Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 July 2011

The Demography and Economics of England and London: Time for a separation?

This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced its estimates for the UK’s population for the year to June 2010. This revealed that the number of people living in the UK rose by a staggering 470,000 over this period, to 62,262,000. Net migration (the difference between the number of people immigrating into the UK and the number of those emigrating) in fact accounted for less than half of the population growth: 230,000. (Well, that’s OK then.) The majority of the growth resulted from increased birth rates (797,000) – including from more inward migration of women of child-bearing age – and a reduced death rate.

What the headline figures and the media headlines didn’t comment on was the distribution of the population growth across the different countries and regions of the UK. However, these figures are available from the ONS, and they paint an interesting picture. According to the ONS, the estimated resident population of England rose by 424,300 (or 0.8%) to 52,234,000 in the 12 months to June 2010. This means that 90% of the UK’s estimated population growth in the year to June 2010 occurred in England, whereas England’s population as a whole constituted 83.8% of the UK’s population at June 2009. In other words, England is bearing a disproportionate share of the UK’s massive rise in population. The ONS does not break down England’s population growth by ‘natural’ causes (i.e. births vs. deaths) and net migration. But it’s a fair bet that as 90% of the UK total relates to England, around half or just under half of England’s population growth resulted from net migration.

This has clearly been a long-term trend as another set of data from the ONS suggests (this set looks at permanent residents and excludes those who are here only temporarily). Here, the English population at September 2010 is put at 51,363,000. Of this total, 6,472,000 people were not born in the UK: 12.6%. By comparison, only around 6.4% of the population of Scotland is estimated to have been born outside of the UK, while only 5.7% of the N. Irish population (much of whom presumably come from the Republic) and 5% of Welsh residents were born outside of the UK.

In terms of UK citizenship, of the 51.36 million English residents, around 4.02 million (7.8%) are estimated to be foreign nationals. (The difference, obviously, is that the remaining 4.8% of the English population that were not born in the UK have subsequently become UK citizens.) By comparison, 4.9% of the Scottish population comprises foreign nationals, versus 3.9% of Northern Irish residents and 3.2% of Wales’ inhabitants.

These figures clearly demonstrate that England has been impacted by population growth and net migration to a much greater extent than the UK’s other nations, and over a long time span. People will draw their own conclusions from these figures and use them at the service of their own agendas. But they at least put English people’s concerns about immigration into a clearer context: we actually have more grounds for concern than our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Having said that, these perceptions are distorted by the situation in London – of which, more below.)

England is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world. I make it that England’s resident population of 52.2 million gives it a population density of 1,038 people per square mile. According to Wikipedia’s list of countries by population density (which curiously does not break down the UK figure by its four main nations but does include separate figures for Jersey and Guernsey, for instance), that would put England in 31st place. However, most of the countries or dependent territories with greater population densities are either small islands or territories that mainly comprise a single dense urban conglomeration, such as Macau, Monaco or Singapore, to name the top three. The only countries with any significant land mass ahead of England are Bangladesh (2,919 people per square mile), South Korea (1,261) and the Netherlands (1,041). And the Netherlands has only 32% of England’s land mass: so we’re as densely populated as the Netherlands but on more than triple the scale.

By contrast, according to the same Wikipedia, Scotland‘s population density is a mere 171 people per square mile, Wales‘ is 361, and even little Northern Ireland‘s is only 315 – which would make them (if you add them in as separate countries to Wikipedia’s list), the equal-142nd-, 80th- and 94th-most populous countries / territories in the world respectively. (Just for inclusiveness, Cornwall‘s population density, according to Wikipedia, is 390 per square mile: 79th.)

Population density is all well and good, but it’s not in itself harmful, at least not to economic prosperity, as the territories towards the top of the Wikipedia list are generally among the most wealthy and fast-growing in the world (Bangladesh excepted). The same might have been said about England a few years ago. Perhaps it’s not so bad, after all, to be a densely populated small island dominated by a single urban conglomeration. But it would probably be more accurate to say that even in the ill-fated ‘boom-without-bust’ New Labour years, it wasn’t so much England that was the prosperous small-island territory overshadowed by a single metropolis, but that London, the South-East and the M4 corridor on their own were the ‘island of prosperity’ that should be compared with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, the economy of ‘Londengland’, should we call it, was and still is rather similar to those of Singapore, Hong Kong and indeed Monaco: dominated by international finance and global trading links; a playground of the mega-rich; and a local economy fuelled by property speculation, and propped up by easy access to tax havens (which are also, strangely, among the most densely populated territories in the Wikipedia list) and other tax-avoidance scams.

According to the ONS, the permanently resident population of Greater London at September 2010 was 7.76 million. Of these, a staggering 34.4%
were not born in the UK, while 21.7% were non-UK nationals. And bear in mind, these figures relate to longer-term residents (i.e. people living in London for a year or more) and therefore exclude London’s transient population, much of which is also non-British. No wonder that whenever I go to London, which is quite frequently, I feel as though I’m in a foreign country: to a great extent, I am.

