Given the changes that London has gone through in recent years, you might expect the strength of a London identity to have diminished. This is not the case. As many citizens identify as Londoners as did 40 years ago.
A 1977 poll asked people living in London if they considered themselves a Londoner (it was a yes/no question). 8 73 per cent said yes, as did 37 per cent of people living just outside the city. A September 2017 poll by YouGov for Queen Mary, University of London, 9 asked again the question ‘to what extent do you think of yourself as a Londoner’, this time on a 0-10 scale – 63 per cent of Londoners polled responded eight, nine or ten out of ten; in total 89 per cent of the Londoners polled felt they were Londoners at least to some extent.
It is striking that the popularity of the London identity remains at a similar level to 40 years ago whilst the share of Londoners born outside the city has doubled, and despite significant changes in how Londoners perceive their city. 77 per cent said they were ‘proud of London’ in 2014, compared to 64 per cent in 1977, and 79 per cent say that London is exciting, against 41 per cent in 1977. 10 The London identity is, it seems, relatively easily and swiftly acquired, and is independent of feelings of pride in place.
Headline findings, September 2017 poll 11
Although London appears the most popular identifier, this does not seem to be at the expense of national identity. 86 per cent also felt British to some extent (even though only 75 per cent have a British passport).
We can’t say from this data whether there are some people who identify as Londoners but reject the British identity, however it seems unlikely given both identities are popular, and that having British citizenship correlates with stronger attachment to London. 12 English identity, on the other hand, has become weaker among Londoners – a trend also experienced less sharply in the rest of England. 13
Another surprising finding is that a London identity seems to be fairly evenly distributed across political and generational groups (Table 2), though slightly more variable depending on social grade. By contrast, identification with Britain, England or Europe was strongly related to politics and age. London it seems, offers a unifying identity. We also did not find evidence of significant differences by area of the capital, 14 either today or in 1977, the London identity was broadly as popular in inner and outer London.
Table 2: Identity across groups, September 2017 poll 15
However, saying that a London identity is widely held, is not the same as saying that it is widely understood in the same way. There is an argument that a shallow London identity actually masks the reality of an atomised and segregated city.
Those who see London as an atomised place cite several surveys that show a city less integrated than the rest of the country. In 2014, the Social Integration Commission found that there are fewer interactions between groups than would be expected from London’s higher diversity compared to the rest of Britain. They argued this was a result of class and ethnicity divides reinforcing each other in London, as London’s white population was more likely to be middle or upper class. 16 And the larger the city, the more opportunities for people to connect with others who are like them.
Others suggest a more positive analysis, highlighting a London-specific ethos of mixing and difference. Engagement with diversity in public or semi-public places like corner shops and school gates may be superficial, given there is little mixing going on in private, 17but this ethos of mixing through light-touch engagement is also regarded as essential to city life. In fact, most people disapprove of non-participation in local activities, for instance not engaging with local businesses, not sending children to local state schools, or not treating each other with conviviality regardless of their background. 18
To consider further how shared or disparate London identity is, we now review the evidence on how other factors and characteristics, such as place, class, ethnicity and sexuality inform and intersect with London identities.
If there is one global city that can be expected to have strong local identities, it should be London. The city has grown from towns and villages, each with its own centre, civic institutions and identity. Attendees at our roundtable noted that the pre-1965 boroughs are still a very salient scale for local identities: people talk of living in Battersea, Bermondsey or Bethnal Green, more so than Wandsworth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. And the Greater London Authority thought local identities were significant enough to redraw in 2013 the map of London localities first ordered by chief planner Patrick Abercrombie in 1941.
However, we know little about how the London identity interacts with local identities. 70 per cent of people nationally think that where they live shapes their identity, 19 but very few surveys allow respondents to specify at which scale this shaping is strongest. A 2014 poll by Britain Thinks asked 1,000 Londoners to choose their dominant identity between British, English, Londoner, and a sub-London identity. A third of those who identified as Londoners actually preferred a more local identity: they said they were North, South, East or West Londoners above all. 14 Interview based research with young people found evidence of very strong local identities, particularly in areas of London closely associated to an ethnic group, or that have stigma attached to them. 21 Anecdotal evidence also suggests that local area identity may be a precursor to acquiring a London identity: a representative of the Eastern European Resource Centre attending our roundtable mentioned that new residents relate first to their local area, or their borough, before getting a sense of the city as a whole.
People from all background identify themselves as Londoners, but we know that for minority ethnic people in the UK, ethnicity generally has greater salience than place in shaping identity. 22 In parts of London, we found strong evidence that amongst young people, ethnicity and place identity inform each other – especially when identities are constructed against racist representations of ethnic groups or the local areas they live in. 23
But is London’s ethnic diversity itself a facet of London identity? Londoners who aren’t white certainly value the city’s ethnic diversity and most would not want to live in an place less diverse – a 2010 survey showed they valued ethnic diversity in their local area the most, partly because they derived a sense of protection from it. 24 And their residential moves confirm this – ethnic minority people are three times less likely to have left London than White British people between 2001 and 2011. 25 But some speculate that a share of the White British people in London feel threatened by the increase in London’s ethnic diversity – an argument derived from the fact that White British Londoners were as likely or less likely to view immigration as good thing than the White British people living outside London, and as likely to want to leave the EU. 26
A lot of research has focused on whether living in near people from different ethnic backgrounds can attenuate racial prejudice amongst white people. A review of existing research shows that living in a diverse area does reduce racial prejudice (using attitudes towards immigration as a proxy) but only at neighbourhood or ward level. 27 However, at the scale of the city, increased diversity correlates with a higher sense of anxiety among the White British population, and higher hostility towards immigration. 28 So while there may be a ‘Dalston effect’ or ‘Brixton effect’ fostering appreciation of diversity amongst White British Londoners, there isn’t a ‘London effect’.
