World·CBC in London

London spends the summer lost in a post-Brexit haze

The British capital voted in June's referendum to remain in the EU. But the U.K. voted to leave. The resentment is going both ways, Margaret Evans writes.
'Remain' supporters demonstrate in Parliament Square in London on July 2, 2016, to show their support for the European Union in the wake of the referendum decision for the U.K. to leave the EU. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Associated Press)

"Are you sure that we are awake?  It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream …" So says the character of Demetrius to Hermia in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And so London feels this summer, lost in a post-­Brexit haze. Nearly 60 per cent of the British capital's residents voted to remain in the European Union in a referendum on June 23. But the rest of the U.K. disagreed, with the exceptions of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as several cities not far from London.

The anger on the streets felt in those early days after the vote has dissipated somewhat, aided by the fact that most politicians exited stage left on holiday shortly afterwards and that the start date for exit talks with the EU remains unfixed.

"I was really surprised by the decision when I woke up on the day after the vote," says Tim Streeter, a banker who works in London's financial district. "But, you know, life hasn't really changed so much at the moment, so I think people are picking themselves up after the vote, and the next step is going to be all with the negotiations that might happen."

It's a vote that sticks in the craw of most Londoners, running contrary to their own sense of identity in a city that has prided itself on its cosmopolitan and multi­cultural outlook. The fact that London is the engine fuelling the economy for the rest of nation makes the decision bite all the more.

'A lot of anger'

"I think it's 23 per cent of the economic growth in the U.K. is generated in London," says Guardian newspaper columnist Dave Hill.  "There was a recent study [published by the Centre for Cities] which said that about 30 per cent of the taxes raised in London go to the rest of the U.K., so there is a sense that London subsidizes the rest of the country.

"So, there was a lot of anger." 

An on­line petition calling on the mayor of London to declare independence from the rest of the U.K. was launched shortly after the vote — calls for a city­ state that reportedly garnered over 170,000 signatures.

The mayor, Sadiq Khan, elected last May, is clearly listening. Maybe not on independence, but he is leading a charge 
for more powers for the British capital in the wake of the vote.

Mayor of London, England, wants more power

6 years ago
Duration 0:46
Sadiq Khan tells the CBC's Margaret Evans he wants more power for city in the wake of the Brexit vote

London's future depends upon it, he says, and he wants a seat at the table when Britain starts negotiating its divorce from the EU.

"It's really important," he said in an interview with the CBC. "London is the powerhouse of our country, and the government recognizes that for the country to do well, London needs to do well, as well."

Khan says he's working on a proposal for a "work permit system" to ensure London employers can still hire EU citizens easily.

The worry is they'll have trouble with visas in the future and that Britain won't be able to negotiate access to the single market, making it less attractive for major international companies to headquarter themselves here.

Khan is also working hard to counter any negative messaging from the Brexit vote. He's launched a campaign called 
"London is Open." It's almost impossible to turn on the television in London these days and not see him out flogging the message at various events around town — even in the midst of the recent blanket Olympic coverage.

He was worried, he said, that the results of the vote would leave an impression that "London would not be anymore an open-minded, outward-looking city, that we may become insular."

Khadeen O'Donnell, a fundraiser for London's Southbank Centre, says there's 'definitely still a buzz and a little bit of fear and uncertainty' following the Brexit vote. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

That view would have been helped along by a jump in hate crime across the United Kingdom since the vote.  A spokesman for London's Metropolitan Police Service called it a "spike" but said incidents of racist abuse are still higher than average. 

"We normally expect to see between 25 and 50 offences per day," he said. "Since the referendum, this has increased to between 57 and 78."

Some Londoners draw a direct line between those figures and the heavy emphasis of the Brexit campaign on stopping 
immigration, as if it gave people a licence to discriminate.

"Post-Brexit, people are a lot more … they think it's appropriate to say horrible things about skin colour and where a 
person's from," said Khadeen O'Donnell at a recent event where the mayor was out announcing London's fall culture line­up.

Cab driver Jeffrey Maisey voted to leave the EU. When asked if he feels out of step with the city he was born and raised in, he points out that 'it was a national vote, wasn't it?' (Peter Zin/CBC)

"None of us voted to leave; we all want to remain," said O'Donnell, a fundraiser for London's Southbank Centre. "There is definitely still a buzz and a little bit of fear and uncertainty, but it's such an amazing city to live in. If we decide to leave one day, we'll probably move to Canada!"

London's the capital of the country so it should really march in step with everybody else.- Jeffrey Maisey, London cab driver

O'Donnell and her husband, Mark, are originally from Yorkshire, and they worry about the divide between those who've 
chosen to live in London and those who live in other parts of the country.

"London does need to embrace the rest of the country," said Mark. "We don't want to be isolated here and for the rest of the country to think we're a bit elitist."

And some 40 per cent of Londoners also voted to leave, including cab ­driver Jeffrey Maisey.

"We don't know what's going to happen now we've left," he says, "but at least we've got control of our own destiny."

"It was a national vote, wasn't it?" he says when asked if he feels out of step with the city he was born and raised in. Even his grandchildren voted to remain. "London's the capital of the country so it should really march in step with everybody else."

A divide exposed

It's a testament to just how many layers have been stripped back here to expose a divide between London and much of the rest of the country and a resentment currently going both ways.

And some here are quick to point out that the message of the "London is Open" campaign must also be heard within the United Kingdom itself.

"I think it was important that we let the rest of, not just the world, but the rest of the U.K. know that nothing's changed," said James Mullan. 

Mullan is the managing director the National Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It's one of dozens of West End plays to join the mayor's campaign, along with celebrities, athletes and other artists.

"We're still here. We may have voted differently than the rest of the country, but so what? There's still theatre going on, come on down!"

And as much as some Londoners say they wish they could wake up and find it all a dream, reality will start to creep in soon enough, along with the short days as the summer ends.

Khan says he has no secret plan to try to roll back the vote.

"I'm a firm believer in the rules of the game," the mayor said. "You play the game and you abide by the result whether it's a sport or an election. And the reality is, the country chose to leave the EU. That said, what we can do is … ensure London has a stronger voice about our own destiny."

Sound familiar?


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.