Since 2000, London has had to contend not only with the pomp of its ancient mayoralty within the Square Mile but with the brashness of its new one within the broader mass of Greater London. Lord Mayor and Antimayor, like Pope and Antipope in the Middle Ages. Henley’s former MP, Boris Johnson, is the current Antimayor, never out of the news for long. This week he offered the Chancellor a bold suggestion: provide taxrelief for commuter fares.
The UK has a very strange economic geography, with wealth massively concentrated in the south-east corner. Market forces have little to do with this, since public spending is massively skewed towards supporting this agglomeration. In the 1990s it was worked out that the annual subsidy for London commuter rail services came to more than the entire annual budget of the Welsh Development Agency. No-one seemed concerned. Apologists for the City like to argue that London pays in far more than it draws out but such arguments routinely ignore the unapportioned (and largely unnecessary) cost of running central government itself, which is of course based in London.
Few folk seem willing to believe that the figures really are unfair (or unfair enough to stir them to action), even though they are entirely real. The problem stems from the fact that it is not just political power that is centralised. Where the power is, there too is the wealth. So we have the economic centralisation already mentioned. And where the power and wealth are, so too is the talent. We have massive cultural centralisation in all departments, from the arts to museums to newspapers.
The media are mainly centred in London or dependent on decisions, proprietorial and editorial, taken in London (or from a global ‘big city’ perspective that echoes the same concerns). These decisions are not shaped by journalists personally disinterested in London’s prosperity. So a sophisticated language of doublethink has grown up, whereby public spending in ‘the provinces’ is a waste of money, propping up dead regions in defiance of natural economic law. But public spending in London and the south-east is a vital national ‘investment’ in success, even where the project cannot operate to normal commercial standards and therefore becomes a burden to taxpayers throughout the UK.
BoJo’s cheeky demand that we all chip in towards transport costs for his city’s workforce is more of the same. If accepted, it would mean hard-pressed house-hunters in much of eastern Wessex seeing house prices rise still further beyond their reach as the market adjusts to the newly enhanced spending power of long-distance commuters. Who in turn will therefore be able to commute over even longer distances instead of adjusting their working lives to the fact that oil is on the way out.
Johnson can say these things and be listened to because as Antimayor he has been given a platform that few others can share. Perhaps the only other politician outside Westminster whose words matter in the same way is Alex Salmond. Johnson speaks for a city. Salmond speaks for a nation. Who, besides us, will speak for the downtrodden residents of the region of Wessex? Not the dozens of local authority leaders, individually meaningless. Yet Wessex has as big a population as London, or as big as Scotland and Wales combined. If Wessex folk would be heard, then Wessex folk must likewise learn how to all shout at once.