London as neoliberal theme park: The Platform 9 ¾ economy and the Tories' shocking victory

How London became a monetized simulation of itself -- and how that vision fueled David Cameron's surprise win

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 23, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

British Prime Minister David Cameron  (Reuters/Peter Macdiarmid/Olivia Harris/Photo montage by Salon)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (Reuters/Peter Macdiarmid/Olivia Harris/Photo montage by Salon)

Nothing quite so blatantly sums up the victory of neoliberalism in 21st-century London, and that city’s relentless commodification of every aspect of its literary and historical legacy, like Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross. If anything, the vulgarity and banality of Platform 9 ¾ are too blatant; it’s a crack in the façade that demonstrates how thoroughly London has become Londonland, a nearly convincing scavenger-hunt simulation of itself, chock-full of royal bones and references to Dan Brown novels. To enter Westminster Abbey – which is still nominally a house of worship for the Anglican Communion, rather than a historical theme park – now costs 44 pounds for a family of four, or about $68. (The Catholic Church has abundant problems, but it still has some pride; a few days later we visited Notre Dame in Paris, for free.)

Those who have read the Harry Potter novels, or seen the movies, don’t need me to elaborate the reference: In Rowling’s fictional universe there exists a magical portal between Platforms 9 and 10 of the great North London rail terminus. It is invisible and inaccessible to Muggles (i.e., to you and me), but allows the wizarding elite access to a secret platform where they board the luxurious prewar steam trains of the Hogwarts Express. In our universe, however, Platform 9 ¾ is a godawful tourist trap in the main concourse of the station, adjacent to a Potter-branded gift shop that sells $100 Gryffindor cardigans and $500 wizard-themed chess sets.

Brazilians and Italians and Americans stand in line for hours to have their pictures taken pretending to push a luggage cart, decorated with a stuffed owl, through a brick wall. There is a guy who will repeatedly tell you, in his bored suburban London accent, that this is a “free attraction,” mirabile dictu. Then he will try to sell you a photograph for $15. There is a young woman who will hold up your souvenir Hogwarts scarf to make it look as if you are running. You are coached on two poses: Feet on the ground and leaping into the air with ersatz wizard joy. None of this is anywhere near Platform 9 or Platform 10. It would be bad form to complain that all attempts at verisimilitude and faithfulness have been abandoned, that an imaginative universe which delighted millions is here stripped down to a fourth-rate street hustle, or that the owl is a sad and crooked little nonentity, crafted from bent wire and fake feathers, that will break your heart if you regard it for more than a second.

I visited Platform 9 ¾ the week before last, in the company of a pair of 11-year-olds balanced between eagerness and skepticism, just before the Conservative Party rode the neoliberal agenda to an unlikely and unexpected victory in Britain’s national elections. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a connection between the two things: Crass and debased as it is, Platform 9 ¾ represents a half-baked social vision that can be construed, through the right beer goggles, as optimistic. Those tourists are having fun, or doggedly trying to, and spending money. The bored photographer from Croydon and the young woman with the scarf and the people in the shop selling “authentic” Lord Voldemort wands are making a living, more or less. Faced with very little clear alternative, a plurality of the divided British electorate decided to ride that inspiring vision of shared prosperity, at least for now.

As one Guardian columnist lamented once the scale of the debacle became clear, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party believed it could coast to victory – or at least take power as the leading partner in a patchwork governing coalition -- on a disgruntled and uneasy national tide, without ever clarifying what it stood for or how it envisioned the future. OK, Labour stood for some degree of retrenchment against the neoliberal reinvention of Britain under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and some degree of reinvestment in the extraordinary British welfare state created in the postwar years. But the vision was almost entirely negative: We’re not the Tories, with their overpriced City of London wine bars and their privatized everything and their Platform 9 ¾ economy. It proved to be a disastrous combination of arrogance and cowardice and obfuscation; despite drooping poll numbers, David Cameron won the Conservatives’ first outright majority since 1992, and became the first prime minister to improve on his original vote share in 100 years.

