From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us
-16th Century beggars’ prayer.
Last week The Economist recommended that the government cease trying to revive declining northern towns and leave them to die. The main example of such a town, where further intervention was deemed to be useless, was Hull, but the magazine also mentioned a number of others, including Burnley. The Economist is the magazine of capitalist economic orthodoxy in this country. Its stance is consistently Neo-Liberal, and the policies it has always demanded are those of welfare cuts and the privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down. It has loudly supported the IMF’s recommendations of these policies to the developing world. Some left-wing magazines and organisation like Lobster have pointed out that the IMF’s policies effectively constitute American economic imperialism, citing the IMF’s proposals to several South and Meso-American nations. These were not only told to privatise their countries’ state assets, but to sell them to American multinationals so that they could be more efficiently managed.
The Economist’s advice that economically hit northern towns should be ‘closed down’ also reflects the almost exclusive concentration of the metropolitan establishment class on London and south-east, and their complete disinterest and indeed active hostility to everything beyond Birmingham. This possibly excludes the Scots Highlands, where they can go grouse shooting. It was revealed a little while ago that back in the 1980s one of Thatcher’s cabinet – I forgotten which one – recommended a similar policy towards Liverpool. Recent economic analyses have shown that London and the south-east have become increasingly prosperous, and have a higher quality of life, while that of the North has significantly declined. The London Olympics saw several extensive and prestigious construction projects set up in the Docklands area of London, intended both to build the infrastructure needed for the Olympics and promote the capital to the rest of the world. It’s also been predicted that the high-speed rail link proposed by the Coalition would not benefit Britain’s other cities, but would lead to their further decline as jobs and capital went to London. A report today estimated that 50 cities and regions, including Bristol, Cardiff, Aberdeen and Cambridge would £200 million + through the rail link. The Economist’s article also demonstrates the political class’ comprehensive lack of interest in manufacturing. From Mrs Thatcher onwards, successive administrations have favoured the financial sector, centred on the City of London. Lobster has run several articles over the years showing how the financial sector’s prosperity was bought at the expense of manufacturing industry. Despite claims that banking and financial industry would take over from manufacturing as the largest employer, and boost the British economy, this has not occurred. The manufacturing has indeed contracted, but still employs far more than banking, insurance and the rest of the financial sector. The financial sector, however, as we’ve seen, has enjoyed massively exorbitant profits. The Economist claims to represent the interests and attitudes of the financial class, and so its attitude tellingly reveals the neglectful and contemptuous attitude of the metropolitan financial elite towards the troubled economic conditions of industrial towns outside the capital.
Coupled with this is a condescending attitude that sees London exclusively as the centre of English arts and culture, while the provinces, particularly the North, represent its complete lack. They’re either full of clod-hopping yokels, or unwashed plebs from the factories. Several prominent Right-wingers have also made sneering or dismissive comments about the North and its fate. The art critic and contrarian, Brian Sewell, commented a few years ago that ‘all those dreadful Northern mill towns ought to be demolished’. Transatlantic Conservatism has also felt the need to adopt a defensive attitude towards such comments. The American Conservative, Mark Steyn, on his website declared that criticism of London was simply anti-London bias, but didn’t tell you why people were so critical of the metropolis or its fortunes. This situation isn’t new. At several times British history, London’s rising prosperity was marked by decline and poverty in the rest of the country. In the 17th century there was a recession, with many English ports suffering a sharp economic decline as London expanded to take 75 per cent of the country’s trade. The regional ports managed to survive by concentrating on local, coastal trade rather than international commerce, until trade revived later in the century.
It’s also unfair on the North and its cultural achievements. The North rightfully has a reputation for the excellence of its museum collections. The region’s museums tended to be founded by philanthropic and civic-minded industrialists, keen to show their public spirit and their interest in promoting culture. I can remember hearing from the director of one of the museum’s here in Bristol two decades ago in the 1990s how he was shocked by the state of the City’s museum when he came down here from one of the northern towns. It wasn’t of the same standard he was used to back home. What made this all the more surprising was that Bristol had a reputation for having a very good museum. Now I like Bristol Museum, and have always been fascinated by its collections and displays, including, naturally, those on archaeology. My point here isn’t to denigrate Bristol, but simply show just how high a standard there was in those of the industrial north. Liverpool City Museum and art gallery in particular has a very high reputation. In fact, Liverpool is a case in point in showing the very high standard of provincial culture in the 19th century, and its importance to Britain’s economic, technological and imperial dominance. Liverpool was a major centre in scientific advance and experiment through its philosophical and literary society, and its magazine. This tends to be forgotten, overshadowed as it has been by the city’s terrible decline in the 20th century and its setting for shows dealing with working-class hardship like Boys from the Black Stuff and the comedy, Bread. Nevertheless, its cultural achievements are real, quite apart from modern pop sensations like the Beatles, Cilla Black, Macca and comedians like Jimmy Tarbuck. The town also launched thousands of young engineers and inventors with the Meccano construction sets, while Hornby railways delighted model railway enthusiasts up and down the length of Britain. These two toys have been celebrated in a series of programmes exploring local history, like Coast. Hornby, the inventor of both Meccano and the model railway that bore his name, was duly celebrated by the science broadcaster, Adam Hart-Davis, as one of his Local Heroes.
