London: The Dilemma of a World City

From this weeks Irish World:

London: The Dilemma of a World City

by Tom Griffin

The incorruptible professor walked, too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad.

Terrorism has been an issue in London for a long time. Conrad’s classic novel, written in 1907, culled details from the history of nineteenth century anarchism, yet its portrait of the underworld is strikingly relevant today.

The image of Conrad’s Professor is all too resonant, a master bombmaker, perpetually striving for the perfect detonator, and always carrying enough explosives to blow himself up at a moment’s notice.

The novel is based on the attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory in 1894, which in Conrad’s fictionalised version, is attributed to an agent provocateur working for a foreign embassy, hoping to encourage Britain to crack down on political refugees from the continent.

“The general leniency of the judicial procedure, and the utter absence of all repressive measures, are a scandal to Europe,” says the diplomat who arranges the attack.

Similar statements about British laxity have been made by a number of governments in recent years. Indeed, the number of political dissidents from the Islamic world coming to Britain’s capital, has been such that the city has been dubbed ‘Londonistan.’

Why has London been a haven for foreign radicals so consistently for so long?

Perhaps the answer is bound up with the nature of the British economy, which has long been one of the most open in the world.

According to the Foreign Office, Britain is the one of the top five trading nations in the world, and the second largest foreign investor. International trade makes up 40 per cent of British GDP, twice the figure for the more self-contained economies of the USA and Japan.

It’s clear that immigrants play a significant role in maintaining Britain’s performance.

“The UK is fortunate in having strong historical and cultural links with developing countries around the world,” The Department of Trade and industry notes on its website.

“Immigration into the UK over the last 50 years means there are now significant populations here from a number of these countries. The UK already benefits from the ‘diaspora dividend’ that comes from links between black and ethnic minority populations here and their countries of ethnic origin.”

“For example, black and ethnic minority businesses currently contribute around £30 billion to the UK economy. Enormous potential exists for increasing trade led by these businesses. In particular, we are fortunate in having close links with China and India; the UK is the largest European investor in China, and India is the seventh largest inward investor in the UK.”

British multiculturalism reflects the priorities of London’s free-trading finance-based economy, far more than any notion of ‘political correctness’ imposed by left-wing idealogues.

The cosmopolitanism of the City of London is also reflected in the British constitution. The monarchy acts as the symbol of a fluid outward-looking British identity, and a bulwark against alternative forms of nationalism that might impose a more protectionist vision.

The recent wave of bombings clearly poses profound questions about the future of that open economy. Yet in the eyes of many observers, Britain courted just this outcome by taking part in the invasion of Iraq.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone delivered a prescient warning in 2002, that “An assault on Iraq will inflame world opinion and jeopardise security and peace everywhere. London, as one of the major world cities, has a great deal to lose from war and lot to gain from peace, international co-operation and global stability.”

Why did Britain go to war, in spite of such considerations?

Arguably, the key reason for the decision was to maintain an alliance with the United States, which is itself a major factor in Britain’s role in the world economy.

In Conrad’s day, the gunboats of the Royal Navy enforced the free trade on which London thrives. Today, the only global military power is the United States.

The US has taken over the dominant role that Britain itself inherited from the Netherlands in the Eighteenth Century. It is the guarantor of the international economic order.

Britain’s place in that order depends on its ability to ‘punch above its weight’ as a valuable ally.

As Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook put it: “the real reason [Tony Blair] went to war was that he found it easier to resist the public opinion of Britain than the request of the US President."

Opponents of the Iraq War argue that it made London a terrorist target, while many of the war’s supporters instead blame Britain’s multi-cultural society for allowing Islamic fundamentalists to operate freely.

What is insufficiently realised by both sets of critics is that Britain’s interventionism abroad is based on a calculation of the same interests which dictate openness at home.

The British Government’s determination to maintain London as a major centre of the global economy means it is likely to resist the prescriptions of both the right and the left.

Nevertheless, the combination of cosmopolitanism at home and interventionism abroad clearly risks making London a peculiarly vulnerable target for terrorism.

Londoner’ stoicism perhaps reflects the recognition that they will face that dilemma for the foreseeable future







2 responses to “London: The Dilemma of a World City”

  1. avatar

    The objective of most [all?] terrorist “outrage” operations is to provoke a reaction, a “backlash”. Such was the rationale behind 9/11 – and how evily effective that act has been!
    The London bombing – and I fear there will be more of them – seeks to exploit semi-dormant prejudices and ignite Christian/West vs. Islam/East conflict.
    Extremists want nothing less but to start a global conflict. They must not be allowed to do so.
    btw. You could also check out Hitchcock’s ‘Sabotage’ [1936], the master’s version of the Conrad story.

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    A similar point was made on the Opendemocracy website, which has had a lot of good stuff abut the bombings:
    There are five reasons for the “blame Islam” argument to have appeal.
    First, Osama bin Laden and his followers believe it. They, more than Huntingdon and Lewis, believe in the ultimate clash of civilisations. Their “policies” are actively intended to precipitate it.
    I didn’t know about the Hitchcock film. I shall have to check it out.

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