by David Long

David Long, a writer and journalist for more than 25 years, has appeared regularly on television and radio and has written for the Times, Sunday Times and London Evening Standard and a huge diversity of magazines around the world. He is the author of numerous books, including several on London.

“Written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

The late president’s understanding of Chinese may have been questionable but few would argue with the sentiment he expressed to his Indianapolis audience in April 1959. More than half a century later, JFK’s words still sound a powerful note of optimism and encouragement to anyone living in hazardous times.

Our own times certainly fall into that category and the word ‘existential’ is in grave danger of being overused not just in the press and on social media but in ordinary, everyday conversation. All civilisations decline eventually, goes the most pessimistic argument, so perhaps it is Our Time Now.

This seems unlikely. For millennia societies and civilisations have collapsed for all sorts of reasons. Accusatory fingers have been pointed at earthquakes, disease, climate change, pollution, famine, war, drought, exhaustion of natural resources, coastal erosion or just straightforward depopulation, but more often than not the archaeological evidence suggests that it is rarely one thing which finishes them off but rather the complex interplay between a multiplicity of factors. However, the historical record throws up a quite different picture too, one that highlights the astonishing resilience societies can exhibit and which shows their remarkable ability to evolve and alter. These more successful societies don’t just survive potentially fatal circumstances but take advantage of them in order, genuinely, to prosper and grow.

One can argue then, that to a substantial degree, societies actually choose to fail or survive. When so many of the threats they face are man-made the means usually exist to reverse them. It may take years or even decades to achieve this, and any disciplined solution will almost certainly involve unusual far-sightedness, persistence, persuasion and a measure of personal sacrifice. But the option to act positively is there in many cases, possibly even most. The trick is to grasp the opportunity before it becomes too late.

For a host of reasons, people are reflecting on this sort of thing more than usual lately. Bouncing around in Brexit’s wake (and, perhaps more pointedly now, in the storm of a genuine pandemic and repeated lockdowns), one can be forgiven for wondering which way London might turn – and how it will fare?

Immediately following the 2016 referendum, and not for the first time, there were calls for the capital’s independence. Numerous arguments have been rehearsed for recasting London as a modern, self-governing city state, a so-called Singapore-on-Thames. Supporters of the most radical proposals suggest that, with its great wealth and cultural capital, London is ideally placed to become a thriving, independent entity. As an economic powerhouse divorced from the rest of the United Kingdom, London would have the freedom to make new alliances as well as to forge – who knows? – even closer ties to the European Union.

But now another question is being asked as well, which is whether London as we know it can even survive? The capital, after all, was hit first and hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. As well causing unusually high mortality rates among its residents, Covid-19 and the lockdown led to a rapid and marked decline in almost every aspect of city life from the purely social to the economic.

As the pandemic continues to drag on this situation seems to have improved hardly at all. Property values inside the M25 have begun to look unsteady and exports have largely tanked. High street and office rents are going unpaid, others threaten to fall as more and more companies question the need to pay for large, prestigious central-London headquarters. City Hall has been haemorrhaging cash running half-empty buses and trains (and shutting off major road routes in anticipation of a 10-fold increase in cyclists which hasn’t materialised) while growing numbers of new home-workers say they are thinking seriously about quitting London altogether. As one estate agent put it: after questioning the wisdom of owning or renting an airless, overpriced shoebox, the only real benefit of which is proximity to an office they no longer need to visit, Clapham is moving to Richmond, and Richmond’s moving to the shires.

But even before anyone moved anywhere, the simple lack of travellers using London’s staggering 598 railway stations has had many other devastating impacts, causing misery and hardship to anyone whose business depends on a hitherto reliable one million commuters a day flooding into London. Everything from heel bars to Michelin-starred restaurants have been negatively affected while the absence of tourists has closed museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and hundreds of shops, a lot of them very famous old names – almost certainly permanently in many, many cases.