And Liverpool is certainly not the only city north of London with a proud history. Think of Manchester. This was one of Britain’s major industrial centres, and the original hometown of the Guardian, before it moved to London. It was a major centre of the political debates and controversies that raged during the 19th century, with the Guardian under Feargus O’Connor the major voice of working class radicalism. It was in industrial towns like Manchester that working class culture emerged. Books like The Civilisation of the Crowd show how mass popular culture arose and developed in the 19th century, as people from working-class communities attempted to educate themselves and enjoy music. They formed choirs and brass bands. Working men, who worked long hours used their few spare hours to copy sheet music to sing or play with their fellows. The various mechanics institutes up and down the country were institutions, in which the working class attempted to educate itself and where contemporary issues were discussed. It’s an aspect of industrial, working class culture that needs to be remembered and celebrated, and which does show how strong and vibrant local culture could be in industrial towns outside London.
Back in the 1990s the magazine, Anxiety Culture, suggested a way of breaking this exclusive concentration on London and the interests of the metropolitan elite to the neglect of those in the provinces. This magazine was a small press publication, with a minuscule circulation, which mixed social and political criticism with Forteana and the esoteric, by which I mean alternative spirituality, like Gnosticism, rather than anything Tory prudes think should be banned from the internet, but don’t know quite what. In one of their articles they noted that when a politician said that ‘we should think the unthinkable’, they meant doing more of what they were already doing: cutting down on welfare benefits and hitting the poor. They recommended instead the adoption of a truly radical policy:
Move parliament out of London.
They listed a number of reasons for such a genuinely radical move. Firstly, it’s only been since the 18th century that parliament has been permanently fixed in London. Before then it often sat where the king was at the time. At various points in history it was at Winchester near the Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings’ treasury. It was in York during Edward I’s campaign against the Scots. In short, while parliament has mostly been resident in London, it hasn’t always been there, and so there is no absolutely compelling reason why it should remain so.
Secondly, London’s expensive. The sheer expensive of living in the capital was always so great that civil servants’ pay including ‘London weighting’ to bring it up to the amount they’d really need to live on in the capital, which was always higher than in the rest of the country. The same was true for other workers and employees. As we’ve seen, these inequalities are growing even more massive under the Tories, and there is talk of a demographic cleansing as poorer families are forced to move out of some of the most expensive boroughs in the capital. MPs and the very rich may now afford to live in luxury accommodation in the metropolis, but I wonder how long it will be before the capital’s infrastructure breaks down because so many of its workers simply cannot afford to live there. The government has declared that it is keen on cutting expenses, and public sector employees’ salaries have been particularly hard hit. The government could therefore solve a lot of its problems – such as those of expense, and the cost in time and money of negotiating the heavy London traffic – by relocating elsewhere.
Birmingham would be an excellent place to start. This has most of what London has to offer, including excellent universities and entertainment centres, such as the NEC, but would be much cheaper. Or York. During the Middle Ages, this was England’s Second City. It’s an historic town, with a history going back to the Romans. The excavations at Coppergate made York one of the major British sites for the archaeology of the Vikings. It also has an excellent university. One could also recommend Durham. When I was growing up in the 1980s, Durham University was considered the third best in the country, following Oxbridge. Manchester too would be an outstanding site for parliament. Apart from its historic associations with working class politics, it has also been a major centre of British scientific research and innovation. Fred Hoyle, the astronomer and maverick cosmologist, came from that fair city. While he was persistently wrong in supporting the steady-state theory against the Big Bang, he was one of Britain’s major astronomers and physicists, and Manchester University does have a very strong tradition of scientific research and innovation. British politicians are also keen to show that they are now tolerant with an inclusive attitude towards gays. Manchester’s Canal Street is one of the main centres of gay nightlife. If parliament really wanted to show how tolerant it was of those in same-sex relationship, it would make sense for it to move to Manchester.
Furthermore, relocating parliament to the north should have the effect of reinvigorating some of these cities and the north generally. The influx of civil servants and highly paid officials and ministers would stimulate the local economy. It would also break the myopic assumption that there is nothing of any value outside London. If the government and its servants continued to feel the same way, then they would have the option of actually passing reforms to improve their new homes by providing better road and rail links, improving local education, building or better funding theatres, orchestras and opera companies, investing in local businesses to support both the governmental infrastructure, but also to provide suitable work for themselves and their children, when they retire from the Civil Service. In short, moving parliament out of London to the midlands or the North would massively regenerate those part of England.
It won’t happen, because the current financial, political and business elite are very much tied to the metropolis as the absolute centre of English life and culture. They won’t want to leave its theatres, art galleries and museums, or move away from nearby sporting venues, like Ascot. They would find the idea of moving out of London absolutely unthinkable. But perhaps, as Anxiety Culture suggested twenty years ago, it is time that these ideas were thought, rather than the banal and all-too often ruminated policies of cutting benefits and penalising the poor.