With nowhere to go in London, will the urban graduate leave for the provinces? Credit: Guy Smallman/Getty

April 9, 2020   6 mins

Having fled London a decade ago, I was bloody annoyed by Matt Hancock’s threat to ban all outdoor exercise if people in busy city parks refused to stop sunbathing. Why should I miss out on my rule-abiding, socially distanced runs down deserted country lanes simply because Londoners were refusing to take the downsides of city life along with its benefits? Especially given the capital’s persistent smugness about the superiority of its worldview and lifestyle?

But then I stopped to imagine what lockdown must be like if you live in a flatshare.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the London parks first to close, citing visitors’ disregard of social distancing, are in areas popular with young sharers: Victoria Park in Hackney, and Brockwell Park in South-East London. (Brockwell Park has since reopened.) After all, it’s one thing to obey social distancing rules if you have a house, a partner you get on with, even a garden. But what must it be like for those young aspiring members of the London ‘metropolitan elite’ jammed cheek by jowl into dingy flatshares most of which don’t even have a sitting room?

This demographic has grown steadily in recent decades. Half of Britain’s school-leavers today go to university. On campus, they absorb the liberal worldview of the urban knowledge-worker class, even as the salaries associated with a ‘metropolitan elite’ lifestyle ascend ever further out of reach. (Even before coronavirus, the median graduate starting salary had not increased in five years, and the average has fallen since 2011.)

The result, I argued last November, is a socially-liberal, economically aspirational graduate precariat, clinging to the big-city dream while scraping a hand-to-mouth existence in cramped, expensive shared housing. David, a youth campaigner in his twenties who moved to London after university to help found a new charity, describes life on the bottom rungs of the capital’s graduate rat-race as a split between a professional life full of excitement, and a domestic one where comfort, security and even intimacy were hard to come by:

“It was all flashy and big and exciting, and I felt like one of the destined few, right at the centre of things. I was meeting all these charity chief execs and building this amazing network. But at the same time I was sleeping on a friend’s sofa, and commuting an hour each way across London on crowded Tube carriages. It was this weird split between a slick professional outside appearance, then this miserable life at home.”

Millions of young graduates tolerate a similar state of affairs, in the expectation that in due course things will improve. There’ll be a flat they only share with a partner, a better salary, maybe even the distant dream of buying a home.

Now, these millions have had the exciting, slick, public-facing side of their lives abruptly cancelled by lockdown, and are stuck instead with the no-frills private one. Crowded, overpriced houseshares. Flatmates they may not especially like. Nothing much to do. No wonder the first warm weekend of spring tempted some to bend the lockdown rules with a spot of sunbathing in the park.

Though they may be on the bottom rung, these millions still identify culturally with the ‘Anywhere’ sociocultural group, as David Goodhart framed it — the ‘open’, highly educated, mobile and cosmopolitan group which contrasts so starkly with the more ‘closed’, place-bound, conservative and lower-class ‘Somewheres’ found in the provinces.

It’s a worldview with history. In 2006, Tony Blair framed the new politics as ‘Open’ versus ‘Closed’ — with openness, obviously, as the future. In his view, politicians should drive openness while reassuring the wary ‘closed’ plebs that this path as not just beneficial but historically inevitable. The moral weighting of the binary is clear. Who wants to be seen as closed, inflexible or narrow-minded?

Studies also suggest that ‘open’ personality types are more likely to gravitate to cities, as my colleague Ed West points out in his recent book. So London is bound to lean more liberal, more rule-bending – and, in a world that valorises ‘open’ traits, more sure of its own worth than the more culturally ‘closed’ provinces. More smug, in a word.

Meanwhile, it has been argued that a ‘closed’ suspicion of strangers had evolutionary utility for much of human history, as it helped to limit the spread of pathogens to which a community might have no immunity. But now we’ve vanquished all the highly infectious diseases that might be spread by human hypermobility, haven’t we? So the shires’ worldview is vestigial, like the appendix, and we can and should all embrace a new, counter-evolutionary openness and enjoy the fruits of the resulting globalisation.

Except. A few weeks into the pandemic, it should be clear to even the most dedicated advocate of openness that there are some upsides to having a nation-state government with control of its currency and borders, and domestic capacity in key areas such as food production, medicine and precision engineering. (Ideally more than Britain has at present.) Even the Financial Times has suggested that some economic orthodoxies of recent decades might be due a rethink.

I would like to resist the temptation to be smug on behalf of the ‘closed’, rule-following provinces so long dismissed as obsolete. Rather, I want to invite today’s young urban flat-sharers to question the view I still secretly held as I loaded the removal van on my way to the shires, that leaving the capital is an admission of failure.

For as I watch my daughter run through the lawn sprinkler, and imagine lockdown in the poky London flat we left behind, I have no regrets at all. And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we could help heal the sociocultural split in our country not by trying to persuade Somewheres to be more like Anywheres but by asking instead what more ‘open’ and ‘closed’ approaches to life could bring to one another.

“There are all these un-priced bits of working in London”, David told me. “The crowds, the smell, the pressure and lack of a personal life. I just decided that’s not what I want.” So he packed up his Anywhere skills and experience, and moved Somewhere. “I’ve been in Poole now for three years,” he says, “and my quality of life is so much better even though my salary has dropped by two-thirds.”

Along with having time for healthy eating, exercise and getting married, David told me how great it felt to bring valuable skills from the capital, with which he could make a real positive impact. In the last decade, I’ve seen something similar take place in my own small town, as other London escapees have settled here. Many have started businesses, formed clubs or otherwise thrown themselves into community life, bringing energy, skills and fresh insights to the community. “The biggest problem we have,” David says “isn’t the concentration of wealth but the concentration of talent.”

Before coronavirus blew everything up, public policy was just beginning to tackle the question of the gulf between dynamic cities and ‘left behind’ provinces. Boris Johnson’s December 2019 election campaign talked repeatedly of ‘levelling up’, a framing that suggests that with a bit of subsidy and jollying-along, the Somewheres can all be induced to be more Anywhere and then everything will be alright.

But that does nothing to challenge our centrifugal economy, in which urban hubs act as pyramid schemes, with a gravitational force both economic and cultural that pulls in everyone with an iota of energy and ambition. Once dragged to the hubs, people must then scramble over one another in a race for the top of the pile. Talking of ‘levelling up’ just creates more pyramids.

Instead, we need to give greater weight to the benefits of provincial life — fresh air, friendly relations with your neighbours, a slower pace of life, room to settle and raise a family — not just for retirees, but also the young. Even the ‘closed’ mindset, it turns out, has some benefits when you need longstanding neighbours willing to look out for you during a crisis. “Everyone knows that coastal towns are the most under-developed parts of the UK,” David says. “I see think tanks wondering about how to improve them. But the most obvious solution is: move there.”

In The Matrix, the hero Neo discovers that the life he thought he was living is an illusion created by intelligent machines, to pacify humans who are being farmed as living batteries. Today, with the illusion of a glittering urban future abruptly switched off by lockdown, millions of young graduates may feel rather like Neo: opening their eyes to discover themselves stacked in battery pods and not, in fact, about to take over the world after all.

These millions might consider whether it is time to vote with their feet. After all, theirs is the talent and energy. Theirs is the future. Lockdown will come to an end one day. When it does, we’ll have a chance to re-evaluate how we do pretty much everything. Perhaps it’s time for young graduates to bin the polluted, hypercompetitive metropolis, and the over-reliance on ‘open’ values, and make a difference instead in the clean air, affordable housing and friendly communities of Britain’s towns.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.