In 2009 the British National Party, the vanguard of an aggressive group of White Caucasians, fighting to put what it considered the interests of its ethnic group before others, claimed London was no longer a city for the British. A couple of their followers, with Welsh accents, filmed the streets of Wembley. The filmmakers suggested Wembley had been a quintessentially British place, for the fact that it was the home of the stadium where the English national team plays. They expressed horror at the sheer number of people of foreign extraction walking up and down Wembley High Street, and in particular, the number of Muslims, Asians and Black people.
The statistics bear out some part of the argument provided by the British National Partly, namely that London is not uniquely or solely British. Within the first decade of the twenty-first century White British people ceased to be the ethnic majority in a number of London Boroughs. Census figures revealed that one third of Londoners had been born outside of the UK. It has been said that Black and Asian children now outnumber white British children in Greater London.
However even in the twenty-first century the British, and White British in particular, remain the biggest group in London. The British National Party’s claim that London is no longer a city for the British holds no water, although it is evident that London is not just a city for the British.
Furthermore the implication in the claim made by the British National Party, that London was once just a uniquely and solely British city, holds no ground. The British National Party relies on a myth that London was a once homogenous society populated by white working class British people, i.e. men in flat caps, and women with their sleeves rolled up, mop in one hand and cigarette in the other.
In reality, London has never really been a city uniquely for the British.
Deyan Sudjic points out that London existed as a city for several centuries before anything approximating England had been thought of. It was the Romans, rather than the natives, who established Londinium in 34 AD. Furthermore most of those Romans who built and maintained London were not Roman but part of the multi-ethnic workforce the Romans extracted from various vanquished territories and employed in the expansion of the Roman Empire. So London was, from its inception created by a non-English, non-British multi-ethnic workforce.
The foreign role in London’s maintenance and development continued throughout the centuries. It was the Saxons, rather than the English or the British who re-established London in the middle ages, after the Roman city had been sacked and deserted.
As early as the tenth century German merchants were said to have been responsible for the majority of London’s trade, the Hansa League was more powerful in London than in any port in Northern Europe, and had privileges granted on them by the governers of London until the reign of Elizabeth I. The Lombards, who were the financiers of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries lent much money to traders and governers in London.
So, London a city founded by immigrants, but this does not mark London out as something special. The ancestors of the longest resident families in any city were once immigrants to the area, to the very place their descendants now call home.
Consequently Deyan Sudji concludes that London was ‘a city that existed for several centuries before anything approximating England had been thought of. It has a far stronger sense of itself and its identity than Britain as a whole or England. It has grown, layer on layer, for 2,000 years, sustaining generation after generation of newcomers.
London is a city for the British, although it has not always been, and it has never been uniquely a city for the British.