Being in London is like meeting the mother you never knew. Suddenly, all the family stories, all the little quirks that you never really understood, all the mysterious family watchwords are explained. You have grown up in her shadow. You have been raised according to her instructions. Your mother’s friends have been your friends and her enemies likewise. Now, at last, you encounter her face to face: aged but still glorious; still capable of leaving you open-mouthed.
It is only when you arrive in London and walk the streets of the City of Westminster that the full force of its imperial character stands revealed. That this was the capital of a vast empire is writ in every stately building, in every equestrian statue of some long-dead conquerer. The sculptural celebration of Britain’s strength writhes in extraordinary assemblages of bronze figures. Angels of Victory bearing laurel crowns float over chariots yoked to rearing horses. Horatio Nelson stands atop his coloum staring wistfully in the direction of Trafalgar where the naval supremacy that gave birth to this imperial city was won.
Oh, and didn’t they know that the world was theirs to plunder, and oh the prodigous efforts they made to dress up their larceny as a fine and honourable thing. Because London is Rome – or, at least, its architecture pretends that it is. Generations of British aristocrats were taught to read Latin and Greek for the very straightforward reason that these were the languages of Emperors and Generals; adminstrators and engineers; historians and philosophers. Through them they acquired the diction of authority and command; the vocabulary of power.
And that is what London is: a disertation in stone and brick on what it feels like to rule an empire.
Seeing London, it is easier to understand why the United Kingdom finds it so hard to let go of the expectations of greatness. The idea that Britain still counts – still has a role to play – must be hard to give up when its leaders drive to and from their offices in what feels like the world’s most elaborate movie set. All around them stand the artefacts of Britain’s century of global hegemony. And what a blockbuster of a movie it was!
All gone now. To acknowledge their nation’s economic, military and diplomatic eclipse: that was the task which History set for her nation’s politicians, and, with the honourable exception of the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, they have failed. Superficially, they accepted that the empire was gone and that Europe alone offered them a new way of being British, but emotionally that acceptance was never bedded-in. Brexit makes perfect sense in London. Though the current inhabitants voted to remain in the European Union, the imposing magic of the old imperial capital continues to bewitch the people of the Home Counties and the abandoned masses that once toiled in the powerhouses of her industrial economy.
London is more evidently the Queen of Britain’s hopes and dreams that the old lady interred in the grey mausoleum of Buckingham Palace. Though she has lost the empire, at whose heart she once stood, London still rules.