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Fri, 17 Jan 2020 16:19 GMT

London: A Revolutionary Capital


James Watt

Fri, 10 May 2019 09:01 GMT

London has returned to normal now after the eventful Extinction Revolution protests sparked just before the Easter holidays. More or less normal. Nothing in London ever feels predictable or routine. An edgy, creative feel is always in the air. The pulse of the city comes from the thousand encounters and conversations happening at every moment. Start-ups, disruptive technology, social enterprise, in many cases focused on global concerns. Armies of tourists in Central London from all parts of the world are a constant reminder, if one were needed, that our big ideas have to be international and not just local. 

The passions and unexpected rancour of the Brexit debate, prolonged for three years now, have certainly added to the dynamics of political and social change. It feels different in various parts of the United Kingdom. But as a globalised metropolis, London certainly felt the shock of the Leave vote as an existential threat to what the creative, internationalist majority of inhabitants feel deeply to be the right way. The right formula for the world's future. Internationalism was reviled in the nationalist, populist press. Its defenders felt under siege. But now, three years on, as the parliamentary mechanism for delivering Brexit has stuttered into paralysis, the hopes of the besieged have risen. No one can count on defeating Brexit entirely, or at all. The dream of achieving that has become secondary to a wider project of calming the negative, divisive political narratives that Brexit has brought to the surface, and finding a new political language with meaning for the future. There are those predicting, rightly in my view, that over the coming ten years Britain could become the most radical political innovator among established democracies. The disillusion with traditional politics felt right across the Leaver-Remainer spectrum seems to spell the end of the creaking old system by which power alternates between the two major parties. At the very least, Britain is set to become more "continental" in having a spread of parties in parliament that require the formation of coalitions. That in turn will call for a different kind of politician, as different as can be from some of those currently in office who have traduced Britain's wise traditions of underlying consensus by playing a majoritarian, populist card.  

London's inherent sense of being an international city leads the capital in this direction. But it is not the only part of the country with a cosmopolitan dimension. Immigrant communities, and well-integrated immigrant individuals, are found practically everywhere, and not only in the largest cities such as Manchester. Each of these has a perspective on at least one part of the wider world. Some as active members of their diaspora have not only remittances to send, if needed, but talent and know-how to contribute as well. Communications make this easier every day, even if visa restrictions are reducing for some visitors what used to be a relative freedom of travel.  

The wider world is also very much present on the news in the United Kingdom, most recently with shocking images from Sri Lanka from the Easter Sunday massacre by suicide bombers. Among Western cities, Madrid, Paris, Moscow, Manchester, all had their own experiences of this not many years ago. In March it was the turn of peaceful, sheltered New Zealand (or so people thought) to lose its innocence in the age of wanton mass terrorism. The superbly humane and compassionate response of the country's people to the Christchurch massacre, rejecting the toxic sectarian motive that inspired it, was extraordinarily moving. Together with inspired, spontaneous leadership by the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealanders have set the world an example. 

Compassion is not lacking in Sri Lanka, either, or for it. Political leadership in the crisis has been bedevilled, though, by bitter rivalries that had already damaged the country, in need as it was for enlightened government after the trauma of a civil war that lasted almost three decades. It remains to be seen if last week's horror will lead to a better form of political consensus in the country. The need for political leaders who unite and inspire the best values is felt most in a crisis: populists and majoritarians beware.  

Wise and ethical leadership also needs the virtue of responsiveness. In the case of the world-wide climate change protests, political responses have been as varied as you might expect. Old-thinking politicians, clinging to power with appeals to chauvinist feelings, were quick to criticise the Extinction Revolution's occupation of four key points in Central London's road network, and the massive traffic jams that resulted. They of course simply missed the point that everyone else is getting: climate change is a threat of a scale unseen in the history of humanity. The world is sleep-walking to planetary catastrophe. The huge majority of Londoners and people from across the country applauded what the protesters were setting out to show. Traffic jams clear in the end. The capital's police managed the situation with extraordinary patience and tact. The event concluded with no serious rift between them and the citizens they serve. With much unknown about what changes the climate change cause will make to politics, all we can say is that, in the case of London at least, a new and dazzlingly challenging level has been added to the city's creative, revolutionary buzz. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.

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