There is more deprivation within a 20-mile radius of Westminster than in all Scotland. The caricature of a city living off the fat of the land is no more accurate than the menace of a “great, big evil thing”.

Whatever the politics, the geography cannot be changed. London continues to grow because of proximity to continental Europe and its status as a global capital. That is irresistible, not least to many Scots. The need to reinforce other cities within our small island, as counterweights to that process, is well recognised and is being promoted effectively by the UK government.

Mr McDonald sees the danger of Scotland excluding itself from that process. “Having this major financial centre less than 400 miles away is a challenge but we need to ask ourselves what are the opportunities in terms of business… it would be a real shame if we were to miss out on investment in such things as science, research and the financial sector because of the growth in England’s northern powerhouse…”

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Nobody could sensibly argue with that. But equally, they cannot have their cake and eat it. If they want to be part of a balancing strategy within the island we share, in part through opportunities which proximity to London create, then the last thing they should be talking about is the creation of separate states in which the potential for co-operation and cross-subsidy would be replaced by the certainty of conflicting interests.

Mr McDonald’s focus is on transport links and he argues that HS2, the proposed high-speed railway, should start from both ends. There is not much of an economic case for that. The vast majority of traffic emanating from the south-east peters out long before the Border is reached. Scotland will still benefit from shortened journey times without building a stretch of HS2 from Glasgow to Motherwell.

If there is a case at all, it is a political one under what used to be called “regional policy” from which Scotland benefited for many years. But how can that case seriously be argued by people who are at the same time threatening to hold a referendum on secession, whether in two or ten years time?

The logic of Mr McDonald’s case rests on the political and economic unity of the island, not its separation.

The same argument can be repeated in many different contexts. We export twice as much to the rest of Britain as to the rest of the world. Why would we turn that into a foreign market rather than build upon opportunities on our doorstep? We depend on consumers in the whole of the island to subsidise our renewable energy ambitions. Why would we disconnect that relationship? And so on.

In some contexts, the ongoing threat of secession can be exploited to the advantage of those who exercise it. That is why Nationalist parties flourish. But in general, these gains are in terms of process rather than substance. More “powers” do not, of themselves, bring any guaranteed benefit (as we are just about to discover afresh). Meanwhile, the downsides created by permanent uncertainty are much more substantive, if less widely advertised.

Eventually, all governments get fed up with being blackmailed, particularly when they conclude that no matter what they do, they are not going to get an iota of political appreciation for it anyway. On that basis, once the volume is turned down, Scotland’s bargaining power within the UK may well turn out to have been diminished rather than enhanced by the outcome of the general election.

That probably suits many within the Nationalist camp who believe that demonstrations of impotence facilitate the quickest route to their only goal. Others may be more cautious and pay at least passing heed to Mr McDonald’s implied suggestion that there is much to be gained for the Scottish economy from constructive engagement and, just as important, much to be lost without it.

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All the focus at present is on emphasising the differences between Scotland and England, mainly through the intellectually unchallenging device of banning things. Recognising the shared interests that exist along the road which leads to and from London would be a lot more productive.