The front of Tuesday’s New York Times featured a long essay by Sarah Lyall on Brexit, “A Mighty City Trembles at a Global Crossroad -- With Britain Leaving Europe, Can London Remain a Capital of the World?” The online headline was stark: “Will London Fall?”
The NYT made a big production of it, with big photos over the fold on the front and inside, with Lyall “mourning” the imminent death of the famously “tolerant....open-minded” city. Counter-arguments about national sovereignty and overweening bureaucratic dictates were quickly dismissed as irresponsible right-wing journalistic myths.
Lyall is hardly objective on the subject. Her Times reporting has betrayed a consistent bitterness over Brexit, from calling Conservative Boris Johnson, an intellectual driver behind the Brexit movement, a liar (twice) in a front-page story after the shocking “Leave” vote last summer, something the paper refrains from doing with liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Before the vote, Lyall had mocked the movement in a front-page story by evoking Monty Python.
The pretentious prelude of Lyall’s front-page essay concluded:
Modern London thrives on the idea that one city can be a global melting pot, a global trading house, a global media machine and a place where everyone tolerates everyone else, mostly. The thought is that being connected to the rest of the world is something to celebrate. But what happens to London when that idea unexpectedly falls away?
The article proper opened upon the resurrected St. Pancras. Lyall celebrated the Eurostar train that could take you to Paris in three hours via the English Channel.
St. Pancras International rail station, a wonder of Victorian architecture resurrected for the 21st century, opened 10 years ago as the embodiment of a particular notion: that Britain is part of something bigger than itself and that belonging to a fellowship of nations is as easy and natural as stepping onto a train.
It was both shocking and thrilling, at first, that you could catch a Eurostar from a platform in London, slide under the English Channel, hurtle through the French countryside and less than three hours later pull into the Gare du Nord in Paris. To ride the Eurostar was to marvel that the capitals --London so prosaic and straightforward, Paris so romantic and mysterious, the two with their long history of rivalry and discord -- were part of the same larger enterprise.
(Anglophile clarification of Lyall’s overly metaphorical prose: Eurostar actually launched its Paris service from London via Waterloo Station 23 years ago, back in 1994, when Conservative John Major was in power, before service transferred to the refurbished St. Pancras "10 years ago," in 2007.)
Eurostar symbolized an era in which London seemed to be inevitably rushing toward Europe, too. At least that was the idea until now, and the beginning of the process known as Brexit. The trains are still running, but the era that created modern London appears to be over.
To many people in the capital, the vote last year feels like a rejection not just of Europe but also of the values embodied by London, perhaps the world’s most vibrantly and exuberantly cosmopolitan city: values like openness, tolerance, internationalism and the sense that it is better to look outward than to gaze inward. Even as a sense of melancholy seemed to descend on St. Pancras when I walked around the other day, much of the rest of Britain was celebrating.
“A Magnificent Moment,” The Daily Telegraph announced on its front page the next morning; “Dover and Out,” said The Sun, referring to the White Cliffs of Dover. But even as much of the country has spoken darkly of the influx of immigrants, the erosion of British values and the siphoning of resources by Europe, London has remained about as heterogeneous and open-minded a place as you could imagine, especially for a 2,000-ish-year-old metropolis.
Here are Britain’s richest people and many of its poorest, living side by side in relative peace. London is stuffed with British landmarks -- Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral -- but also with people comprising 270 nationalities, 8.7 million inhabitants in all.
She skipped mentioning Westminster Palace along with Big Ben (Terror attack? What terror attack?).
Brexit has thrown into disarray this great experiment in tolerance....
I’ve been back a number of times since I left, but it was during two visits in the past few months that I encountered something different: fear for the future and a questioning by many non-Britons of whether they even belong here anymore.
Here, despite the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments that helped fuel the Brexit vote, is London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, whose parents, a bus driver and a seamstress, came from Pakistan. Here are international financiers and playboys, Eurocrats and Eurotrash, as well as economic migrants from Spain and Portugal and other depressed European countries crowding into tiny flats on the edges of town and taking jobs in cafes, on construction sites, in hotels.
Lyall jabbed at a media rival Rupert Murdoch, then pointed the finger at:
The populist tabloids stoked that anxiety and resentment, often veiling it in easy stereotypes and portraying anyone who objected to the coverage as tediously “politically correct.” They used crude World War II metaphors when England played Germany in soccer. They mocked Europe as a place of humorless Krauts and garlic-eating Frogs, deriding the European Union as an impenetrable, out-of-control bureaucracy sucking up British money and imposing risible, onerous laws on an unwitting populace. Multiculturalism, the zero-sum argument went, was causing Britain to lose sight of what it was meant to be.
The story contained a single brief paragraph mentioning the terrorism at the Palace of Westminster, home of Parliament.
Like the Brick Lane Mosque, London is facing another incarnation, if an uncertain one. The terrorist attack in March became a Rorschach test of Britain’s views not only on the causes of terrorism but on the city itself. Led by Mr. Khan, the city’s mayor, many in London spoke of the diversity of the victims, from many different countries, and said it was wrong to vilify an entire religion for the actions of a Muslim extremist.
Lyall let her urbanity fly.
It is strange to me that some Britons who live outside London seem to mistrust and feel alienated from it, given how essential, and central, the city is to the country and how much people like it when they visit. But the things London is proud of also make it an easy target. In 2012, Theresa May, then the anti-Brexit home secretary and now the pro-Brexit prime minister, said that diversity of language in the capital was helping rip apart the nation.
The rift between what she said and what Londoners think shows why London is struggling so much right now.
....Pro-Brexit views are hardening, and many immigrants -- rich as well as poor -- are wondering if there is any point in staying. What London will look like then is anybody’s guess.
Lyall concluded with a convenient metaphor in a tinkling piano for how Brexit will be a dark day in British history. At St. Pancras someone was playing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen on one of the public pianos: “It seemed apt, because it sounds like a song of celebration, but it is really one of mourning.”