Illustration by Sam Taylor
Declaring independence is all the rage in international politics. Recently, Venice voted overwhelmingly in favor of becoming an independent city-state, while over in the UK, the Scots are debating whether to consign the Union Jack to the dust bin of history. And ever since the whole Crimea incident, rumors have been flying around that Taiwan will formally attempt to declare independence from China, and that Misrata will attempt to do the same in Libya.
What if the next big independence movement happened closer to, say, Britain's capital? With a booming population and established trading links with the rest of the world, could London's people go to it alone?
It’s an idea that’s been mooted a few times, not least by former Mayor Ken Livingstone. When asked what he wanted for London during the 2012 elections, he claimed he wanted a "Republic of London," and that the city could be improved if other areas of the UK weren’t so busy sucking all the blood out of it. According to Ken, London generates £10–£20 billion (about $15–$30 billion) more in tax for the UK than it receives in public expenditure, making it the cashcow of the UK’s feckless regions.
How feasible would London’s independence claim be? After convincing him this wasn’t a joke, I spoke to Dr. James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics who specializes in secession movements.
VICE: Hi, James. What would London have to do to prepare a claim to independence?
James Ker-Lindsay: First of all, if it were to have any hope of success—by which I mean it would receive widespread international support—a formal process would have to be agreed. With Scotland, for example, there's an agreed process by which it must prepare its independence claim, which will have been negotiated through democratic and legal processes. With London, the same would have to happen.
What are those processes?
It would have to start with a referendum. The wish for independence would have to be expressed. To do this, the central government is usually expected to agree to such a vote; it could take place without permission, but it would have no real effect and would probably just be ignored. In the case of London, this seems a very unlikely prospect. Unlike Scotland or Wales, which have their own historical character, London’s always been an integral part of England. Moreover, considering how interwoven London is with the rest of England, and its wealth, it just seems difficult to see how any government would ever agree to such a vote.
But what if we suspend our disbelief for a sec and pretend that a referendum was agreed?
If the result indicated support for independence, the terms of separation would then have to be agreed. Again, this would be an incredibly difficult process. In fact, it could be a much more difficult separation to negotiate than Scottish independence. For example, the seat of the British government is in London. A new capital city for what would remain of the UK would have to be decided. The cost of moving the government would also be prohibitive. This is before you even get to the range of other issues, such as pension, joint property—such as embassies abroad—etc.
OK. What's next?
The final stage is the declaration of independence and recognition. Assuming that the split takes place with agreement, this would be a relatively straightforward process. Going by other recent examples of states that have seceded peacefully and with the permission of the parent or partner state, such Montenegro, it wouldn't be difficult to secure wider recognition. It could even join the UN within a matter of weeks. However, if the talks broke down and London decided to break away without permission, it seems highly unlikely that it would be widely recognized. One or two mischief-makers might choose to recognize it, but that would be it. It would certainly not be able to join the UN, as this requires Security Council approval, which would be withheld by veto-wielding Britain.
Are there examples of any places more like London than South Sudan that have successfully gone independent?
Perhaps the most obvious example would be Singapore, which broke away from Malaysia in 1965. However, it's an island. London would be in the very unusual situation of being surrounded by another state. Of course, this isn't unknown. Other examples of this are San Marino, which is surrounded by Italy, or Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa.
The Vatican would be another obvious example, although this isn't really a good comparison for all sorts of reasons. Tied to this is the question of borders. Someone would have to identify the boundaries of an independent London. Perhaps it could work off the boundaries of Greater London that are already widely accepted. Alternatively, how about aligning it with the M25?
That could work. What other things would London have to consider if it were to secede from the UK?
There are many different factors that one would have to consider in creating a London state. Some of these are symbolic, like a flag and a national anthem. Then there are all the other things that go along with being an independent state, such as embassies abroad, an international telephone dialling code, an internet country code and even a national football team.
What about defence?
Yeah, one of the most obvious symbols of statehood is an army. But it’s not essential for a state to have one. After all, Iceland and Costa Rica don’t have standing armies. Moreover, London probably wouldn't need one – because would the rest of the UK really be an existential threat? I suppose part of the Met Police could take on certain civil defence capabilities. However, [having an army] is usually seen as one of the signifiers of sovereignty, and so there may be pressure from some quarters to have at least a token military force.
