“London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that’s free,” sang Noël Coward. “London Pride means our own dear town to us, and our pride it forever will be.” Coward was a bit before my time, and it certainly might sound corny to modern ears, but as the child of Peckham parents growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, there was still for me a cultural resonance in his placing of this understated feeling as flourishing “from the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown”.
Does London pride still exist? Yes, but it’s a different kind now, and one Coward would probably have been perplexed by: a pride in not really being part of Britain. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have observed to me how London is no longer a British city, a comment sometimes made wistfully, but just as often with a sense of real achievement, as though something bad has been overcome.
This sort of pride, the New Pride we shall call it, exalts aggressively in London as some sort of breakaway city-state which one can join simply by existing here, a place which defines itself politically and culturally in opposition to nasty, boring old provincial Britain. To this extent London has followed in the footsteps of New York, which has always made the point that it is emphatically not America. To become a fully-fledged New Yorker, however, you do still have to spend a few years in the steel trenches if you want to earn your spurs; New Yorkers are very jealous of their collective identity. Not so now in our capital city — you’re a Londoner virtually instantaneously.
Alongside the unprecedented demographic changes, this self-image makeover has happened with startling speed in far less than a single generation. But whether you are one of those who sees vibrancy and dynamism round every corner, or one of that unfashionable band who’ve been left reeling, most of us would at least agree that to keep the show on the road we should at least be able to understand each other.
If the new London really does see New York as its role model, it should take note of one distinctive difference. New York might be home to as many different ethnic groups as London, but, and this struck me forcibly on my last visit, they generally speak the same language. London, with a decades-old obsession with multiculturalism not shared by New York, is increasingly a fragmented place where it cannot be assumed that your neighbour, or the person next to you in the queue, will be able to communicate with you at the most basic level. And at its worst, this has led to increasingly entrenched communities in the capital in which English is not spoken simply because it doesn’t have to be. If a common language is the essential glue which holds a cohesive society together, then London is in danger of becoming badly unstuck.
This throws into even sharper focus the efforts of one London mayor to buck the trend. The borough of Newham in the East End, which I can see across the river from my vantage point in Woolwich, is best known to the country as the place where the Olympics took place. Perhaps less known is that it is the most ethnically diverse area in the country, with white Britons accounting for less than 17 per cent, and no one group dominating. Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, last year instituted a programme which focused on English as a way of promoting integration. Translation services were cut by 72 per cent, as was funding for events held by and for specific ethnicities which could not prove that they were “inclusive”. Even foreign-language newspapers were removed from libraries (although free internet access to native language publications was retained).
There was some disingenuous Tory opposition to this, and the mayor was asked to account for his actions with the obligatory Newsnight appearance. But other than that, what is remarkable has been the very lack of controversy over measures which even in the very recent past would have been damned as intolerably draconian. The fact that the very diversity of groups in Newham has made these initiatives easier to implement than if the borough had been, say, 60 per cent white British, thus leading to the usual charges of racism, almost certainly helped, as probably did the fact that Sir Robin is Labour. But this isn’t the whole story. Right across the political board there is a growing acceptance that multiculturalism has led to far more problems than successes. We have come a long way indeed from the 1980s and the pillorying and subsequent professional destruction of Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headmaster who dared to suggest that it might be a good thing for his Asian pupils if they were taught English. If integration is indeed to replace separation as the new approach, it would be great news, so that it’s not just in house prices that London is seen to be leading the way.