April 27, 2011
When you leave this country for a few days, you get the distinct impression that we are stuck in a time warp. We aren’t moving on. This is the feeling I got over the weekend in London.
On the eve of the Royal Wedding, the British capital captures the very essence of modernity or globalisation and all the forces that will shape the next decade.
You get the impression that the place is moving forward, looking to the future with all the chaos of a thriving megalopolis.
And yet on the surface it appears so traditional. Well over two centuries after the French guillotined their king and queen, the Brits are unified this week with street parties and flag waving in an orgy of royalist schmaltz. But it works. Kate Middleton, the exceptionally pretty bride, is everywhere — from huge billboards to the little pictures of her in the back of taxis driven by skinhead cabbies tattooed with the flag of St George. Her face beams out of every magazine pullout. Kate — the darling of middle England — is the new Diana; which wouldn’t be so bad if only she wasn’t marrying Diana’s son.
But you know Britain is changing when you have Prince Charles’ son, future King of England, high-fiving English rapper Dizzie Rascal — son of a Ghanaian single-mother. Can you imagine his father doing that?
Hyde Park is the garden of Babel, hundreds of nationalities hanging out, cheek by jowl on a scorching Easter Sunday. Tiny Hassidic Jewish boys who look as if they have stepped out of 16th century rural Poland, play side by side with equally tiny Arab girls in 12th century Yemeni chic — covered up with the full headscarf. Here they hardly notice each other. In the Middle East they’re killing each other. Context is everything.
Down the road, in the Science Museum — a cathedral celebrating collective human ingenuity — the aisles are jammed with all sorts. There is the typical Northern English machine nerd, in socks and sandals clutching his flask while he marvels at the original Stephenson’s Rocket. It can be easy to forget that there was a time when England made everything. Beside him, an industrious Indian family is taking notes, under the watchful eye of their Sari-wearing, henna-haired granny. And a few feet away, three Chinese children, head to toe in Hollister’s Southern Californian uniform, are marvelling at a replica of Apollo 11.
Outside, the streets are full, the place is teeming with life and you get the sense of full-on urban dynamism as millions of migrants embark on the great human struggle of familial self-improvement.
This is why cities exist. These places are the real theatres of dreams, where thousands of people try to escape the confines of their origins and build a new life. Some succeed extravagantly. For example, London is home to 32 billionaires according to Forbes, and more than half of these are not Londoners. On the other hand, as anyone who has witnessed Irish down and outs in a damp Finsbury Park Tube Station knows, the city can be unforgiving and hostile.
Yet the point remains that the city absorbs all sorts and has been home to millions of Irish people over the years. For example, around six million Britons have an Irish grandfather or grandmother (approximately 10pc of the UK population). The majority of these people live in the Greater London area as well as the traditional Irish cities of Manchester, Liverpool and around the industrial heartland of the West Midlands.
Today, 900,000 ethnic Irish people live in London (12pc of the city’s population). That means close to one million people who were actually born in Ireland live in London. Survey data puts the number of Londoners claiming some Irish blood as much higher. And, of course, the figure for Irish people living in London is rising and rising. Of the 1,000 people a week leaving our country, you can be sure the majority head to London. On the Tube in and around west London, Irish accents are common again. So it was in the 1950s and 1980s, and now again London welcomes the Irish, embraces us and gives many thousands of us a chance.
But this is the nature of cities and this is why cities are the essence of economics. Cities connect people, inspire people, allow people to share ideas and put those ideas to work. This has been the case throughout history. Cities host ideas, become decadent, reinvent themselves and can’t be controlled for long periods. This is why the great Italian merchant cities spawned great art; it is why various purest Jewish sects fled Roman Jerusalem for the desert to escape the decadence of the city, with its moneychangers, fraudsters and prostitutes. It is why punk rock exploded out of London in the late 1970s and Hip Hop out of New York a few years later. Cities are all about pushing the boundaries and the human desire for self-expression among the chaos of millions trying to live their lives and just get on with things.
London, as one of Europe’s finest mega-cities, is a fantastic example of the power of cities where the best brains, the most curious people and the finest human capital converge. Modern politicians understand the importance of cities. Over the past 20 years the authorities have invested enormously in London and it shows. It was a city on the decline 30 years ago with Brixton in flames and racial tensions simmering; today it feels rejuvenated.
Smaller cities like Dublin can learn from London. In fact, Europe’s small cities are in competition with each other not just for tourism but for people and investment. If we create an environment for the best people to come to work here, they will come. To do this we must invest and continue to spend on things that appear ephemeral like culture and the arts. These are not the pursuits of the elite. Look at what happened to Bilbao when it invested in the Guggenheim. The entire brand of the city changed and tourism took off, more than paying back the initial investment. A good arts festival can work wonders for a city — just look at Edinburgh fringe. So too can a one-off sporting event, for example the upcoming UEFA Cup Final at Aviva Stadium. The same goes for the visits of the queen and Obama — these are showcase events, which we should use to rebrand the country.
In short, we must invest in fun. I know this sounds strange in a recession but it is true. The thriving European cities of the future won’t be places of production; they will be places of consumption. Once you throw people together, they will be creative, if you encourage it. We should aim to have more people living between the canals in a city where the open public spaces are lived in and owned by all. This will be the beginning of our regeneration.
While Dublin will never be a London, it will be the dynamo for the next chapter of the Irish economic story. The more open and welcoming it is to all sorts, the better place it will be.