London's Dominance Becomes A British Election Issue
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Nearly every country in the world has its major hub city - often the capital - with smaller cities feeding into it. Well, the United Kingdom takes this structure to another level. London is one of the richest cities in the world. Its population is more than eight and a half million. That's larger than the next four British cities combined. The U.K. has struggled with this imbalance for decades. And Thursday's election in Britain is once again highlighting the issue. NPR's Ari Shapiro sent this report from Newcastle in the northeast of England.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through PA system) Service is now approaching Newcastle, where it shall terminate.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Newcastle no longer produces much coal. Newcastle Brown Ale isn't even brewed here anymore. And without those two claims to fame, visitors from other countries often don't know what to make of this northeastern city.
At a trendy pub called the Town Wall, I meet Cat McGinty. She's a 30-year-old New Castle native, a Geordie in the local slang. She works as a marketing manager for a fishing supply company.
CAT MCGINTY: And I work for a global company, so we get that. We get people coming into our office and they're like, can I get to London from there? And we're like well, you can.
SHAPIRO: It'll just take you three hours on the train. Besides, she says, Newcastle has great nightlife, hiking. Why not explore what's here?
MCGINTY: I don't go across to our U.S. office, which is in South Carolina and say can I get to New York from here, like, or Washington from here. Like, it's not - it's not that same perception of, like, I'm just going to pop there while I'm here.
SHAPIRO: It's not only foreigners who take this London-centric view. At Newcastle University, student Georgie Namule says all of her friends are moving to London after they graduate.
GEORGIE NAMULE: If you go to other places in Europe and they have, like, three or four major cities, so I think it's a bit weird that we've only got the one.
SHAPIRO: People outside of London say the capital too often ignores the rest of the country. For example, the road from New Castle up to Edinburgh is single-lane. Northeast England has been begging for money to expand it. Jonathan Walker is with the Northeast Chamber of Commerce.
JONATHAN WALKER: It only takes one piece of slow-moving traffic or an accident, and that road is closed. And that's an investment decision for a business. It's a huge cost for them.
SHAPIRO: Without good infrastructure, businesses won't invest in Northeast England. And without business investment up here, the London imbalance just gets worse. Martin Farr is a political scientist at Newcastle University.
MARTIN FARR: Britain is one of the more - or even the most centralized democracies in the world.
SHAPIRO: Meaning all of the power and money are concentrated in the capital. You can look at British government, business or entertainment - London is where it's at. Much more than, say, Berlin compared to the rest of Germany or Rome compared to the rest of Italy. And Farr says this has been true for a long time.
FARR: Churchill was alive to this when he was chancellor of the exchequer in the 1920s. He said he wanted to see finance less proud and industry more content. He wanted to rebalance Britain away from financial capitalism as based in the city of London.
SHAPIRO: But Winston Churchill couldn't make it happen. And today, the divide is even more extreme. Now some fringe politicians are trying to ride that discontent to positions of influence.
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NIGEL FARAGE: We do, as a party, believe in Britain.
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NICOLA STURGEON: Progressive policies that will benefit people in all parts of the U.K.
SHAPIRO: Nigel Farage leads the right-wing U.K. Independence Party. Nicola Sturgeon leads the left-wing Scottish National Party. Both hope that voters outside of London will give them a boost during national elections on Thursday. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron warns that shifting power away from London could lead the country to economic ruin. Tony Travers is a political scientist at the London School of Economics. He says ultimately, London and the rest of the country need each other.
TONY TRAVERS: It's a bit like, you know, a relationship between a sort of grumpy couple. And - they know they've got to be together, but they always sort of see each other's weaknesses more clearly than anybody else would.
SHAPIRO: The relationship may evolve. But at least for the moment, divorce is not in the cards. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Newcastle, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.