“Bubbly, international, colorful.” “The quintessence of modernity.” The source of an “interior freedom that I have kept to this day”. Even without context, Ursula von der Leyen’s odes in London, where the President of the European Commission studied for a year, have always been beautiful. And then you time that she describes the city in 1978, before the overthrow of its post-war depopulation, before the Big Bang, before, even, Dishoom. She should have been there in 2006, I mean, but she would still perfect the adjectives.
The definition of a great city is that only dedicated city planners notice its discomforts. For most sensibilities, the pulse and richness of these places never fluctuate. This is even or especially true of those who flinch at such things with conservative disgust. Tokyo history, this jewel of world cinema, regrets the disruptive and uprooting force of the Japanese capital. . . in 1953.
Even a bad London is therefore a miracle. It’s a reason to bet on the hometown that I haven’t seen in 16 months as it cautiously walks into life after the pandemic. But there are others.
Last month, Boston Consulting Group and The Network, a group of online recruiters, surveyed more than 200,000 people in 190 countries. They found what they found in 2014 and again in 2018. London is cited before any city in the world as a place to move and work. The propensity to relocate is declining, which should hurt every city in the world in absolute terms. But if London’s relative appeal holds, it will take particularly stubborn immigration laws to diminish its global status.
There is no doubt that respondents underestimate the possible cost of Brexit. But then what is the other plausible capital of Europe? Amsterdam ranks second in the survey, but its metropolitan area has around 2.5 million inhabitants. Paris is not in the top 10 (I never said they were discerning respondents). As recently as 2016, Berlin was poorer than the German national average.
In terms of raw vigor and around the clock, Pacific cities are in a class of their own, before we even factor in their success against the pandemic. I expect Bangkok to almost levitate as Chinese and American cash engulf Southeast Asia, the most contested region of the century. In the west, however, London and New York were in a league of two before the pandemic and likely will be long after. Even if the spread of English as a common second or first language reduces their advantage, try to clone this “inner freedom”. It is a cultural loosening, an absence of codes and labels that can make even the largest cities of continental Europe difficult for foreigners.
As for national talent, despite the best efforts of all governments in my life, London will remain an El Dorado. For two reasons, the UK’s perennial quest to “rebalance” should always cause a grimace. One is the prefix “re”. This implies a recent and therefore recoverable parity between cities. The truth is, London’s monstrously larger scale holds up in time; only the finalists change.
The other error, which follows from the first, is the vanity of the politician: the overestimation of politics against the ingrained past. London dominates because England has been whole for longer than the more balanced nations with which it is disagreeably compared. Neither Germany nor Italy united until the late 1800s. Hamburg, Florence, Munich and Turin had centuries to develop as ducal capitals or sovereign states. France is much more like England in its former integrity. Oh look, Île-de-France represents 30% of national production.
These are not disparities that will answer crown ministers or other transients. They won’t respond to the much vaunted end of the office, unless you think there are no offices in Leeds and Manchester. A Zoom-enabled worker dispersion does not in itself mean a smaller gap between elite cities and the second tier.
If London loses people, it will lose them from a historic high of around 9m. Even a sustained net output of 2m (I will dine at an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse if that happens) would leave the population around its 1978 level. In my frame of reference, this is happening for a ghost town. For at least one young student, it was bubbling enough.
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