But, wait. London has been through calamitous times before, and it’s always come through them. It’s taken nearly 2,000 years for a modest Roman harbour carved out of the Thames to grow into this sprawling, chaotic and wildly-successful megacity, but look closely at those centuries and they are pockmarked with countless scars of disaster and reversal. London’s expansion from a single square mile to more than six hundred of them has been spectacular, but its growth was never smooth or steady. Even so, literally every time catastrophe struck, the recovery was rapid, and rapidly followed by progress and renewed growth. Perhaps, even more pertinently for our own times, the capital has repeatedly stepped up to oppose those policies being pursued by the rest of the country which looked and were fundamentally detrimental to London’s own commercial, and cultural interests

Today, as a result, its position is likely as strong as ever. That people still argue about which is Britain’s second city is really just proof that the question doesn’t need to be asked. Is it Birmingham, Glasgow or Manchester? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Hardly anyone cares because the first city is so far ahead that the question is irrelevant. That’s true regardless of which metric you choose: population size, inward migration (both domestic and foreign), trade, house prices, commercial rents, income, education, tourism, culture and the arts. For centuries manufacturing was based here too and, even when the reins were removed to the Midlands by the Industrial Revolution, it was always London which kept the horses pumped with blood.

Take one, obvious example. Pre-Covid (but post referendum) the volume of clear blue water between London and the rest of the country was stark if hardly surprising.  In 2018, according to ONS data, the city’s per capita GDP was £54,686. That’s almost exactly double the figure for the North-West and 2.3 times higher than the North-East. More impressively, perhaps, it’s a full 60% higher than the unquestionably prosperous South-East. And GDP growth over the previous 20 years shows more or less the same, heavily skewed picture: London on 84.4% while none of the regions (including the South-East) can get even close to hitting 50%.

These numbers give us only a snapshot, of course; and naysayers will always argue that the higher the climb the further the fall. But London’s story has rarely played out that way, if ever. The focus may be entirely different now – increasingly business is all about financial, legal, fintech and other more advanced technologies – and wise heads know that past performance is rarely the most reliable guide to future growth, but history still matters.

It was Kamâl Atatürk who noted that nations die who don’t remember their histories, and much the same is true for cities. Fortunately, London has an awful lot of this, and studying it one can see how certain patterns seem to repeat themselves over and over. Generation after generation, London doesn’t just start the ball rolling but goes on to dominate the game from start to finish, as often as not while defending its own legitimate rights and interests.

This isn’t simply the default position for all large cities either, and certainly not for every capital. Historically great conurbations have enjoyed many important advantages over smaller ones, but these can be lost or squandered – and they have been, often. Imperial Rome was once the centre of the world but it spent literally centuries in the doldrums. Politically irrelevant, its streets and squares crammed with crumbling architectural follies, at its lowest ebb in the 11th century Rome’s population slumped, extraordinarily, from around a million to barely 15,000.

Jerusalem similarly languished, becoming a seedy backwater despite its importance to three major faiths at a time when religious beliefs and observances were pivotal to the lives of virtually the whole of humanity. Its neighbour Jericho, likewise, was once the world’s largest city (actually its only one for a while) but now most people would struggle to point to it on a map. And good luck finding Uruk too, or Mari, Ur, Yinxu, Babylon or Carthage. Each, like London and New York, was once the most populous and most powerful city on the planet but now they’re all just fields strewn with ancient stones, the curiously melancholy what-ifs of history.

For Roman Londinium, however – and Saxon Lundunwic, medieval London and the modern city we know – the narrative has turned out very differently. Even when London surrendered its lead to New York in the mid-1920s, it did so only in terms of size. As measures go, population is now almost meaningless. London after all may be only the 29th or 30th largest city worldwide now – one of the also-rans, if you like – but a glance at some of the names higher up the list (sorry, Dhaka; sorry Tianjin and Kinshasa) simply serves to underline the enormous degree to which London continues to punch well above its actual weight.

The truth is it’s never been anything but extraordinary. Walking the streets of what is, unquestionably, one of the few, true global cities, it is almost impossible to ignore what led us to here. A crucible shaped by invasion, occupation and immigration, by upheavals as diverse as the Great Fire, the Blitz and ‘Big Bang,’ London has always been somewhere with a peculiar energy, a city which successfully reinvents itself on an almost perpetual basis. Its skyline may be permanently pricked by cranes and skeletons of steel, but this renewal is only half the story. Atatürk would have understood: roots like London’s don’t just go back millennia, they explain both its uniqueness and its strength.

The House of Commons, for example, is famously the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ but how many realise that the world’s oldest continuous democratic community isn’t the Palace of Westminster but the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of the City of London.  That’s something of a mouthful (usually it’s just the City Corporation) but its claim to a thousand years of self-government is no idle boast and none of the many benefits flowing from this have been achieved by accident.

