A London borough just voted to leave the European Union

"This'll put us on the map". Image: Google.

The further you go from a city, the less a part of the place its fringes are likely to feel. Throw in a strong existing identity and mediocre transport links, and you can end up with residential suburbs that don't look or feel anything like the city proper.

So it is that London is generally an open-minded, multicultural sort of a place, but its eastern-most borough just voted to leave the European Union:

London (AFP) - A local council in London became the first in Britain to endorse leaving the European Union in a vote.

Havering Council in east London voted by 30 to 15 in favour of a motion tabled by a councillor from the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage.

Havering, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is the chevron-shaped borough clinging to the inside of the M25 where London turns into Essex. Its biggest town is Romford; it's also where the District line ends up if you stay on it for so long that you can no longer remember not being on there.

But despite having been part of London for 51 years now, the area still identifies with Essex at least as much as the city. It's also London's whitest borough (83 per cent white British at the time of the last census, compared to 45 per cent in the city as a whole).

Correlation is not causation, but in the 2014 election UKIP got 28 per cent of the vote and seven of the 54 seats on the local council. It came second only to the Tories in terms of votes (22 seats on 28 per cent), but was pushed into third place by the Hornchurch Residents Association who got 10 seats out of 10 per cent of the vote. It’s not a hotbed of radical thought, is the point here.

And now it’s seceding from the European Union.

"It is a fantastic result," said the UKIP councillor, Lawrence Webb. "We as local councillors have to make decisions on rules and regulations that come out of the EU. They have a direct impact on local services."

Actually, of course, it's doing no such thing. British local authorities are among the weakest in the world. They barely have the power to build their own transport links or raise their own taxes; they're not about to start their own foreign policy.

Nonetheless, the councillors in a borough of one of Britain's most Europe-friendly cities just registered their desire to leave the European Union by a factor of two to one.

If the UK as a whole votes to leave the European Union, it's widely believed that it could trigger a second independence referendum in a Scotland determined to stay in. If the UK votes to stay in, it's not inevitable that the London Borough of Havering could vote to secede, Passport to Pimlico style. But can say for sure that it wouldn’t? Can we be truly certain?

Yes, we can.

This was a silly vote.


Ottawa-Gatineau, the national capital which language differences nearly split into two countries

The Canadian parliament, Ottawa.

There are many single urban areas with multiple, competing local identities: from the rivalry of Newcastle and Sunderland in Tyne & Wear, to the Wolverhampton residents who resolutely deny that they are part of Birmingham, despite being in the same urban conurbation and sharing a mayor.

However, no division is quite as stark as that of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area in Canada. Often referred to as the National Capital Region, Ottawa and Gatineau lie directly opposite each other on either side of the Ottawa River, a hundred miles from Montreal, the nearest other significant population centre. Because the conurbation straddles a provincial boundary, the two cities literally speak a different language, with Ottawa in predominantly Anglophone Ontario and Gatineau in Francophone Quebec.

This is reflected in their populations. According to the 2011 census, French was the mother tongue of 77 per cent of those in Gatineau, a percentage maintained by policies intended to keep French as Quebec’s dominant language. Similarly, although Ottawa provides some bilingual services, 68 per cent of its residents are predominantly Anglophone; Franco-Ontarians frequently complain that the city is not officially bilingual.

Although there are similar divided cities, such as the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Ottawa-Gatineau is unique in that the city was not divided by a war or major political event: its two halves have been part of the same political territory since the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, before either of the cities were even established. Indeed, the oldest part of Gatineau is actually an Anglophone settlement with the name of Hull (it was merged into the Gatineau municipality in 2002).

Today, the two cities facing each other across the Ottawa river have separate services, and elect difference mayors to run them: OC Transpo serves Ottawa, the Société de Transport de l’Outaouais (STO) serves  Gatineau, and few tickets are transferrable between the two systems.

OC Transpo is currently constructing a light rail system to many parts of Ottawa; but proposals to expand the route into Gatineau, or to merge the two transport systems have been fraught with obstacles. The City of Ottawa owns a disused railway bridge, connecting the two cities, but arguments about funding and political differences have so far prevented it from being used as part of the light rail extension project.

The divisions between Ottawa and Gatineau are made all the more unusual by the fact that Ottawa is the federal capital of Canada – a country where bilingualism is entrenched in the Charter of Rights & Freedom as a bedrock principle of the Canadian constitution. As a result, while all proceedings within the Canadian legislature are bilingual, this principle of bilingualism is not reflected on the streets surrounding the building.

The inevitable map. Image: Google.

These linguistic, as well as political, differences have been a long-running theme in Canadian politics. Quebec held independence referendums in both 1980 and 1995; in the latter, the separatists were defeated by a margin of less than 0.6 per cent. Quebecois independence would be made all the more humiliating for Canada by the fact it would be losing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, while its parliament was forced to look out across the river at its new neighbours.

While Quebec as a whole only narrowly rejected independence in 1995, 72 per cent of Gatineau residents voted against the separatist proposal. The presence of many federal employees living in the city, who commute to Ottawa, meant that the city was rather unenthusiastic about the prospect of independence.

So, with Quebec nationalism currently at a low ebb, Gatineau seems set to remain a part of Canada – albeit while retaining its independent from the other half of its conurbation, across the river. While recent challenges such as flooding may have been better tackled by a unitary authority, the National Capital Region seems set to remain a tale of two cities.

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