If we use the 7.76 million population figure, I calculate that Greater London has a population density of 12,792 per square mile, which would put London as a stand-alone entity in fifth place in the global league table, behind Hong Kong but ahead of Gibraltar. [Funny how so many of the most densely populated territories are present or former British colonies – including, arguably, England itself.] Conversely, if you exclude the population data for London from the English totals, you find that the proportion of the population not born in the UK declines to 8.7% (versus 6.4% in Scotland). Similarly, excluding London, the proportion of England’s population that are not UK citizens drops to only 5.4% (versus 4.9% in Scotland). And in terms of population density, without London, England’s total drops to 877 per square mile. This is still relatively high (it’s on a par with Japan) but a lot lower than the total including London. But bear in mind that this latter figure excludes shorter-term, very often non-UK-national, residents.

To summarise, if you look at England without London, the share of the population that is either non-UK-born or non-UK-national is much lower than the overall England totals, and is nearer to the levels in the other UK nations. Similarly, population density is also a lot lower: still high but not at the crisis level it appears to have reached if you include London. Looking at this the other way round, London is quite exceptional for England, and for the UK as a whole, in terms of the level of immigration it has absorbed and its population density.

In the light of the demographic and economic differences between London and the rest of the UK, it is not really surprising that the idea of London becoming ‘independent’, or at least more fully devolved, from the rest of the UK has recently been voiced (see here and here). Would it in fact make sense to make London a sort of semi-autonomous city state whose relationship with the rest of the UK would be akin to that of Hong Kong with China, or Monaco with France? We could let London do what it does best and be what it wants to be: a global city and magnet to finance, creative industries and people from all over the world, with a unique international culture – and a haven for super-rich tycoons seeking to avoid taxation in their countries of origin?

One of the articles outlining the case for London’s ‘independence’ even suggested that the rest of England could keep the royal family while London became a republic. On the contrary, I think it would be much more to London’s advantage to retain the monarchy and the Palace of Westminster as the seat of its government, while the rest of England could opt to become a republic if it wished to. Those old trappings of empire are a massive draw for the global travelling classes; and it would be fitting as a symbol of London’s transition to a fully ‘non-English’ British territory, inhabited by people from across the world, if the city retained at its heart some reminders of the former Empire that had first conquered the world in order subsequently to be taken over by it. London would become just another of those small but super-rich territories to whose confines the former riches of Empire had shrunk – leaving England free from British-imperial and Westminster rule to pursue its own destiny. The British royal family would then be one of those cardboard cut-out monarchies from diminutive European principalities and duchies such as Monaco and Liechtenstein. Indeed, London could even become the ‘British Kingdom of London’: the one territory in the former UK that retained Britishness as its national identity – leaving England to be England at last.

Of course, this is all a bit of a flight of fantasy, but there’s a serious point behind it: the economy and demographics of London and the South-East do distort those of the rest of England, which is a very different country from London. And London not only distorts the economic and demographic realities but also the perception of them, which is shaped by a London-centric politics and media. London is multicultural, international ‘Britain’ in a way that no other part of England or the UK is. And because London thinks of itself as the capital and centre of a continuing, and indeed continuous, British realm and historic legacy, it cannot get its head round the idea that, beyond London’s confines, there is in fact a diverse land of several nations that do not always look towards London as the template for their society, as the embodiment of their values or as the legitimate seat of power.

As a node of international trade, travel, culture and finance, it is inevitable that London sees itself as the capital of a country called ‘Britain’, because ‘Britain’ is the UK’s international brand: it’s the way ‘this country’ packages and markets itself across the world. And the UK state fosters a ‘British’-national identity for its – and even more so London’s – ethnic minorities in part because of the internationality associated with the British tag. This means that ‘British’ can serve as the label for the civic national identity of UK citizens, while ‘English’ (and ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Northern Irish’) is relegated to the status of ‘ethnic Britishness’. In this way, London is the capital of a civic, multi-ethnic Britain of which the ‘English’ or the ‘ethnic British’ are only one ethnic group among others – admittedly still the majority population in London, but for how long?

My point is that London, at least in official parlance, does not see itself as the capital of a country called England: it may be a part of England but it is also apart from England. And if the capital city that rules England increasingly neither sees itself, nor is seen, as ‘English’, how does this affect the way England is governed? Shouldn’t London’s rule over England be severed? And is that a condition for England to be free to govern itself?

I do seriously think that England will not be able to break free from the British political and cultural establishment’s stranglehold on government, the economy, values and perceptions of national identity until the ties between London and the rest of England are radically loosened. Quite what form this separation would take is hard to predict; plus it is up to the English people, not the British government, to decide what should happen to its historic capital. One possible solution is a London devolved from within England, which in turn would be part of a UK of federal nations, if not an independent state. Alternatively, London could become to all intents and purposes a separate federal UK nation (the site of the continuing ‘British nation’, as I suggested above), generating wealth and commerce that would contribute income to the UK’s coffers for reserved matters such as defence and macro-economics, but with most of its tax revenues retained for its own public services and investment. In short, London could become England’s, and the UK’s, Hong Kong.

I’m not sure that many Londoners would particularly like their city’s transformation into a capital for global trade and business – but that’s the way it’s going, and that’s the way many in the City, the media and the corridors of power would like it to go. But should England continue to be dragged along in London’s wake and thrall? Can we define a different path for England if the agenda is for ever dictated by London’s perceived and vested interests?

England is a different country from London. Is it time for London to be a different country from England?

6 November 2009

Will Afghanistan crystallise Britain’s ‘Russian moment’?

The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.

But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?

Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.

These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.

As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.

So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.

But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?

Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.

Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.

Create a free website or blog at