Anti-metropolitanism, 1759

May 19, 2023 0 Comments

In Volume I, Chapter XVIII of Laurence Sterne’s great novel, Tristram Shandy’s mother, as soon as she finds out she’s expecting him, absolutely insists that, when the time comes to give birth, she will be attended by no one but the old midwife who lives in the neighbourhood of Shandy Hall – even though within eight miles there lives a specialist ‘scientifick operator’ and published expert on midwifery (this is in real life Dr John Burton, an old enemy of Sterne’s, who practised in York).

Tristram’s father, Walter, can’t do anything about this decision – he’s already broken his wife’s wish that she should go to London to ensure a safer labour – but he’s eaten by apprehension about what might happen if things go wrong.  As the anxiety gnaws at him, he ponders how London sucks in the whole country’s resources and wealth, to the detriment of all non-metropolitan areas:

He was very sensible that all political writers upon the subject had unanimously agreed and lamented, from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign down to his own time, that the current of men and money towards the metropolis, upon one frivolous errand or another,—set in so strong,—as to become dangerous to our civil rights,—tho’, by the bye,——a current was not the image he took most delight in,—a distemper was here his favourite metaphor, and he would run it down into a perfect allegory, by maintaining it was identically the same in the body national as in the body natural where the blood and spirits were driven up into the head faster than they could find their ways down;——a stoppage of circulation must ensue, which was death in both cases.

There was little danger, he would say, of losing our liberties by French politicks or French invasions;——nor was he so much in pain of a consumption from the mass of corrupted matter and ulcerated humours in our constitution, which he hoped was not so bad as it was imagined;—but he verily feared, that in some violent push, we should go off, all at once, in a state-apoplexy;—and then he would say, The Lord have mercy upon us all.

Having diagnosed the problem Walter Shandy goes on to propose a cure:

‘Was I an absolute prince,’ he would say, pulling up his breeches with both his hands, as he rose from his arm-chair, ‘I would appoint able judges, at every avenue of my metropolis, who should take cognizance of every fool’s business who came there;—and if, upon a fair and candid hearing, it appeared not of weight sufficient to leave his own home, and come up, bag and baggage, with his wife and children, farmer’s sons, &c., &c., at his backside, they should be all sent back, from constable to constable, like vagrants as they were, to the place of their legal settlements. By this means I shall take care, that my metropolis totter’d not thro’ its own weight;—that the head be no longer too big for the body;—that the extremes, now wasted and pin’d in, be restored to their due share of nourishment, and regain, with it, their natural strength and beauty:—I would effectually provide, That the meadows and corn-fields of my dominions, should laugh and sing;—that good chear and hospitality flourish once more;—and that such weight and influence be put thereby into the hands of the Squirality of my kingdom, as should counterpoise what I perceive my Nobility are now taking from them.’

In France, he goes on, the reason the provinces are so bereft of estates and the chateaux in such a dilapidated state is that no one has an interest in the country, only in what happens in the Parisian court with the King, Louis XIV, ‘by the sunshine of whose countenance, or the clouds which pass a-cross it, every French man lives or dies’.

It might come as a surprise that anti-metropolitan feeling, the common idea in our day that London bleeds the rest of the country dry by absorbing its human and other resources, has such deep roots.  Sterne was writing in 1759.  In fact, as he tells us a little earlier, in one of the authorial intrusions into the telling of his imaginary story that brings the reader up short, he was writing this passage on the prescie date of 9 March 1759.  But, according to Melvyn New, editor of the Florida edition of Tristram Shandy, anti-metropolitanism was not Sterne’s invention.  It was already a common complaint among writers.  New cites Alexander Pope: ‘the people all running to the Capital city, is like a confluence of all the animal spirits to the heart, a symptom that the constitution is in danger’.   Sterne even uses the same bodily metaphor as Pope, substituting the brain for Pope’s heart.

In 1700 over a million and a half people already lived in London.  By Sterne’s time the population had swelled by another quarter million.  Britain’s second city, Bristol, could only muster 30,000.  London also held more wealth than anywhere else in the country, much of it derived from being at the heart of a growing trading empire – wealth that was visible to all in its fine architecture and extravagant social gatherings.  The capital was well on the way to becoming a megalopolis.  Writers, especially those living in or drawn to London, could see the harmful effects of this meteoric growth on the rest of Britain.  Samuel Johnson’s satirical ‘London’, reminds us that anti-metropolitan thinking was nothing new.  His poem was modelled on the third of the satires of Juvenal, who riled against the excessive luxury and vice of imperial Rome.  (Johnson’s later personal view of London was, of course, much more favourable.)

Anti-metropolitanism today is just as strong, not only as popular feeling, but as the complaint of many economists, that the dominance of the financial interests of the City London unbalances the economy of the whole country.  More broadly, it stems from egalitarian concerns.  Even Boris Johnson felt the need to acknowledge its force in his ‘levelling up’ idea, though, like most of his ideas, it turned out to be no more than cynical rhetoric.  London is not the only capital city accused of bloodsucking: Cardiff is increasingly seen as a magnet for talent and wealth that ought to be be kept in other parts of Wales if they’re to flourish.

It’s fair to add, though, that anti-London sentiment can also be highly reactionary.  You suspect that the proto-fascists of ‘National Conservatism’, who held their rally in London last week, find the social London (not the City), with its ethnic melting pot and liberal social values (‘the north London metropolitan elite’), to be anathema.  The natural home of their beloved traditional family, motherhood, moral rectitude and whiteness is the English shires.

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