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Blood-sucking capitals on the march

DR Vince Cable is not one of nature's happy-go-lucky types.

The Business Secretary could make a Lottery win sound like a setback. His role in Coalition government has become that of the man who says "Yes, but" if there's ever a risk of a bad news shortage. Cable will never be mistaken for cheerful.

On these modest foundations a reputation for probity and wisdom has been founded. While in opposition, for example, Cable gained a certain popularity for now and then muttering that the financial sector was a bit of a mess. His efforts in government to rectify that state of affairs have not been conspicuous, but the muttering goes on. It's what Vince does.

In essence, he states the obvious in a doleful way. When he tells us, therefore, that London is "becoming a giant suction machine draining the life" out of every nation and region beyond the M25, the reaction in those places could be summarised as: "You think?"

It's an old story. Predictably, you hear it told in Scotland, where the gravitational pull of the English capital is a political fact that has long been part of a nationalist narrative. It has seemed to some of us to make democracy an uncertain process while creating economic imbalances of the worst, least defensible kind. The traditional migration of Scottish talent to London is a well-understood symbol. South is where power lies, and careers, and the money. That's where the glittering prizes are kept.

This is not, however, just one of those Scottish grievances of which we hear so much. What's striking about attitudes towards London is that they have become common in every part of the UK save in the Great Wen itself. "London" has become shorthand. The feelings involved in the word are not often affectionate. But there is probably a deeper resentment in what English people know as the North towards their capital than you'll find these days among Scots.

We have our Parliament; we have the right to independence if that's our choice. In recent years we have had - and this is heard often enough - no shortage of politicians at the heart of London governments. A place like Northumberland has had no such tokens and is keenly aware of the fact. It hears of economic recoveries in the south and waits, it seems in vain, for its portion of good news. That version of the North waits even to be noticed.

In one sense, all of this is inevitable, and hardly unique. The centralising power of Paris within France is an old story. A frank dislike for that capital runs deep across the entire country. "Parisian" is another sort of shorthand for arrogance, snobbery and complacent power. In return, the French state offers not a hint of apology. In its telling, la gloire and Paris are almost one and the same. "Provincials" can grumble all they like, but such is the nature, so the story goes, of a great country.

Cable makes a more specific point, one that is being heard increasingly often. The problem is not just that London is big, rich, domineering, self-interested and (too often forgotten) intensely parochial. Increasingly, the city resembles a state in its own right, one detached utterly from the rest of the UK, socially, politically and economically. Hence the real point made by Dr Vince: what's good for London is not necessarily good for the rest.

Where to begin? From the BBC to the banks, from Whitehall to high culture, from the monarchy to vast investments in infrastructure, London can appear to have it all. Its partisans will also tell you that the city contains some of the deepest pools of poverty and deprivation in the UK, but that indisputable fact does not alter the realities. Earnings, like property prices, bear little relationship to what goes on in the rest of the island.

The likes of Boris Johnson, inexplicably London's mayor, would probably tell you that his great city is defamed. Its contribution to Britain's economy, especially in the taxes paid by the financial sector, is irreplaceable. Its cultural significance is understood around the world. London is at the centre of all things British because, like it or lump it, a country needs a capital and a centre. The Johnson case, in essence, is simple: we couldn't manage without that metropolis.

Some would observe, in any case, that blaming London for your woes is too easy. You can find equivalent resentment towards Edinburgh (and to some extent Glasgow) across Scotland. We, too, have a capital that seems to soak up jobs and political power. We, too, have a city that fancies itself as being at the heart of national culture. Would that not become problematic if we vote for independence?

I think it might. In fact, when the Scottish Parliament was being re-established I betrayed local patriotism once or twice by ­arguing that Edinburgh, irrespective of history, was the wrong place for the institution. (Sorry, Stirling: no-one listened.) The rough idea now, the one Cable struggles to express, is that devolution should be attempted in all things, everywhere, and at every opportunity.

The brute facts say that London matters more to UK plc than Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or any English region. It has the people, the economic weight, and most of the important centres of power. Its mayor would say we should be grateful for the fact. But this amounts to a basic misunderstanding. Despite a few defiant assertions of self-sufficiency, London forgets to ask a question: where would it be without that rest?

An answer might help to soothe Cable's worried brow. One simple truth in the argument over independence is that Scotland feels no particular attachment to a city that shows little awareness of Scotland's existence. The hard reality for those who want to keep the UK together is that the attitude is echoed now in Manchester, in Newcastle, in Bristol. London's vast appetites do nothing to unite a kingdom.

It is a great city. It is also traduced by shorthand. There are many Londons and I am fond of some of them. But in a small group of islands the sense of distance between a metropolis and its "provinces" has never felt greater. In one sense, Scotland's argument over independence might be no more than a recognition of the facts of life. The gigantic English capital is a cuckoo in the nest.

Whatever Scots decide, England is unlikely to suppress its resentments for many more generations. When you hear people in the North talk of "Londoncentric" attitudes you get the sense that something is about to give. Some of the language is more splenetic than anything a Scot could muster. Set economics aside: that's not good for anyone.

Those busy running things from London struggle to understand much of this. You can tell as much from the basic assumption applied to any claim made by Scotland: "they" couldn't cope; "they" would never manage. A city awash with unearned wealth for the few fails even to grasp why it flourishes. But I think it is about to learn.

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