If you were looking for an unbiased portrait of London, the last place you might look is the New York Times – because, let’s face it, America’s greatest city must have a hard time dealing with the world’s greatest city.
Nevertheless, Roger Cohen’s NYT article on the city of his birth is well worth a read. Despite the predictable side-swipes at UKIP and the Mail, he captures the complexity of the London phenomenon:
“…a word about what is right in London. The city works. It is the most open metropolis in Europe by some distance, the polyglot chatter and subcultures of its vast sprawl a constant rebuke to the drumbeat of anti-immigrant bigotry from the Daily Mail and the U.K. Independence Party.”
Cohen is, of course, perfectly entitled to reprove the populist right, but if a country opens itself up to the world and the worse you get by way of backlash is Paul Dacre and Nigel Farage, then that’s something to be thankful for.
It does help that London has managed to accommodate an astonishingly diverse (and now rapidly growing) population while at the same time becoming a more, not less, orderly place:
“The reeking sidewalk-filling summer garbage of New York and the 11-minute subway waits at rush hour are reminders of ways in which the British capital rarely enervates. You can get around in a generally predictable time frame; the streets are clean. London’s bike scheme and bike lanes make New York’s seem woeful, and the city’s congestion-fighting levy on weekday traffic in the center might be a solution to the near insoluble problem of a cross-town journey in Manhattan. Of a soft summer evening, by the canal or in a park, London in its civility and continuity can seem like perfection.”
One might add that since Boris Johnson became mayor, London has planted an additional 20,000 trees.
However, it’s not all good news:
“The capital has become a glittering enclave in a country often resentful of its dominance. It presides with an air of superiority, like squeaky-clean Singapore looking down on Southeast Asia.
“Except that you can afford to live in Singapore.”
Can the growing gap between ordinary Britons and the elites be blamed on London’s success as a global city? Politicians are losing touch with their electorates in countries across the western world – irrespective of how globalised their capital cities happen to be. America, with its capital in a second-order city, is proof that you don’t need a mighty metropolis to alienate people from politics. Indeed, one notes that in expressing their disgust with the system, Republican voters have turned to that ultimate New Yorker, Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, Roger Cohen does identify a genuine problem with London’s success (and one that also applies to New York):
“What draws the world to London is opportunity. But it is also a magnet for people looking for a safe place for their money. Having made it in countries like Russia and China with a cowed press, rampant corruption and no rule of law, oligarchs and crony capitalists reach the conclusion that they like nothing as much as democratic systems with real legal systems and a vigorous press. Having trashed the West they trust the West with their money.”
It was good to see David Cameron using a speech in Singapore to address this issue head on. In particular he promised action against the use of the London property market as a means of laundering the world’s dirty money.
Openness and the rule of law are the twin foundations of London’s global success. A threat to either should be seen as a threat not just to the city, but to the country as a whole.