Sitting in the foyer of the Citibank building in Canary Wharf, where the trains have no drivers and the supermarkets no checkout staff, Scotland seems a long way away. For many in the independence movement the heart of Britain’s financial industry is the antithesis of everything they want to see in a country.
A few miles north, in trendy Hackney (the hipster who attempted a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair and wrote about it in the Guardian walked past me with his girlfriend) the Olympic park and its adjoining shopping centre lie on one side, on the other former warehouses converted into breweries and arts centres. A woman from the Green Party of England and Wales offers me an anti fracking leaflet and the bar is selling bottles of Schiehallion.
Down the road in Shoreditch there’s a festival going on of ‘Nordicana’. I don’t go – it’s 25 quid a ticket – but if I had I’d have been able to eat Scandinavian food and ask fawning questions of the stars of Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. We would probably have talked about how edgy the shows were and how lovely the cakes in the café are, like watching the Wire with a grab bag of American popcorn and a Budweiser.
If you really want genuine though go a few miles further east still, to Upton Park at the flashpoint between what remains of East London’s white working class mixed with monied and hair-gelled Essex fringe dwellers and the vibrant South-Asian communities that have made Green Street and the area around West Ham’s stadium their own. Inside it might still be 1980 – there isn’t an Asian face to be seen and men wear long coats and caps over impressively engineered haircuts. In front of me David James does a TV spot. Bobby Moore looks on, England is intact and unchanging. West Ham are one of the best clubs in the country. Men stand smoking in the toilets under the banks of seating, convinced of the superiority of their team like Celtic fans living in 1967. The only Bridge they worry about is the Chelsea one.
Then out again, the Olympic park on the horizon. It could almost be the East End of Glasgow, but instead of getting ready for the Commonwealth Games the workmen are trying to erase the Olympics and replace it with ‘regeneration’, expensive flats and transport for commuting south to Canary Wharf and west into the City. In modern Britain this is what prosperity is. Scotland wants London’s immigrants and it wants its wealth. It wants its global profile. In many ways it wants to exist as the British Isles’ other city state. It wants the finance and the business growth, the arts scene and the airport hub. It wants Nordic lifestyle but without too much hard thought given to how or why. Are these the right things to want? For some, perhaps. If Scotland wants London without the geographical inconvenience of a flight or a train ride, but we should be careful. My company is forthright about the shortcomings. As we stand at the automated checkouts of a Sainsbury’s in Holborn packed with high-heeled young professionals shoving gourmet ready meals into expensive bags, all she wants is to move back to Glasgow, “the most beautiful city in the world.”