Would London have a relationship with the EU?
This is, in many ways, the key question. To my mind, there would be no point in London becoming independent unless it remained in the EU. But as we've seen in the debate over Scottish independence, this is a very contentious issue. My personal view is that states seeking independence from existing EU members could negotiate their way into the EU at the same time as they work out the details of their split from the parent state. In other words, there would be a seamless transition.
OK. That doesn't sound too bad.
Having said this, it's certainly possible that the EU could put in place some conditions on an independent London. For example, it could force it to sign up to the Schengen Agreement [the treaty that negates checks between signatories' borders]. Although extremely unlikely, this would mean that London would have to establish a formal border with the rest of the UK—unless the rest of the country finally decided to join up as well. This would create a rather bizarre situation—to put it mildly—of having border checkpoints and guards around London. This would create chaos for the millions of commuters coming into the city every day.
What about currency? Would anything change there?
Another, perhaps more realistic, demand could be for an independent London to adopt the euro. However, this could also be very troublesome in view of London's strong reputation as an international financial center. Indeed, this could lead to a very strange situation. Just imagine that the City of London decided that it did not want to be a part of the Kingdom (or Republic) of London, and thus accept the euro, but instead decided it wanted to remain in the UK or even become an independent state within a state but outside the EU. The mind starts to boggle.
Londoners staging a pro-independence protest
Yeah, it's pretty confusing.
On a more general note, and as we have seen with Scotland, the prospect of EU membership actually makes independence more enticing for sub-state territories. It allows smaller countries to flourish within the confines of a group that has real influence on the world stage. In the case of London, while it would be a medium-sized EU member in terms of population, assuming it retains its financial clout, it could be a fairly significant member of the Union.
So much of British government is in London. What would happen to that?
As already noted, this would be a real issue of concern. At present so much of the British machinery of state is focused on London: Parliament, Whitehall, Number 10. This would all have to be relocated. Obviously, this need not happen overnight. Also, it could be done in such a way as to spread government around the rest of the UK. Nevertheless, the expectation is that a new capital would need to be established and one would imagine that this would be an incredibly costly undertaking. Who would foot the bill for this? The rest of the UK could well ask London, given its economic strength, to cover the costs as part of a settlement package. Meanwhile, London would have to develop its own administrative capabilities. That’s a lot of money to be spending, and I’m sure if someone worked it out, it might be way more than the city can afford.
And the Monarchy?
I wouldn’t see any major issue arising over this if London voted to go it alone, but decided to keep the Queen. Scotland is proposing to do this. And there are many Commonwealth countries where she remains the head of state. She would just take on an additional new title: Queen of London. She could certainly stay in Buckingham Palace. However, if London decided to become a republic, then it might very well be the case that the Queen would have to move to a residence outside the city.
Do you think Londoners would want to go independent?
As fascinating as the idea is, I just cannot see people taking such an idea seriously. If any part of England were to break away, I’d say that there is more mileage in the idea of an independent Yorkshire or Cornwall. The idea of independence has gained ground in Scotland because it was previously an independent country and has retained, or regained, many elements of statehood since then. This is not the case with London.
But could it survive?
If it were to happen, I think it could survive perfectly well. The UK isn’t self-sufficient. Few, if any countries, are these days. Self-sufficiency certainly isn’t seen as a prerequisite for statehood. Assuming good relations with the rest of the UK, I don’t see it as a major issue.
What about the rest of the UK? When would it feel the difference?
This is a crucial question. In large part, the attitude of the rest of the UK to the idea of an independent London, and the way it would approach the negotiations, would be largely shaped by how it feels it could cope with the loss of London. The impact would undoubtedly be huge. This would make the price London would have to pay for its independence all the greater. I would imagine that some very large concessions would have to be made. As already suggested, the burden of transition costs would probably fall largely on London. Then there are other issues. For example, it would be certain that the rest of the country would demand that it retains Britain’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
All right, so lastly, do you think that life in London would be different if it were independent?
It all depends on how independence is negotiated. It’s likely that any claim to sovereignty wouldn’t be violently fought for, so it’s pretty unlikely that anything dramatic would happen as a result. Assuming London stays in the EU, and that the split is agreed on very favorable terms, such as allowing dual citizenship and no borders, I suspect you could even wake up in an Independent London and not feel any different.