When, in May this year, the Endurance Steel Orchestra refused to perform at a UKIP “carnival of colour” it had been booked to play, the news story offered one of the few rays of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy political mood in the UK. That month’s European elections brought the ugly face of Europe’s far right into fuller view. In the UK, as across the continent, there was a surge of support for isolationist, anti-European and xenophobic parties. Relative national decline, aided by recession and the Eurozone crisis, have transformed some countries into fetid ponds that emanate fumes like Eau de Farage – Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, to say nothing of Golden Dawn in Greece, and Hungary’s long-standing slide into anti-democratic, semi-fascism under Viktor Orbán.
Yet the message from those Endurance drummers was one that voters in London confirmed: a repudiation of UKIP. Bucking national trends across England and Wales, the capital, which is ironically most affected by what UKIP sees as the plague from Brussels and beyond, was most turned off by its proposed medication of nationalism and isolationism. It seems that the people of London have some essential quality that inoculates them against these messages, perhaps because not only do they live with the diversity UKIP rejects, but because they are that diversity.
According to the World Health Organization, 2008 was the year that, for the first time, the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas moved past 50 per cent. The exponential growth in urbanisation means that by 2030 that number will be around 5 billion (which was just about the total population of the world at the turn of the 20th century). Some of the implications for city dwellers have already become apparent: the distancing between urban and rural spaces; the increased sense of a shared culture between citizens of different cities. Londoners increasingly share more with the populace of Mexico City, Tokyo or Shanghai than with folk from Rutland. Citizens of dense megacities face similar problems and seek similar solutions. At a political level, cities offer sources of loyalty at a moment when supranational and national entities fade from relevance and potency (yesterday, the EU; tomorrow, with the Scottish referendum, maybe the UK).
This increased interconnection between cities, however, risks turning global cities into mediaeval city states, cut off from their hinterlands, from the barbarians beyond their walls. Yet to a certain extent, that already is the case, the contemporary difference being that cities are fortified and protected not by walls and moats, but by something far more effective: a massive disparity in housing prices.
Meanwhile, technology has profoundly changed our relationship to urban space and opened the global city out to anyone, anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection. At this stage, what really is a city? Is Liam Young right to say, “Justin Bieber’s fan club is as much of a city as London”? Downtowns, once synonymous with artistic bohemianism, have closed up into the “real-world hedge” of the rich, as discussed by Rana Dasgupta. Maybe it is the edges of cities, the suburbs and exurbs in all their sprawling messiness that are what now matters - the places able, in some way, to resist the ever-onward march of piazza-fication.
Nationalism has vividly demonstrated its failings and ugliness for over a century. Its legacy continues across the globe, with the frightening faces of the far right in Europe just one example of this trend. So does the city, rather than the nation, have the potential to offer an alternative source of sovereignty? Or have its radical citizens been priced out of its physical space? And indeed, in this networked age, what, if anything, remains specific about our cities that will keep them as enthralling to rich and poor in 2064 as they are today?
Photograph: Bruno Barbey, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, 1981. Courtesy Magnum Photos