Down and Out in London as Wealthy Capital Outvoted on Brexit

  • As many as 75% of Londoners in some boroughs voted to stay
  • Bankers, young professionals bemoan Brexit’s victory

Brexit: The Modern Era's Biggest Foreign Policy Mistake?

London Wall, a four-lane thoroughfare that scythes through the heart of the capital’s financial district, is named for the barrier the Romans built to protect what they called Londinium.

The bankers and consultants who arrived at work in the neighborhood on Friday found a city that’s never in its modern history been more divided from the rest of Britain. Unlike almost every other part of England, London’s residents voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in Thursday’s referendum. As much as three-quarters of the vote went to “Remain” in some boroughs of the city. 

With the referendum, “something broke, something in the British culture,” said Boris Peinaud, a sales analyst at telecommunications operator Lebara Mobile. “I always loved the U.K. That might change now,” said the Frenchman as he stepped out for a cigarette on the site of the ancient fortification. He arrived in the city four years ago, joining tens of thousands of his compatriots who’ve made their home in Europe’s most diverse metropolis and, by EU right, can live and work there freely.

Peinaud and other Londoners now are wondering about their place in the U.K., which opted as a whole to leave the EU by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, triggering an unprecedented upheaval in politics and markets. The vote, which led Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, illustrated the cultural and economic gulf that’s opened between London and the rest of the country over the last three decades.

For a primer on Britain leaving the EU, click here

Supercharged by globalization, the growth of finance and technology, and the arrival of ambitious young people from all over the world, London now has far more in common with New York and Hong Kong than, say, Blackpool. In a country riven by questions of immigration and identity, it has peaceably integrated a population that’s more than one-third foreign born, including almost 1 million EU citizens -- whose future status in the U.K. is now uncertain. Its population is far younger and better educated than the British average.

During the bruising referendum campaign, a who’s-who of major London business people and politicians emphatically backed Remain.

"London has prospered more from globalization than almost anywhere in the world, whereas many people elsewhere in the U.K. feel they haven’t," said Gregor Irwin, the chief economist at consulting firm Global Counsel. "That divide is vividly on display today."

How Britain Voted: Brexit Results


For full coverage of the referendum, click here

Big Ben

London isn’t accustomed to thinking of itself as a place apart like New York does. Some of the most sacred symbols of British identity lie within its boundaries: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The founding parable of contemporary Britain, the heroic keep-calm-and-carry-on resistance to the Blitz during World War II, was largely a story of London.

Yet a place apart is what it’s become. Some 1.4 million immigrants live in inner London, according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, with another 1.7 million in its more distant boroughs. All of North East England, which turned out strongly for Leave, has about 132,000 migrants in total. Disposable household income per head in London is 54 percent higher than in Wales, and 52 percent higher than in Yorkshire.

The experience of being on the wrong side of the referendum will contribute to a fiercer sense of an independent identity, said Ben Rogers, the director of the Centre for London, a think tank that advocates for the city. The vote "will change the identity of London and its relationship to the rest of the U.K.," Rogers said. "I can see business and indeed think tanks and London government renewing their calls for more power for London," he added. "I’m sure that will happen."

London’s new mayor has already signaled he plans to push to protect the city’s interests as the U.K. embarks on a negotiation of its future relations with the EU. In a statement Friday morning, Sadiq Khan -- the staunchly pro-EU son of a bus driver from Pakistan -- said keeping the U.K. in the so-called Single Market should be the "cornerstone" of the talks. That would probably entail retaining freedom of movement, allowing EU citizens to move to Britain just as easily as they do now, a concession that would be anathema to many Brexit supporters.

Among the leaders of the separation movement was Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, who in his two terms as mayor was a tireless booster of the capital. He would describe it to anyone who would listen as "the greatest city on Earth."

During the campaign Johnson argued that London outside the EU could be an even more dynamic hub of business and culture, shorn of unhelpful regulations and able to accommodate more bright immigrants from fast-growing emerging markets. In his victory speech on Friday morning, he said it would be a mistake to assume Brexit means "pulling up a drawbridge or some sort of isolationism."

Protesting Johnson

The city Johnson calls home isn’t so sure. Protesters booed and jeered the former mayor as he left his home in Islington, a borough where 75 percent voted to remain in the EU, and banged on the sides of his car.

Not far away, in the heart of the financial district, the mood was despairing. "Our fear is not the next days or weeks," said Tim Cuddeford, a partner at management consulting firm Crossbridge. "Our fear is for the long-term future of the city and its significance in the world."

Some Londoners are wondering if they should even follow the example of Scotland, which also voted to stay in the EU. That divergence with the U.K. as a whole led Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the ruling Scottish National Party, to all but promise a second referendum on secession.

"The first thing my girlfriend said to me this morning is that now we need an independent state for London," said a Deutsche Bank employee who would give his name only as Tim. "It’s a different world from the rest of the country."

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