Indeed the reality is that the celebrated Square Mile has spent centuries assiduously protecting and promoting its independence, and in this it has been stunningly successful. So successful, that is, that by adopting aspects of Anglo-Saxon civic practice and adapting Roman law and even Justinian’s 6th century Codex, it still enjoys (and profits from) the sorts of powers and privileges that no other metropolitan authority would even dare ask to ask for let alone expect to get.

The Corporation’s electoral ward system and court hustings, for example, look archaic and increasingly anomalous but these work well and can be traced directly back to Saxon ‘folkmoots’. Back then, citizens – a Roman word, of course – would have been summoned to by the bells of St Paul’s, and well over a thousand years later their Lord Mayor is still chosen at such a gathering and by just a handful of elders or aldermen. By tradition they make their selection on the Feast of Michael and All Angels (Michaelmas Day) – but don’t be misled by the pomp and pageantry. Of course there’s plenty of both around Mansion House, Guildhall and the Livery, and it’s charming, but this stuff is real and it’s deadly serious.

It’s because it’s so serious that it has always been something which even sovereigns have tended to respect, and not just the benign ones either. William the Conqueror, for example, famously laid waste to much of England in 1066 yet the records clearly show that he ‘came friendly’ to London. In what might be termed a hostile takeover, the Norman warlord’s imposing White Tower was one obvious reminder about who the new masters were. But after his Christmas Day coronation at Westminster Abbey, England’s new king was quick to make a pledge to London that was both special and unique. In it he explicitly recognised the freedom of London’s citizens and their autonomy, and took steps to fortify their city (not his, you’ll note) against attack from barbarians and outsiders.

By this he meant non-Londoners rather than foreigners like him, and that too is highly significant because this first royal charter turned out to be the first of many which favoured London over everywhere else. Like William’s, successive charters all guaranteed (and as often as not extended) this city’s unique position and powers while reinforcing its extraordinary separate- or otherness from the rest of the country. Directly as a result of this, London had become so powerful by 1215, and the status of its mayor was so high, that the incumbent was one of only two individuals named in Magna Carta and given the responsibility of ensuring that King John kept his side of this epoch-defining bargain. The same document also acknowledged, and quite explicitly, that the Corporation (by ‘ancient right’) was second only to the Crown while promising that ‘the City of London shall have all its ancient liberties by land as well as by water’.

On the few occasions when such considerations were forgotten or swept aside, it nearly always ended badly. In 1571 when the Crown attempted to seize valuable armour and plate from the Livery companies, the office of the Remembrancer was created to ‘remind the king of his debt’ and ensure that the City’s interests were never again affected by Parliament. Centuries later, when his growing autocratic tendencies led Charles I to attempt to reform London, the eventual outcome saw him kneeling on the scaffold; when his sons, Charles II and James II, similarly sought to assert their respective authority over the Corporation it led to the Glorious Revolution.

The latter produced yet another charter in the city’s favour in May 1690, this one declaring even more emphatically ‘that the mayor, commonalty and citizens of London shall for ever hereafter remain, continue and be, and prescribe to be, a body politic, in re, facto, et nomine … and shall have and enjoy all their rights, gifts, charters, grants, liberties, privileges, franchises, customs, usages, constitutions, prescriptions, immunities, markets, duties, tolls, lands, tenements, estates and hereditaments whatsoever.’

The rhetoric here might be overlong and confusing, but the message is crystal clear: hands off. At a stroke William and Mary’s charter reversed all recent attempts to remove London’s right to elect its own rulers and restored to it the valuable privileges which had been seized by Charles II and his brother. The seizures were recognised as both ‘illegal and arbitrary’ and the relevant legislation – known simply as The London, Quo Warranto Judgment Reversed Act, but described in full ‘An Act for Reversing the Judgment in a Quo Warranto against the City of London and for Restoreing [sic] the City of London to its antient Rights and Privileges’ – guaranteed that in future no similar efforts would be made to forfeit the City’s charters or to damage its authority.

Indeed, in our own times it is instructive to note that, while the City lead much of the opposition to H.M. Government during the century following the Act, Parliament did not dare to make even a single retaliatory move to overthrow the Corporation or end its autonomy. It’s also interesting to note that the office of the Queen’s Remembrancer still exists. The bewigged and bestockinged incumbent still sits directly behind the Speaker of the House of Commons and is the only person in the chamber who is neither an MP nor a civil servant. At least one past holder has boasted he was there to “oppose every bill which would interfere with the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Corporation” so perhaps it is unsurprising that critics have suggested the Remembrancer’s is really there as a spy or even a lobbyist put in place to thwart or derail the intentions of the country’s elected representatives.

