Are cities the new countries?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

London mayor Ken Livingstone is the latest civic leader to hanker after independence. Is the nation state under threat from the rise of the super-city?

Greater Shanghai has a population that has passed 20 million. The sprawl of Mexico City is estimated to house another 20 million. And Mumbai too.

These cities are bigger than many industrialised nations. And they are growing at a dizzying rate, sucking in workers from rural areas.

Sociologist Professor Richard Sennett believes the rise of these cities is changing their relationship with the countries they are in. He is one of a number of academics carrying out research into the evolution of cities.

Economically, many of the world's great cities are already divorced from their nation-states, with their main streams of investment come from other great cities.

"The most important place to London is New York and to New York is London and Tokyo," Prof Sennett says. "London belongs to a country composed of itself and New York."

And the need to co-ordinate ever more frenetic regeneration and infrastructure growth has led to increasing power for cities.

Shanghai has so much power and autonomy it has been described as effectively a city-state, within China only in geography. And on Thursday London Mayor Ken Livingstone was handed a raft of new powers over planning, housing and the environment.

He joked: "Having been to Singapore and seen how successful it was I think anything short of a fully independent city state is a lost opportunity, with its own foreign and defence policies thrown in."

And Ivan Massow, who has twice tried for Mr Livingstone's job as first a Conservative and then Labour hopeful, has long campaigned for the capital to be given a "fair share of the national cake".

"It will cost £2 billion to fix the Tube and £1.5bn to benefit from the effects of the 2012 Olympics, yet [Londoners] subsidise the rest of the UK to the tune of £20 billion a year."

Sister cities

There are many British people who already find London a strangely foreign place. And when the London-centric media views the rest of the country, it has a pronounced tendency to view it through a prism of life in the capital.

Elsewhere in the UK, cities like Liverpool - particularly during the city's battle with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s - Manchester, and Newcastle have long harboured independence fantasies.

Prof Sennett says the inequalities between London and other British cities will only increase. And with the economic and demographic gulf widening, it will soon be even harder to accept that London has more in common with Sheffield than Shanghai, with Preston than Paris.

It all has echoes of Europe's great tradition of city states, from Ancient Greece through Renaissance Italy and pre-1870s Germany.

One thing that sets London apart - and puts it in the same bracket as the other mega-cities - is its attractiveness to immigrants. Prof Sennett paints a picture of an intensely entrepreneurial class of economic migrants on a global travelator around swelling cities, moving Shanghai to London to New York. Many have no moorings and an ambivalent attitude towards the country outside their host city.

But there are signs for hope, such as the national sense of loss over the 7 July bombings.

Prof Sennett concludes: "I don't think people can really do without national unity. It is culturally unsustainable."