This is the full version of my essay on London and immigration policy that was published las month in the International New York Times (I could not contractually published it on Pandaemonium till now).

london silhouette

Not so long ago there was a beer commercial on British TV in which two pointy-headed aliens order a pint in a rural pub. ‘Up from London, are we?’, the barman asks politely.

If the rest of Britain often views London as a planet from outer space, Londoners often view other Britons as beings trapped in a previous century. ‘London is no longer part of Britain – in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops, and cities trying to imitate London – but has developed into a semi-independent city-state’. So says Adam, a character in Hanif Kureishi’s novella The Body. Kureishi is one of the sharpest contemporary observers of London life. The fact that he is of Pakistani origin only heightens the sense of London’s distinctiveness.

It is one of the ironies of being a capital city that each acts as a symbol of its nation, and yet few are even remotely representative of it. Of no capital city is this perhaps more true than of London. It has always set itself apart from the rest of Britain – but political, economic and social trends are conspiring to drive that wedge deeper.

London has today one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. It absorbs more than half of all immigrants to Britain. In the 2011 census 80 per cent of all Britons defined themselves as ‘white British’; barely half that number (44.9 per cent) did so in London. There are more black and Asian people in just one London borough, Newham, than in the whole of Scotland.

Economically, too, London is startlingly different to the rest of Britain. The capital, unlike the UK as a whole, has no budget deficit: London’s public spending matches the taxes paid in the city. The average Londoner contributes 70 per cent more to Britain’s national income than people in the rest of the country. While the UK recession has been deep and unforgiving, in London it has been relatively shallow. Between 2007 and 2011, the London economy grew by nearly 12.5 per cent – twice as fast as the rest of the UK. London’s top ten boroughs alone are worth more in real estate terms than all the property of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland added together.

london shard crane

The distinctness of London, its economic vitality, and its social diversity, has led many to clamour for the capital pursue its own policies, especially on immigration, different from the rest of the nation. The British Prime Minister David Cameron is a Conservative. So is the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, often talked of Cameron’s possible successor as leader of the Conservative Party. They have diametrically opposed views of immigration.

Driven by a perceived political need to adopt a hardline stance on immigration, Cameron’s Coalition government has imposed a myriad new restrictions, the aim of which is to reduce net immigration to Britain to below 100,000. Driven by the real economic needs of London, on the other hand, Johnson has campaigned for looser rules.  Earlier this year he called for the creation of a special ‘London visa’ to allow talented tech experts and fashion designers from around the world to get jobs in the capital. It would be, he suggested, ‘a clear message to the elite of Silicon Valley or the fashionistas of Beijing that London is the place they should come to develop ideas, build new businesses and be part of an epicentre for global talent’. The numbers being discussed are small – of the 1000 visas the government currently sets aside for ‘exceptional talent’, Johnson wants 100 reserved for London. In a city with a population of more than 8 million, that might seem insignificant. But the symbolism is deep. London, it suggests, is different, and therefore should abide by different rules. It should not.

I believe in porous borders and free movement and I view the current government attitude as both socially and economically misguided, and accept that it may well cause greatest damage to London. Yet, I fear that a special London policy will only exacerbate the very problems it is attempting to address. It is likely to deepen divisions between the capital and the rest of the nation, increase resentment of an ‘out of touch’ political elite, and make it more difficult to overhaul Britain’s deeply flawed national immigration policies.  It also raises practical problems. Would London visa holders be banned from living or working in the rest of Britain? At a time when there is freedom of movement between London and Paris, do we want to introduce internal controls on movement between London and Manchester?

Those who argue a special case for London often point out that not only is London more diverse, but that the attitudes of Londoners to diversity is also more liberal. A survey for Oxford University’s Migration Observatory showed that while 69 per cent of all Britain thought that current levels of immigration should be reduced, just 46 per cent of Londoners thought the same. Not just blacks and Asians, but white  Londoners, too, were less likely to support reduced immigration than those elsewhere in the country.

While such figures do reveal differences between the attitudes of Londoners and those of the rest of the nation, they can also be misleading. Just 8 per cent of Londoners favour more immigration. In other words, almost six times as many Londoners want to reduce immigration, as want to increase it. Other surveys have suggested that Londoners’ attitudes are even less liberal. A YouGov survey, published in June this year, showed that 44 per cent of Britons and 42 per cent of Londoners believe immigration to be the most important political issue. Londoners were evenly divided over the capital’s diversity: 39 per cent welcomed London’s ‘ethnic make up’, 37 per cent were hostile to it. In 2006, the far-right British National Party won 12 council seats in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham, making it the second largest party on the council. All the BNP councilors were swept out of office four years later, but only after the local Labour party itself adopted a tough stance on immigration.

