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Lies, confections, distortions: how the right made London the most vilified place in Britain | Aditya Chakrabortty



I have been reading about the most abysmal place. It is a land where children, red-faced with their own radicalism, march alongside bearded Islamists to make the streets a no-go zone, while nodding-dog liberals curse the Brexiter masses for inflating the cost of their arugula. It boasts an infinite array of pronouns; multimillion-pound townhouses whose residents demand you check your privilege; a thousand rainbow flags, but not a single St George’s cross. It is rife with criminal behaviour, which extends far beyond the prices charged by pub landlords. Hieronymus Bosch, put down your paintbrush: this place truly is Hell.

It also happens to be my home.

I am that increasingly rare thing – an aboriginal Londoner. I was born and raised and still live in what Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak dismiss as “north London”, although their fantasy land of BBC barons and lefty lawyers describes not an inch of my childhood suburb of dead factories and giant retail parks. I have neither country bolthole nor dreams of retreating to a coastal idyll. The rootedness of me and my neighbours, including migrants and children of migrants, doesn’t fit Theresa May’s jibe about being “citizens of nowhere”.

Indeed, were the rightwingers so furious at London actually to examine their punchbag, they’d find a lot to like. A city controlled by Islamists, Lee Anderson? Forty per cent of Londoners describe themselves as Christian, pretty much the same as in your own constituency of Ashfield, while inner London ranks among the most devoutly Catholic regions in the entire country. How about the capital as modern-day Sodom? Polling shows Londoners are far more likely than other Britons to frown upon same-sex relationships and sex before marriage.

London contains multitudes; it will always contradict itself. Yet since the Brexit vote, the most pluralist city in the UK, if not Europe, has suffered the fate of all pluralisms in this age of binaries: it has been turned into a villain. From May to Dominic Cummings and his “rich remainers” to Boris Johnson and his “lefty Islington lawyers”, the right has confected a walled city of great privilege and liberal hypocrisy whose boundaries stretch only from the BBC to Islington. It is this fantasy location that is the subject of countless newspaper front pages and columns, Tory attack ads, ministerial speeches and dispatch-box drive-bys. It is why the capital of Britain is also the most vilified place in the country.

Never mind that London has worse poverty than any other region in the UK. Ignore, if you can, that both Johnson and Cummings lived for years in Islington, while Sunak owns two homes in London, including a five-bed mews house (reportedly worth £7m) in Kensington. The city that gave us Margaret Thatcher – a London MP for over 30 years – Shirley Porter and indeed one Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson has barely any blue left on its electoral map, making it the target for the newly nativist right. They have exaggerated and abstracted and twisted London into the opposite of the rest of Britain.

To quote another Old Etonian expert in deploying bigotry, Douglas Murray, the capital is a “foreign country”. Nudge nudge, wink wink. In the words of a tweet endorsed by Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall, it is “Londonistan”.

Before the Tory party stooped to such depths, both right and left hailed London as the future of the UK. George Osborne cooed over “Silicon Roundabout”, while Gordon Brown gave cringeworthy speeches at Mansion House. As home to the finance sector, the capital was supposedly golden goose to the entire UK.

In 2008, both the banks and that economic model hit the wall. All the taxes paid by finance during the great boom between 2002 and 2008 were immediately wiped out by the upfront costs of the banking bailout. Yet for some years afterwards, it was still London that got Crossrail and the tube upgrades, the Olympics money and the private sector billions. So natural was it for London to be seen as the centre of politics that in 2014 David Cameron launched his campaign to keep Scotland in the union not from Glasgow or Holyrood, but from the Olympic Park in Stratford.

It was trickle-down economics at its most blatant. As Johnson claimed while mayor of London: “A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde.”

The wealth didn’t even trickle out to the edges of London, let alone the rest of the country. The focus on regional inequality and levelling up masked the reality that England is dotted with pockets of poverty, often suffered most acutely by those from ethnic minorities. As researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast show from the latest census, acute deprivation can be found right under the shiny steel towers of London, the college spires of Oxford and the skyscrapers of gentrifying Manchester.

Against that backdrop, both the old, deluded worship of London and its new tactical vilification are displacement activities for the Westminster classes. Neither can really hide the brokenness of Britain’s economic model. The political debates that will carry us through next week’s local elections towards the national contest don’t even attempt to square up to that. Yet underneath these caricatures of our capital is a city that is far more interesting.

In focusing on inner London, both politicians and journalists miss out on how the energy of the city is moving to its outskirts. The madness of the property market has propelled London’s young and its ethnic minorities towards its cheaper edges.

The latest census shows the UK’s most diverse communities live in Brent and Harrow and Newham and Enfield, which is also where you’ll find the greatest variety of languages. The “dulburbs”, as Will Self once called them, are far more interesting than staid and Foxtonised inner London. If you want exposure to new cultures and new ideas, go to the fringes of the city. They are now the natural home of the money-transfer dens, the sim-card shops, the community restaurants. That’s where you’ll find the people talked over by generations of politicians and stereotyped by the media. That’s where the future of the city is being reimagined and remade – and it will be a good sight more interesting and optimistic than anything coming from the fetid minds of the right.

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