It’s not unusual, when you have an area with two big towns that dominate it, to stick the capital in a more neutral place. Australia has Canberra because of Melbourne and Sydney’s rivalry; Brazil has Brasilia because Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are in much the same boat.
This is less common in the UK. London, Cardiff and Belfast are by far the biggest towns of their constituent countries, and Edinburgh gets to be the capital despite being rather smaller than Glasgow because the ‘thousands of years of history’ card is a strong one.
What is very unusual anywhere – outside of actual colonies – is to have your capital in a completely different place from the territory it governs. Even the people of West Germany recognised this, with West Berlin being an odd semi-occupied zone rather than the capital of their country. This was instead in Bonn, a lovely but boring country town that you should absolutely visit, and which filled the kind of role as capital that John Major did as Prime Minister.
And yet, if you’re a Londoner, you’re within an Oyster ride of precisely this arrangement. And you don’t even have to leave the city’s boundaries.
The county of Surrey, as it’s defined these days, is a pipe-shaped lump of land that roughly tracks the south-western quadrant of the M25, stretching from the M3 to the M23, and running until you run out of suburbia and hit real countryside. Or, if you prefer public transport, South Western Railway’s outer-suburban trains. It’s slightly further out of London than Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, but closer in than Butterflies or the Vicar of Dibley.
But it used to be grand. Almost all of what is now South London was in the mediaeval county of Surrey. The Canterbury Tales were written there, Shakespeare’s plays were debuted there; the things that the guilds who controlled the City of London didn’t like took place there. And the county town of Surrey was in what is now Walworth, one of the bits of inner south London that the Tube map still doesn’t quite feature, but within half an hour’s walk of Bank.
By the 1880s, it was clear that London had spread beyond the borders that ancient English rules had laid down, and so the London County Council was created, encompassing pretty much everywhere we’d now think of as Inner London. This very much included Walworth.
Surrey lost some of its most shady and interesting inner London parts (not, necessarily, to the shame of the people involved in the rest of it) and quite sensibly built a new County Hall in a town that was part of Surrey.
Kingston-upon-Thames, when County Hall was constructed in 1893, was a river resort and retreat, and the kind of town that the wealthiest of railway commuters might be willing to head to London from, whilst living a relatively disease-free rustic life. As such, it symbolised Surrey’s aspirations perfectly.
But then more development happened.
The county of Greater London was created in 1965, reflecting the suburbanisation that the mainstreaming of railways and the Underground had brought to the city, turning former commuter-belt towns into outright suburbs and villages into new towns. In the interim, Kingston had been linked into London with further rail and road-building. So, to nobody’s great surprise, Kingston-upon-Thames became part of Greater London in the 1965 review.
If you were sensible, you might think that Surrey would run another 1893 attempt, and shift its County Hall to somewhere that was, well, in it. But you’d be wrong.
Surrey has ancient rivalries, of the sort that normally only manifest themselves in football teams. Its two most prominent settlements are Guildford and Woking. The former is ancient and fancy; the latter is wealthy and diverse and more directly integrated into London. They hate each other at least as much as Melbourne and Canberra. Meanwhile, the people in the country towns that make up the south of the county hate Guildford and Woking.
For the last 60 years, politicians have been making half-arsed attempts to solve this problem. In 2003, the council managed to agree on an attempt to build a new County Hall in Woking, but the money ran out. As of 2017, MPs for small towns still try to play on regional patriotism to sort out enormous absurd pork barrels, and get shot right down again.
And the strangest thing is, nobody particularly cares. It’s become completely normal for the people of Surrey over the last 50 years to accept the fact that their capital is in a different place from their actual county, to the point where they aren’t even interested.
I can’t help but think of another question here: if habituation is that easy, how on earth did we fail to make the case for the EU?