Last week, I was sitting in a Marylebone High Street cafe, part of central London’s oligarch district, ogling as house deposits in the form of handbags were paraded outside the window, when I caught the conversation on the next table.
It was being led by the younger of two men – a posh-sounding guy, I guessed in his late thirties, trying to get his point across to an older, greying compatriot by growing steadily louder and more forceful. By the time he’d reached his crescendo, everyone in the café knew the pair were in the theatre business.
“The problem with working in London is that the overheads are so high,” he barked. “People are forced to make commercial decisions all the time rather than doing stuff that’s genuinely good and creative.”
The facts back up his argument: 12 years of austerity has seen the UK arts world lose more than a third of its funding, while a new ‘levelling up’ agenda is also seeing grants funnelled away from London theatres – a short-sighted plan to rob Peter to pay Paul. A third of London’s music venues and studios shut between 2007 and 2016, and more than half of London’s nightclubs closed their doors between 2008 and 2016, with a further quarter following during the pandemic.
London’s decades-old cost of living crisis is manifesting as a cost of culture crisis, with the young people flocking to our capital every year scared of even attempting to enter insecure, low-paid creative professions in the arts, cinema or even journalism. Instead, our universities are spewing out swarms of management consultants; more than half of the country’s nearly 100,000 consultants are based in London, despite the capital only accounting for some 15% of the overall UK population.
Creative professions are populated by a boring, homogenous posh blob – the only people who can afford (thanks to the bank of mum and dad) to work insecurely. Despite America’s nepo-baby scandal – whereby the country has been discovering that the offspring of rich and famous people tend also to be rich and famous – they still lag way behind our nepo island. The Sutton Trust’s 2019 report Elitist Britain found that nearly a fifth of people in the higher reaches of Britain’s top professions went to private school and then Oxford or Cambridge. For context, only 7% of Brits are educated privately and only 1% go to Oxbridge, yet media and music are dominated by former pupils. While politicians preach the language of meritocracy – that anyone can succeed ‘regardless of their background’ – our cultural scene is becoming increasingly dominated by the offspring of fortune as the creative professions remain inaccessible to the majority.
Of course, London is one city of many. But unfortunately, it’s a blueprint for the cultural landscape of Britain. London sets the tempo of national life; for better or worse, it’s been a beacon of aspiration and even escape for decades. London’s unique cultural and economic position has been fortified by the predictable failure of ‘levelling up’, yet the capital’s horizons have contracted as people from working class and marginalised backgrounds from inside and outside the capital are shut out of the cultural elite.
This wasn’t always the case. The ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s and 1960s, often from northern, working-class backgrounds, breached the walls of the London cultural establishment and punctured the social stereotypes of the era. Alan Sillitoe was one; the son of a factory worker, he left school at 14 and contracted tuberculosis during WW2. In 1958, amidst the ‘working-class moment’ of the post-war era, he released the bestselling Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which documented the love, violence and pride of this hitherto hidden Britain. Two years later, the book was adapted to film and was “a complete breakthrough” in the way working-class people were depicted on screen.
Creative expression has likewise been hindered by the mass depletion of London’s social housing stock – fracturing and displacing the capital’s working class. The proportion of Londoners living in social housing has fallen from a high of 35% in 1981 to just 20% today. While the social and physical fabric of the capital is bulldozed to make way for more lego-inspired architecture, London’s rebellious youth is now confined to vintage markets and Marxist meme pages. Being subversive is allowed, but only in your spare time, and certainly not if it means upsetting your landlord.
The cost of housing in the capital is prohibitive to any form of cultural or creative expression, especially given the government’s increasingly miserly support for the arts. Since 2010, average private rental prices in London have grown at five times the rate of earnings – private rents having jumped by a reported 17% in the last year, while the average cost of buying in the capital has nearly doubled from £279,000 to £542,000. The average first-time buyer deposit in the capital is now £147,000, such that the housing market has been aptly labelled an ‘inheritocracy’ by the Financial Times. Property tycoons buy up local haunts – places like historic jazz venue The Junction and its neighbouring shops and cafés in the Little Portugal area of Lambeth – with the intention of turning them into identikit private housing blocks.
Rebellion is further hindered in the age of ‘clicktivism’; anti-establishment rage is channelled through online petitions that generate considerable online noise, but little real-world impact. Hitting the 100,000 signature threshold means MPs have to consider giving air time to the topic in question, but anyone who has watched a run-of-the-mill parliamentary debate knows how unlikely they are to influence government policy. The way in which rebellion has been restricted isn’t the fault of the individual, but rather the predominance of a repressive economic system that doesn’t allow for nascent, insurgent (financially risky) creative expression.“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson in 1777. In 2023, London provides a life that few intellectuals can actually afford.
Sam Bright is DeSmog’s UK deputy editor, and the author of Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country from Its Capital.