Class has a significant impact on place attachment, and significant importance relative to other markers of identity. This was apparent in the government’s 2009 Citizenship Survey, which found that nationwide, people in professional occupations consider their work more important to their identity than their place of residence, whilst for people in routine occupations it was the reverse. 29 Does the same finding hold true within London?
Becoming a Londoner
While state citizenship is obtained based on formal requirements, cities do not have membership rules enshrined in law. Belonging to the city is formed through contributing to its economic and civic life; electing to move there and committing to stay, or feeling respected as a citizen regardless of other identities held.
As discussed above, there is some evidence that working-class Londoners are more likely to identify as Londoners than middle and upper-class residents. In the 2017 Queen Mary, University of London poll, to the question “to what extent do think of yourself as a Londoner?”, 61 per cent of those in lower social classes responded 9 or 10 out of 10, for those in higher social classes it was 48 per cent. 30 One should not rush to conclusions – some of the difference could be due to other factors such as length of residence – but it does suggest that the middle classes are less willing to identify as Londoners.
However, these preferences need to be seen in the context of alternative place attachments that are available to better-off social groups. Higher-educated, higher-earning residents are more mobile, and so able to select the place where they put down roots; by doing so, their city of choice forms part of their life story. 31 Mike Savage’s survey of residents in and around Manchester found that middle classes expressed belonging to a larger area – their city as a whole (“Manchester”) or their region (“the North”) – more so than to their neighbourhood or town. 32 Anecdotal evidence also suggests that there are some Londoners with a particularly local outlook: a couple of roundtable attendees mentioned that some teenagers growing up in London only knew their local area, particularly those in deprived families or going to a local school: “some have grown up in London but have never seen the Thames”.
So different classes may be answering questions about identity in different ways: working class Londoners may be thinking about their neighbourhood when they sign up to a London identity, whereas middle class Londoners may be thinking at a metropolitan scale.
However, more work needs to be done on how class affects urban identities. Evidence from London suggests that middle class people can strongly claim their attachment to their local area too, for instance by seeking to preserve what they consider to be their neighbourhood’s defining physical and social aesthetics – existing buildings, or the city’s diversity and quirkiness. 33 And indeed, middle class residents are well represented in London planning committees and neighbourhood forums, as was pointed out by interviewees for a Centre for London report on local opposition to development. 34
Queer sexual identities have developed in large cities like London. But there is very little research on whether queer Londoners identify differently with their city. A recent survey by two housing associations interviewed LGBT*Q Londoners living in social housing and found that they were much less likely to say they “belong” to their local area. 35 Perhaps queer Londoners are more likely to identify with the city as a whole, which they perceive as more friendly to their queer identity than specific neighbourhoods.
The sections above have reviewed the strength of Londoners’ understanding of their London identity and how this intersects with and is informed by other characteristics; the next section looks at some of the markers of the London identity that most people share in.
If the 8 million Londoners were asked what reminds them of London, their lists would show the diversity of interests, experience and memories of the city. But some features of London, from landmarks to popular culture references, would come up repeatedly.
A 2014 poll of Londoners by Britain Thinks sheds light on some of the identity markers Londoners have most in common. Interviewers showed Londoners pictures of the city, and asked them if they were part of ‘their London’. People identified overwhelmingly with the city’s green spaces – in fact these were the element of the city that drew most attachment. Iconic Zone 1 landmarks – the Palace of Westminster, Trafalgar Square, the South Bank or Brick Lane also drew a large majority to say “this is part of my London”. These findings are backed up by US research that looked at what elements of the city people missed the most after a devastating hurricane – green spaces and trees came first, followed by city landmarks. 36 Unsurprisingly, the everyday elements of London life also carried significance to the Londoners polled. Rain, suburban roads, night buses, crowded tube trains and black cabs were broad identifiers for Londoners.
Popular culture – books, films, TV programmes and songs – also identifies, embeds and celebrates different aspects of London’s character, which in turn inform public perceptions and understanding of the city. We list in below the wide range of ‘London reminders’ that we have come across in our review, or that future empirical research might want to test out.
Typology of London reminders
- Physical attributes: green spaces, built environment, 14 such as landmarks, brutalist, modern buildings, streetscape, shopping centres or local businesses
- People, social interactions
- The vibe: public spaces, London caff, 38 the juxtaposition of middle-class with post-War social housing estates 39
- Etiquette (being street smart)
- Languages (Multicultural London English, 40 Cockney, foreign languages)
- Events (Carnival, Olympics, Pride…)
- Mayoral institution and election
- London media
- Entertainment, nightlife 14
- Representations in the arts and in popular culture
- Engagement with the past 42
Such is London’s size, diversity and complexity, that generalising about behaviours and values, is unreflective of the nature of the city. But rather than being obscured or blurred by it, perhaps it is that very diversity, and the strength London draws from it, that shapes the city’s identity.