Most British people, I would speculate, understand that the current Tory blend of softcore English nationalism and wine-bar trickle-down economics – Thatcherism, with the overt meanness redacted – is basically a scam, just as the tourists from San Antonio and São Paulo queuing up at Platform 9 ¾ cannot avoid noticing that this experience is a bullshit bastardization of Rowling’s fantasy universe. I found the mood of forced good humor among the crowd at King’s Cross, the collective decision not to surrender to the tawdry, crushing disappointment of the place, profoundly depressing. (My kids wanted nothing to do with it, and I have never been prouder of them.)

Britain’s electoral mood, at least outside the affluent suburban greenbelt of southern England, which votes Tory for valid if dreadful reasons, was somewhat similar. The Tories’ 1-percenter scam policies, in which London’s exorbitantly expensive public transit is kept spotlessly clean and subsistence-wage service jobs are abundant, are understood to reflect reality, a construct meaning that we’re all on our own and everything is for sale. (As Margaret Thatcher famously observed in 1987, there is no such thing as society.) We live in a world where to expect anything not to be a predatory scam is to reveal oneself as fatally naïve.

Forget cultural critic Lionel Trilling’s long-ago highbrow dialectic between sincerity and authenticity; the idea that such qualities are possible as themselves, in some unalloyed state, has become ludicrous. They are of course available, in more or less convincing simulated form, with a price tag to match. Platform 9 ¾ is a “free attraction,” flung down from the neoliberal parapets by the smirking lords, who wouldn’t be caught dead going there and could hire the real Albus-fucking-Dumbledore for their kids’ birthday parties if they cared to. There’s no need to purchase the insanely overpriced Hogwarts swag, O you groveling peasants in your Banana Republic travel outfits, unless you’d like to prove you’re not losers. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, where we occasionally baptize honest-to-God royal babies and can assure you that the moldering carcasses of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edward the Confessor are 100 percent genuine? That grade of English-flavored realness does not come cheap.

I do understand something here: I understand that it’s absurd for an American to lecture the British about how much their venerable capital city has turned itself into Platform 9 ¾ fakery, Ye Olde London Towne on the River Thames, as big as life. It was an American who bought the decommissioned London Bridge and moved it to a resort town in Arizona, to be barfed from by spring breakers. We are the nation that perfected historical denial, the nation that invented the human soul and then sold it, the nation that memorializes its own destruction with instantly decaying shopping centers named after the geographical features they have replaced. As the soldier hero of Ben Fountain’s novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” – perhaps the best thing written about the Iraq War and its true costs – reflects to himself, American public life is a “nonstop sales job” that most of us don’t seem to mind and don’t quite notice, thanks to our “exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.”

But London’s extensive neoliberal reinvention has its own distinctive aura of cleanliness and totality that to my eyes exceeds even the Rudy Giuliani reprocessing of New York. This may reflect the strangely shifting currents of British political history. After World War II Britain went much further in the direction of class-based political action – and, let’s just say this, much closer to socialism – than America ever did or ever could. Then came the dramatic ideological U-turn of the Thatcher era, which represented a purer distillation of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman’s free-market ideas than anything Ronald Reagan ever enacted.

So the fractious and divided nation where Cameron’s Tories just engineered their surprise victory is a strange political amalgam, almost entirely dissimilar to our own. At least within England, the public has long since accepted the dominance of a powerful central government (Scottish and Welsh nationalism present their own problems, with no American cognate), and even Thatcher never directly proposed dismantling or privatizing the National Health Service and other pillars of the welfare state. But all those years under Thatcher and John Major and then the rebranded, capital-friendly “New Labour” of Tony Blair have framed that social safety net – which remains more extensive, frayed as it is, than anything Americans have ever had – as a support system for a plugged-in, globalized market economy based in finance and real estate.

