The Vote Leave campaigner was bragging on his phone. I felt tempted to grab him by his red sweater and toss him from Waterloo Bridge. His unruly blonde hair and stocky frame reminded me of You-Know-Who. But then he was gone even before Cameron had resigned.
It was with a sudden brutality that a chasm emerged on the morning of June 24th, 2016. Waterloo Bridge felt like a fragile thread between two powerful poles tearing London apart. On my right, Westminster was dragging London out of Europe—against the will of everything on my left: the City, Canary Wharf and anyone I knew.
While South Bank media bastions were still catching their breath, fledgling startups of Somerset House began drawing up contingency plans. Funds raised in sterling had lost almost a fifth of their value overnight. Would continental coding talent keep flocking to Europe’s most expensive city? How much red tape to expect when selling to the four hundred million consumers living between Lisbon and Latvia? Why not relocate to Berlin straightaway? £400 for a one-bed—per month!
The unbowed optimism of our millennials in the face of Brexit clashed with the sombre mood of Generation X'ers who had lived in London before Blair, the Gherkin or the Shard. And yet, nothing beat the pessimism of battle-hardened greybeards with a living memory of pre-EU Britain. When a fresh Imperial grad mentioned banana curvature regulation as an example of Brussels overreach, she was shut down by a Corbyn type in a Tweed jacket: “Should've seen the shrivelling excuse for a banana on the shelves when I was your age! You’d feel reminded of Farage’s privates!”
An insight hit me while trying to block the image out of my mind: no longer could we take for granted the wealth of opportunity offered by London. Got sacked from flogging toothpaste to Broadchurch viewers? Join an ad tech platform that blasts out your clients' stuff on Snapchat and Youtube. Your weekly FT column got cancelled? Just launch your own blog and self-publish your wisdom on Kindle! In most cases, you won’t have to move house or even adjust your commute. London has it all!
“But why would it change?” My Brexit-voting friend from Sunderland asked me. “London is London—Europe or not.”
I was prepared to launch a litany of arguments on economies of scale, market sizes, trade volumes, WTO rules, country of origin checks, current account balances and foreign investment flows. I pondered mentioning the role of London as a springboard of U.S. companies to the continent or the positive contribution of EU citizens to the UK budget.
But in the end I only said one thing: “The EU is big. Really big. About five times as big as Britain.”
“Oh… is it?"