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Londexit: is there a future for London outside the UK?

London declaring independence is a radical idea, but it keeps coming back around – as the capital’s relationship with the rest of the UK becomes ‘increasingly fractured’, we explore what it might look like if it actually happened

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.

The 2016 Brexit vote was a turning point for London’s relationship with the rest of the UK, in many people’s minds. In Greater London, almost 60 per cent of voters chose to remain in the EU (the most of any region besides Scotland), which made the capital one of only three regions, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, that voted to remain. By contrast, everywhere else in the UK voted to leave, from Wales to the north and south of England. In some places, such as the Midlands, the results were almost completely flipped, coming in over 59 per cent. More than any voting statistics, though, London was divided by a year of divisive political rhetoric, which split the population into two cartoonish camps. 

Inside London: the metropolitan liberal elite – white-collar workers and crunchy mums obsessed with their own self-serving agendas, prone to idpol posturing, and out of touch with the working class. 

Outside London: the right-wing patriots – gammon-faced provincials who were willing to overlook their best interests to keep out immigrants, maintain the royal family’s reputation, and reassert their right to say slurs.

The reality on both sides of the aisle was more complex, of course. But even today, London and the wider UK are left scarred by this caricatured ideological divide, to the extent that some believe the relationship can never be repaired. Others suggest that it continues to spiral toward chaos. So could we ever reach a point where relations get so bad that London calls it quits and secedes from the UK, declaring itself an independent state? Is Londexit a real possibility? It’s a radical idea, but it’s not without its supporters – 180,000 of them signed a petition back in 2016, calling on London mayor Sadiq Khan to “make the divorce official”. A year later, Tottenham MP David Lammy wrote that independence was necessary for the UK to “retain its position as the pre-eminent global city” post-Brexit. An official party was even formed: the Londependence Party.

Dr Jack Brown, a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College London, and a former researcher at the thinktank Centre for London (he is, by his own admission, “about as London centric as you could possibly imagine”) has extensively researched the fractured relationship between London and the rest of the UK. “The history of Britain is one of London and the rest of the country periodically diverging and converging,” he says. “So while the gap between London and the rest [of the UK] is quite noticeable at the moment, this has happened several times before.”

To some extent, this conflict is a natural result of the UK’s geography and London’s central position within it, he explains. “So much of our economy and our culture is concentrated in this corner of the country. There’s a feeling that there’s too much stuff [in London], whether that’s too much of the economy, whether it’s drawing too many people in and destroying the countryside, or taking people out of small, declining towns in the North. There’s always a sense that London’s success is at the detriment of the rest of the country.”

Despite common misconceptions, London historically gives more than it takes – at least in economic terms. Before coronavirus lockdowns caused widespread disruption in 2020, “London was paying substantially more in taxes than was spent in London,” says Tony Travers, a professor in the government department at London School of Economics, and director of LSE London. “About £30 billion to £35 billion more per year was paid in taxes than was spent in London. To use a term that aggravates everybody elsewhere in the country: London was exporting £30 billion a year.” 

“If London just left, it would be a very rich state by global standards” – Tony Travers

To someone who comes from a northern town like Blackpool or Hull, or even major cities like Manchester and Nottingham, it might not always be clear where this money is going. Alongside the staggering wealth of boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, however, London is also home to huge deprivation – Tower Hamlets, for instance, had the worst child poverty rates in the UK as of 2022, with 56 per cent of children living below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, redistributing the money that leaves London in tax payments to these communities is central to the Londependence Party manifesto, although the actual policies that would make it happen are nowhere to be seen.

Another commitment from the Londependence manifesto is “respect for all Londoners – whatever their background or circumstances”. Apparently, in an independent London, this would include welcoming immigration policy, clear paths to citizenship for all of the city’s residents, and Europe-wide freedom of movement. How this would work when the city is surrounded by an extremely long and porous border with the rest of the UK is, once more, unclear. Would London build a wall and establish checkpoints along the M25? Who knows. Regardless of the impracticalities, though, the sentiment does tap into one of the foremost divides between London and the rest of the UK.

“London is clearly much more overseas-born than any other parts of the United Kingdom,” Travers says, noting that the 2021 census showed that 40.6 per cent of London’s residents were born outside the UK. “Compare this with New York, which most of us see as a fascinating and wonderfully global mega-city,” he adds: “There, 36 per cent were born outside the United States.” In the UK as a whole, however, the number of residents born overseas drops to an estimated 14.4 per cent. Since many people travel to the UK for better work opportunities – which are overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital – this difference makes sense, but it could still be a factor in a potential Londexit debate.

The influx of a large and diverse population of outsiders – whether they’re non-British citizens looking for work opportunities, students finishing university in other UK towns, or young people looking to party outside of the same few clubs back home – has also contributed to a divergence in London’s voting habits over the last couple of decades, Travers notes. “Up until 1997, London used to vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, in more or less exactly the same proportions as Britain as a whole,” he says. “Since then, it’s become more detached.” Today, London votes overwhelmingly for Labour, with the party even winning Westminster, a traditional Tory stronghold, in 2022. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have now been in power for more than a decade, thanks to wide support across the rest of England (and, to a lesser extent, Wales). This split is significant, but not too surprising: younger people are much more likely to cast their vote for parties on the left, and those with a university education are much more likely to hold liberal values. Labour also performs significantly better among BAME communities.

Another interesting contrast: in London, more people identify as religious than anywhere else in Britain, a trend likely driven by immigration and diaspora communities. This probably accounts for the capital’s significantly lower alcohol consumption than most other regions, as well as some surprisingly conservative views on things like homosexuality and sex before marriage (though this hasn’t stopped it from becoming labelled of the most socially liberal countries in the world).

London’s general disapproval of the current government – which extends to institutions like the Met Police – also leads to some strange misconceptions, which only fuel its painful separation from the rest of the nation. As Brown points out, the banks that crashed the UK economy, and largely got away with it, are concentrated in the capital, as are politicians (who are “never necessarily that popular”). As a result: “London became associated with quite a few things that people don’t like.” As we’ve already established, though, the rich and powerful account for a small portion of the city’s entire population. “One of the big problems that London faces is that when we talk about decisions made by central government, by the prime minister or by cabinet ministers, we say, ‘Westminster says this,’ or we say, ‘London decides that,’” says Brown. “A lot of people conflate the two, partly because newspapers tend to. [They] conflate this city, which has nine million people who are very, very different to one another, the majority of whom are poor, with the very powerful people who actually run the country.”

Is cutting off London completely the answer? Should we turn mayor Sadiq Khan into president Khan, as that independence petition promised back in 2016? Before answering that question, let’s consider what the immediate aftermath would look like. “If London just left, it would be a very rich state by global standards, but with very high levels of deprivation,” Travers says. “But it would then have greater control over its own resources, to do something about housing conditions, poverty, all the other things that make [up] London’s remarkable contrast between the rich and the poor.”

On the other hand, the rest of the UK would take an immediate economic hit, and would have to scramble to find a way to make up its £30 billion loss. Then, there would be a complicated web of administrative issues. The UK would have to decide whether to keep the Bank of England as its central bank, or keep a monarch as head of state, as would likely be the case in the event of Scottish independence. “There would be a competition as to where parliament would be located in England that would make the Eurovision Song Contest contest look like a walk in the park,” Travers adds. Although, Brown suggests, that problem could be solved by the inevitable closure of national institutions in London: “The Houses of Parliament could be turned into a museum, unless we were renting it out to the British government, so they could come here and use it still. But it’s falling into the River Thames anyway, so I don’t know that they’d want it.”

All of this is overlooking the biggest problem of all, of course: the border issue. In the UK’s Brexit negotiations, the Irish border proved a monumental sticking point, and new laws and treaties had to be written to fix the various problems involved in protecting the Good Friday Agreement while the Republic of Ireland remained in the EU. “If you think the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is difficult,” says Travers, “you can imagine what the border between London and the rest of the UK would be like.” Although he doesn’t think conflict would erupt in the case of London’s secession, he suggests that figuring out London’s border in the event it rejoined the EU would be nightmarish, “given that hundreds of thousands of people a day flow across [into the city]”.

“What we’ve learned from Brexit, is that if London were to be an independent country, the border would be very difficult” – Tony Travers

To counter this, Brown suggests, London might expand to encompass parts of Essex, Kent, and Surrey, where commuters live outside the M25 but essentially make up parts of London’s daily population. However, policing people’s movement would still be virtually impossible. “What we’ve learned from Brexit, and from the problems of the Northern Ireland border, is that if London were to be an independent country, the border would be very difficult,” Travers concludes.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the answer to the question of London declaring independence from the UK is, basically: no, it’s not a good idea. Just because tensions between London and the UK are particularly obvious right now – stoked, for various reasons, by politicians and press – it’s not likely to happen any time soon, either. This isn’t just the opinion of academics and political commentators; in 2021, a new petition of a referendum on Greater London’s independence received just 20 signatures of the 10,000 needed to go before parliament. The Londependence Party, meanwhile, didn’t even respond to Dazed’s interview requests, though it continues to hype up secession to its 4,000 Twitter followers. 

Nevertheless, could we see a softer transition of power in the coming years, which sees London gain more autonomy within the UK, without the need for borders and further political divides? This is a shift that Brown has seen up and down the UK, in fact, where places like Manchester and Tees Valley have struck ambitious devolution deals in recent years. “I think that devolving power to a locality is the right thing to do,” he says. “People closer to the coalface really understand their patches, and every place in this country has different challenges and opportunities. The idea that you run [it] all from one place that’s kind of remote, and that we don’t trust local people to make decisions that best suit themselves... I think that’s wrong. I think local government is better placed than some bloke in a suit sitting in Whitehall.”

“People closer to the coalface really understand their patches, and every place in this country has different challenges and opportunities... Local government is better placed than some bloke in a suit sitting in Whitehall” – Jack Brown

Travers agrees that there are opportunities for London to change its relationship with the rest of the UK over time, pointing out that there are already places – like the Isle of Man or Channel Islands – that enjoy a more flexible relationship with our central government, while not requiring a passport, and sharing some cultural similarities such as BBC broadcasts. “The thing about the UK is that it’s endlessly flexible,” he says. “No written constitution, no formal, written set of rules. Anything’s possible.”

“It’s kind of a slow process,” Brown adds, “but there is a general consensus among politicians that more devolved government might be the way to do levelling-up, to address some of the imbalances between London and the rest of the UK.” Years down the line, we might not just see London take more control of its own governance, but autonomy in many other local regions as well.

Would there be risks involved? Admittedly, yes: regions might still have to fight over resources distributed by central government, and devolution might not even do much to calm existing separatist movements – after all, Scotland has had devolved government since 1999, but support for full independence reached a historical high back in 2020. “But a devolved country doesn’t have to be more divided,” says Brown. “There’s a huge amount of potential everywhere in this country, and if you trust local leaders, I could see a more united country, but also one that’s a little bit less London dominant. That’s very realistic and very achievable.”

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