It is not just in attitudes towards immigration that London is polarized. London may be Britain’s economic powerhouse, and generator of wealth, but 14 of London’s 33 boroughs are in the top 20 most deprived areas in the UK. The three most deprived areas are all in London – Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney – as are nine out of ten of the poorest council estates in England. Almost a third of children in London live in households officially deemed to be in ‘income deprivation’.

london olympic tower

London attracts some of the richest people in the world. It is home also to some of the poorest people in the land. The polarization of wealth and the polarization of attitudes to diversity are not unrelated. A key reason for growth in popular hostility to immigration is that to many people, particularly within working class communities, immigration has become a symbol of unacceptable change.

When the first wave of postwar immigrants arrived in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a period of rising wages, full employment, an expanding welfare state and strong trade unions. Today, Britain’s manufacturing base has all but disappeared, working class communities have disintegrated, and the welfare state begun to crumble. Trade unions have been neutered, and the Labour party has largely cut its roots with its working class base. Many sections of voters feel voiceless and detached from the political process.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. Immigrants have became, however, symbolic of the transformation. Partly this is a consequence of the way that the public discussion has been framed. From the beginning, politicians on both sides of the spectrum have presented immigrants as a problem, even a threat.  Partly also it is because the forces of globalization, or the internal wranglings of the Labour Party, are difficult to conceptualise, while one’s Bangladeshi or Jamaican neighbours are easy to see. Almost inevitably, immigration has come to be seen by many not as something that has enriched their lives, but as something that has diminished it. It has led to a perception, too, of a political elite out of touch with the views and needs of ordinary people.

Even in London there is considerable hostility to immigration from those who experience life from the wrong end of a polarized city. Unemployment, low wages, shoddy housing, long hospital waiting lists, poorly-performing schools – these are the products not of too much immigration but of failed policies and a lack of investment. Indeed studies suggest that without immigration such social problems may have been considerably worse. Nevertheless, many have come to view London’s social ills primarily through the lens of immigration. Against this background, for London to have its own exclusive immigration policy would be to exacerbate the sense that immigration benefits only certain groups, and disadvantages the rest. It would entrench the gap between London and the rest of the nation, and intensify the polarization within London. It would widen the breach between the public and the elite that has helped fuel the anti-hostility.

I value London’s diversity, and its openness to the world. I despair of the British government’s mean-spirited, narrow-minded, deeply damaging immigration policies. But this has to be a national debate and a national policy. A London-only policy would do little to foster a more open, cosmopolitan outlook, either in London or in Britain.


All the photos are mine.


  1. bruce madeiros


    I don’t deny London isn’t the “City of God” however I do feel that you are a bit pessimist about London’s inclusiveness.

    I work for Enfield council as a structural engineer and recently we have had two new recruits in my section. One is an Israeli and the other is a Syrian. The Israeli moved to the UK a while ago because he prefers the cold UK weather rather than the hot weather of Israel !
    The other is a refuge who has fled Syria because of the violent war that is raging in that country.
    At the moment he and his family is on benefits and hence he working for Enfield’s structure and watercourse section for no wage.
    When he was in Syria he had his own construction firm , he was educated in Russia and got a PhD and he speaks 4 languages.
    I expect because he was so successful in Syria he was able to the pay the large amount of money that the criminal gangs who traffic people demanded to get him out of Syria with his wife and 5 children.

    I got the impression that he really likes living in Enfield and perhaps in years to come he may decide to stay and be a significant part of the Enfield community

  2. Thank you, this was insightful as ever. I really despair of the Catch 22 that public opinion has created for immigrants at the moment, whereby whether they work or don’t work, there’s nothing an immigrant can do which is right, and so free movement is presumed against from the start.
    I agree that London shouldn’t be treated separately from the rest of the country. But I do sometimes wonder if, in general, a combination of local government (say on the level of a city) regulated by a supranational government (like the EU) might be the best way to create a more cosmopolitan world whilst still delivering democracy on a level where people can make a difference. The ‘country’ as a primary entity of government does seem like the worst of both worlds in this respect. But I haven’t fully thought through this position yet.

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