When Labour’s post-war prime minister Clement Atlee claimed that “over and over again we have seen that there is in this country another power than that which has its seat at Westminster” he wasn’t joking, but it is perhaps that political and administrative power that enables the right choices to be made, between oblivion and opportunity. This, surely, is why many of London’s supporters feel the capital is as well-placed as it is to guide the population out of its current crises. If, as a historian might suppose, we find ourselves in the early stages of a new round of assertiveness on the part of London, the strength of the City’s authorities, and the status of its Lord Mayor, could well enable it to influence Parliament as it has in the past and in this way to steer the future direction and governance of Britain (or, conceivably, just England).

Consider too that, aside from these privileges and powers, the capital’s citizens and institutions have repeatedly shown the necessary resilience and mettle to achieve the most positive outcomes. London, it is true, was abandoned once – but only once, and not for long. When the first Saxons arrived the incomers mostly chose to live outside London’s old Roman walls. Even they didn’t stray far, however, and many settled along what is now the Strand and at Covent Garden, perhaps because in large part they were farmers rather than builders and townsfolk. But even this period was brief and before very long the Venerable Bede was able to describe London as once again a place of significance. He called it ‘a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea’ thereby neatly echoing the words of Tacitus, who hundreds of years earlier had described London as ‘the great mart of trade and commerce’. Incidentally, this also explains the modern name ‘Aldwych’ which comes from the Anglo-Saxon Ealdwic, meaning an old market or trading place.

The next great test was the Black Death in 1347-48, the first of nineteen pandemics which struck London between the 14th and 17th centuries. This was by far the worst and it didn’t merely decimate the population. As bubonic plague swept through the crowded streets, far more than one in ten were killed and historians now believe that between a third and a half of all Londoners were carried off by the disease. By any standards that’s an extraordinary statistic, although with infections doubling every 43 days it was actually no worse than elsewhere in Europe. Among the fatalities were two ex-chancellors, and three archbishops, and bodies of ordinary men, women and children were soon being stacked at least five deep at one plague pit near Smithfield. Plenty more such pits have come to light in the years since, most recently during the Crossrail excavations, and a large black slab in Westminster Abbey’s south cloister almost certainly conceals the remains of the abbot and more than two dozen of his monks.

Naturally Parliament was prorogued through all this, and those Londoners who could do so fled in droves to the countryside in the (often mistaken) belief that this would save them. The city itself more than survived, however, and commercial life bounced back at least as quickly as anywhere else in the British Isles. Even when the population was still below 40,000 (down from around 70,000) the most important chancery, exchequer and government offices were manned and functioning effectively. Wages also rose sharply as, in the words of one leading chronicler of the plague, ‘the gaps left [by the dead] were filled up by an influx from the provinces and from abroad in the course of two to three years.’

The scale of these increases should not be overstated, however. They may merely have reversed the decline brought about by an earlier calamity (the Great Famine of 1315-21) and they were anyway quickly limited by a new Statute of Labourers which worked very much to the benefit of London’s merchants and other wealthy employers.  Unsurprisingly this was added to the labourers’ already lengthy list of complaints, and when these culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 London was quick to show which side it was on. Within literally minutes of the king seeming to accept many of his subjects’ demands, the city’s lord mayor lunged at the peasants’ leader with a dagger. Wat Tyler survived somehow and fled, but he was shortly afterwards caught and beheaded on the mayor’s orders. William Walworth’s dagger, it hardly needs saying, is still displayed in the City more than 600 years later, and is proudly shown to guests at Fishmongers’ Hall.

Walworth’s move was brutal and impulsive, but it was also bold and decisive which are characteristics he shared with the city he served. Around this same time, when new mercantilist laws introduced by the Crown threatened to curtail business by taxing, regulating, and restricting the all-important wool trade, the city quickly established an effective monopoly for itself via the Merchants of the Staple (later accommodated in Staple Inn on Holborn). This proved hugely profitable, at least initially, although like many monopolies the benefits were short-lived and eventually fatally damaged the industry. The response was a shift away from raw wool to the export of finished cloth, and once again it was the capital which took best advantage.

It did this with a new organisation, the Merchant Adventurers of London, who ultimately came to control three-quarters of all foreign trade and not just wool. Later, when this purely mercantile approach no longer suited London’s interests, the arrangements were dismantled with equal speed. Nor should the existence of such monopolies be taken as proof of a centralising or narrow ‘little Englander’ mentality. From 13th century Italian bankers in Lombard Street to the Hanseatic League’s Stalhof  or steelyard beneath Cannon Street Station, the city has always found a place for foreign expertise.

When the final major outbreak of plague hit, more than three centuries after the first in 1665, the rate of spread was even faster although in London the pattern of retreat and recovery was largely the same. With infections doubling every eleven days according to a very recent analysis, the population panicked as a quarter of them perished and thousands more loaded up their carts and escaped to the country. Yet just months later London’s markets and workshops were as noisy and as productive as ever, and such were the numbers flooding back into the city that Lord Chancellor Clarendon could report that ‘the streets were as full, the Exchange as much crowded, the people in all places as numerous as they had ever been seen’.

We don’t just have to take his word for this either. Within a year, burials had returned to pre-plague levels and Hearth Tax returns had normalised. Baptism records similarly suggest the size of the population had recovered, more or less, and merchants and makers were clearly back in business. The same could not be said for all other large urban centres, Ipswich for one, although in London’s case the impressive revival turned out to be something of a false dawn. With horrifying speed, the next great calamity struck the city in September 1666.

The Great Fire of London famously killed hardly anyone. Only six deaths have ever been verified which compares well to the almost 40,000 dead in Istanbul’s own conflagration six years earlier, although the destruction of property – private, church, state and commercial – was prodigious. After a drought lasting nearly a year, more than 80% of the tinder-dry city fell to the flames, including a staggering 13,200 private dwellings. Almost overnight this left a similar proportion of the population homeless, at least 65,000 people but possibly as many as 100,000, and in the words of one Hoxton priest, ‘the trade of London [was] shattered and broken to pieces’.

Ambitious plans to rebuild were presented with truly breathtaking speed, especially given that England was at this time at war with both France and the Dutch Republic. These included an unlikely scheme of Sir Christopher Wren’s to redraw the map as European grid of avenues and piazzas, but like similar schemes from Robert Hooke and Sir John Evelyn it was quickly rejected. War or no war, Londoners made it plain they preferred the familiar if inefficient pattern of medieval street, although in every other regard their determination to put things right was progressive and now looks impressively far-sighted.

In the absence of buildings insurance, for example, it was agreed that the cost of the calamity should be shared rather than falling on those most affected by it. Much of the rebuilding fund came from the introduction of a novel tax on coal. This was levied at a shilling (5p) a ton and, cynically, it remained in place for the next 200 years, long after the work had been paid for. At the same time a whole raft of thoughtful new building regulations were devised to reduce the odds of a repeat performance further down the line.

Once reconstruction work actually began, things moved faster still. Building owners were given just a fortnight to remove all debris from their foundations, and workmen spent less than nine weeks staking out thousands of individual plots. Several new livery halls were completed in under two years, but even more remarkable was the astonishing speed with which the authorities were able to resume their control over the devastated city.

Faced with unparalleled destruction and disarray, with Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange wrecked, the most pressing demand on the Lord Mayor and his aldermen was the need to establish a new base from which to administer their civic and mercantile powers. To do this, they moved into Gresham College and several buildings around Bishopsgate before the ruins had even ceased smouldering. From these, orders were promptly issued for trade to resume immediately and to make this possible permission was hastily granted for merchants to set up temporary markets in sheds and stalls erected on Bishopsgate Street and Leadenhall, and at Tower Hill and Smithfield.

Inevitably none of these rushed arrangements were perfect, but they illustrate how quickly London got back on track. Coal shipments from Newcastle to London for 1667-71 were much as they had been for 1660-64, another important indication, and the capital’s expansion continued almost without missing a beat. From a pre-crisis population of approximately 400,000 in 1650, it reached 575,000 by the century’s end or nearly 12% of the national total. Despite the clear and present dangers of 17th century city life, London had evidently lost none of its magnetic power. With such history, such energy, it’s hard to think it ever will.

That last line may sound a bit glib, and of course the events described here, like the wartime Blitz, differ in more than detail to the threats London faces in 2021. But there are lessons we can learn from each of them. These earlier threats were all genuinely existential, no-one can doubt that. They were also unprecedented, or will have seemed that way to a population almost wholly ignorant of history. They also required a response from London that was radical and determined and far from simple to put into effect. That, too, sounds an awful lot like now and the months to come.