The biggest threat to the UK isn’t Scotland but a metropolitan elite. Some of my Scottish colleagues may demur, but for me the real problem the UK is facing is a metropolitan elite, increasingly out of touch with the rest of the UK.
I was struck by a comment from a ‘Yes’ voter that Scotland’s problem was that as just 8.4% of UK population, Scots suffered because Government favoured the interests of the other 91.6%. That’s certainly not what it looks or feels like sat in the North of England, nor I suspect its what it feels like in Wales, Cornwall or much of the rest of the UK.
For me, the real problem that many of us share is a sense of disenfranchisement by a hollowed out democractic and political process run from the a city at the south-eastern periphery of these islands (London). Not that folk in London think they are at the periphery (whatever the hard geographic facts might say): London, of course, is at ‘the centre of national life.’
But London itself is code. The ‘London’ at the centre of national life does not include the majority of the population of Greater London, many of whom almost certainly feel as excluded from access to power as the rest of us.
No, the UK is effectively governed by a small metropolitan elite, concentrated almost entirely withn the twin cities of Westminster and the City of London (but with useful scholarly outposts in Oxford, Cambridge and Eton).
A privately educated, Oxbridge elite
As the recent report of the Social Mobility Task Force rather bluntly concluded: Elitism so embedded in Britain that it could be called “social engineering.” The report’s 70 pages conclusively demonstrate the extent to which the ‘nations institutions’ (almost all based in London of course) are dominated by a privately schooled and Oxbridge elite.
Only 7% of members of the public attended a private school. But 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 45% of public body chairs did so.
Oxbridge graduates also have a stranglehold on top jobs. They comprise less than 1% of the public as a whole, but 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of shadow cabinet ministers, 24% of MPs and 12% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List.
If you want to thoroughly depress yourself, the Guardian has very helpfully given a detailed datablog outlining the reach of this elite into pretty much every corner of public life. And, yes, should you ask, half of all Church of England Bishops are also privately educated.
The Westminster village: A wider metropolitan groupthink
But the UK’s metropolitan bias runs much deeper than where people went to school. The bulk of the UK’s so-called ‘national institutions’ and ‘public debate’ is hermetically sealed within a tiny Westminster village, with a radius of about 2 miles, to the effective the exclusion of the rest of the UK.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been invited to policy seminars, report launches or other ‘national’ conferences which start at 9.30am (or worse still ‘breakfast briefings’ at 8.30am) – all on the assumption that ‘everyone’ lives or works in central London. Although it might come as a surprise to those locked into a metropolitan world-view, only an eighth of the UK’s population live in London – and 87.5% dont.
But that doesn’t stop the metropolitan elite from claiming that ‘national’ is the same as ‘London-based’ and anything located anywhere else in the UK can be passed off with the moniker ‘regional.’ It is telling how our mental mind maps are warped by London-centric thinking – when actually London is in geographic terms very much at the south-eastern periphery of the UK.
An overbalanced economy
Economically, the UK is equally unbalanced in favour of London. The London economy (and the City of London economy within it) can either be seen as the powerhouse engine of the UK economy, or alternatively as a huge suction engine, sucking in wealth, talent and investment. The IPPR North think tank (note: as opposed to the London-based IPPR, which is simply ‘IPPR’ its Northern equivalent has to be given the regional moniker), has exposed the London-bias within Government spending – most notably in relation to transport infrastructure.
As an aside, I’m always amused how the HS2 railway is described by metropolitan types as a key strategy in ‘rebalancing’ the economy – when it starts in London – and doesn’t even directly connect the North of England with Europe (which would be a far more attractive and useful proposition).
And the UK economy is vastly more unbalanced towards the capital than most of our stronger European competitors. Whilst London’s economy is at least ten times bigger than any other UK city, Germany, Holland, Sweden have far less unbalanced economies. In Germany’s case, there are seven cities with a comparable (or even larger) GDP as its capital, Berlin.
A symbolic rebalancing: Lets move Parliament to the centre of the UK
What could be a better symbol of a rebalancing of the UK than moving Parliament to the geographic heart of the UK?
I’m not especially arguing the case for Manchester. For those with memories long enough to remember the ‘Eileen Bilton’ advert that ran on TV for a number of years, Warrington-Runcorn is Britain’s most central location. So let’s move Parliament there.
Germany moved its Parliament 500km from Bonn to Berlin as a symbolic act to heal a divided nation. What about the UK?
As I write this, I can already hear the noise of the metropolitan types scoffing: The very idea of moving the institutions of Government 200 miles north! Impossible! It could never be done! And why would we want to?
Well, the Germans did it, so why can’t we?
As a means of bringing together an historically deeply divided nation, Germany moved its Parliament 600 kilometres east, from Bonn to Berlin. We only have to move ours 300 kilometres.
So why not?