London no longer seems “Americanized,” the way it did for a while in the ’80s and ’90s after the arrival of fast-food franchises, Nikes and hip-hop music. It mostly just seems monetized. In its allegiance to the pure, sleek power of money – understood as a bracing, non-ideological force, somewhat like an ab-shaping exercise routine or a double shot of espresso – it has left the crumbling metropolises of America behind. It would be conventional to suggest, right about now, that there are lessons for Americans to be found in Britain’s 2015 political paroxysm. That is no doubt true, but I suspect those lessons are not obvious or easily detected.

Republicans who see signs of hope for 2016 in the Tories’ big win are looking behind the wrong door – and, trust me, I do not say that in some spirit of partisan combat. Beyond the idol-worship of Winston Churchill, there are almost no similarities between today’s crazy-town Tea Party GOP and the contemporary money-fattened Conservative Party, which gives less than zero craps about abortion or gay marriage and is entirely devoid of Christian piety. (The only overtly religious figure in recent British political history was Tony Blair.)

Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush may yearn for smoochy photo-ops with Cameron in order to engage white America’s kneejerk Anglophilia, or because they swoon for his plummy Oxonian accent and long to meet his deep-pockets pals in the City of London. But if Cameron were American … well, it’s a useless thought experiment, because aristocratic, London-bred dudes like him – directly descended from the profoundly mediocre King William IV and distantly related to the current queen – are quintessentially not American. At any rate, Cameron is far too bland, far too internationalist and far too free of Jesus to be a viable Republican in any state south of New Hampshire, or in any era since about 1988.

He wouldn’t need to be a Republican at all. If you’re a loyal Democrat who’s “ready for Hillary,” please tell me where you can discern a dime’s worth of difference between Cameron and Hillary Clinton on any substantive political issues. Set aside Cameron’s need to appease the crotchety, anti-immigration Tory right and Clinton’s need to appease the populist, Elizabeth Warren Democratic left, and they represent exactly the same trans-Atlantic power structure of banks, spy agencies and multinational corporations sometimes called the “Washington consensus,” which at this point is just as much headquartered in London. Is she cooler than him, semiotically speaking, because of her gender and her supposed appeal to the white working class? Granted. When it comes to war, national security and boundless fealty to Israel, however, Clinton is likely to position herself a millimeter or two to Cameron’s right.

What we see in the Cameron victory and in Clinton’s possible or likely 2016 victory is not just the triumph of international capital and its emissaries (which is hardly surprising on its own) but the left’s inability to mount any meaningful counterattack or establish a powerful counter-narrative. Miliband’s ill-fated Labour leadership tiptoed back a step or two toward the party’s banished socialist heritage, but without quite saying so and without ever feeling sure that was a winning strategy. (Would it have been? I don’t know, and that’s not the point.) All they said, in effect, was that they were against the depressing bogosity of the Platform 9 ¾ economy, without ever making clear what they might like to build in its place. With no vision to challenge the core values of neoliberal economics, and that goes far beyond reformist nibbling, the electoral left in the Anglo-American zone is pretty much defunct.

A couple of days before our visit to Platform 9 ¾, my family happened upon another famous literary location, the stone steps that lead from London Bridge to the street below. Until recently there was a much-derided plaque at the foot of “Nancy’s Steps,” proclaiming that this was where the self-sacrificing streetwalker of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” is murdered by the villainous Bill Sykes. That’s what happens in the musical “Oliver!”, not in the book, which whoever was in charge of London historical markers evidently had not read (and did not consult). That plaque has been removed, but we found another one, a couple of miles south, that marked the spot of Jacob’s Island, an infamous riverfront slum in Dickens’ time and now the site of luxury loft developments. It informed us that Bill Sykes met his well-deserved end in the mud of nearby Folly Ditch, and that Fagin, the book's infamous criminal mastermind, had his den in a neighboring warehouse. None of that's true either.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir