London Identities


We are living in an age of resurgent interest in nationality. Everywhere, it seems, politicians who defend internationalist principles find themselves on the back foot, while anti-migrant, anti-globalisation movements make the waves.

Of course, the new nationalist movements are not going uncontested. On the contrary, in France Emmanuel Macron scored a handsome victory campaigning on an avowedly liberal and pro-European agenda. But disagreements between nationalists and those with more cosmopolitan outlooks are reshaping our politics. Older post-War political cleavages, between a left committed to a larger redistributive state, and a right in favour of lower taxes and free markets, are giving way to divisions based on national borders and national values.

Nowhere is this truer than in the UK, where the surprise victory for the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum looks likely to mark a profound historical watershed, as the UK government slams the brake on 40 years of European and global integration. At the same time, older party alliances are coming under pressure, as Brexit – widely viewed as the political issue of our day – divides both the Conservative and Labour parties.

This paper explores where London fits into this changing political landscape and in particular, how London identities have evolved in recent years and how they compare to developments elsewhere. As many political economists have observed (e.g. Saskia Sassen, Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida), while the most recent wave of globalisation has spread wealth and opportunity relatively widely, most of the growth has been concentrated in cities and much of it in large, already successful global cities.

London has been a major beneficiary of this trend, re-establishing itself, over the last 30 years, as perhaps the world’s leading global capital. It has attracted migrants, entrepreneurs, investors and visitors from all over Europe and the world beyond, drawn by its economic opportunities but also its welcoming cosmopolitan culture, energy and creativity. The process however has not been without its tensions. London has long played a leading role in UK’s economy and culture, but over last decades its lead has lengthened. The capital has become richer relative to rest of the UK and regional economic disparities have become greater. To many British people, London may as well be another country. And there is widespread scepticism about whether it actually helps other parts of the country at all. 1 At the same time, the capital itself has in some respects become more divided. Wealth inequality has deepened; Londoners on modest and middle incomes have seen living costs rise faster than earnings. Poverty remains stubbornly high.

But what have these developments meant for London identities? One position – put forward in David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere for example – sees London as an atomised place, which people visit to earn money or enhance their careers, but then leave without putting down roots. People who did once have a strong sense of London and national belonging – the white working class – have left the city. In so far as liberal Londoners do go in for identity politics, it’s the politics not of national or city belonging but politics of gender, race, and sexuality.

“London is Anywhereville. National attachments and feelings of community tend to be weaker in big cities such as London, where there is a high population churn and where there are disproportionate amounts of Anywhere people”. 2

Another view sees London as exemplifying a ‘strength in diversity’ cosmopolitan identity. This view likes to draw a contrast between the insular identities animating populist movements and the more capacious but no less powerful urban identities that have emerged in leading global cities. In that world view, for instance developed by the late Benjamin Barber, the future is in cities, and populism is the last gasp of the nation state.

However, there has been relatively little actual research into how London identities have changed over time, or how they compare and relate to developments elsewhere. This paper aims to begin to fill that gap.

The evidence on London identities is scattered and incomplete. City identities are much less studied than national or local identities. There isn’t a big dataset that surveys London identities, tracks them over time or compares them with identities in other cities. There are some data from national surveys on feelings of belonging, and some one-off polls that offer interesting snapshots of London identity and city pride among adults. However, given the personal and contingent nature of identities, we also draw on a patchwork of more intimate work in social psychology and cultural studies. On top of this, we use the insights from an expert roundtable convened to discuss the latest developments in this area of study.

We start by charting how recent changes in London’s population, economy and civic sense may have affected Londoners’ attachment to their city. We then explore the extent to which Londoners sign up to a ‘London identity’, how this is informed by and intersects with other elements of identity. Finally, at a time when policymakers are eager to find ways to bring people together, we ask whether London politicians should be aiming to bolster a shared sense of belonging and if so how?

  • 1 Wilcox, Z., Nohrova, N. and Bidgood, E. (2014). City views: how do Britain’s cities see London? Centre for Cities.
  • 2 Goodhart, D. (2017). The road to somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics. Oxford University Press. P.134