The United Kingdom is one of the most centralised nations in the developed world. Our politics, economy, culture, media and tourism are overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital, London. As a result, the rest of the nation is overlooked – on the global stage, and by our own elites. But what if we did something radical? What if we followed the example of Myanmar, Kazakhstan or, most recently, Indonesia, and relocated our capital? We asked various contributors to cast their eyes over the vast swathes of the UK that feel worlds apart from London – and nominate a city to capitalise.
There’s an old joke about England’s cities. Ask a Brummie which is the second city of England and they’ll say, without hesitation: Birmingham. Ask a Mancunian, and just as quickly, they’ll say: London. Whatever other problems it may have had down the years, Manchester has never been short of civic pride.
I am not a Mancunian. I’ve never lived there and have no connection with the place beyond admiration and a vague sense of excitement, every time I visit, that it has trams. Nonetheless, I have no hesitation in arguing that if Britain were ever to move its capital, Manchester is where it should go.
The arguments for moving the capital have become more familiar, as the idea has moved from unthinkable to merely very unlikely; but they’re worth laying out again, if only to show how Manchester might help us address them.
At the moment, the vast majority of power in Britain – political, cultural, financial – resides within a couple miles of Nelson’s Column. The result has been a sharp divide between London and the rest, with the Westminster bubble treating much of the country as a strange foreign land. It’s meant a lop-sided economy, in which wages, productivity and house prices in the over-heated south east have soared into the stratosphere, while those in the rest of the country have fallen behind: average wages are more than a third higher in the south east of England than they are in the north west, and while the area around London ranks as one of the wealthiest in Europe, productivity in much of the north is now on a par with the former communist parts of eastern Germany.
And it has fuelled policy choices that have made this divergence worse: witness the way London always seems to have two or three major new transport schemes on the go, even as the North awaits electrification or new trains that are not, quite literally, buses on rails.
Luckily, there’s one thing the government can do to break up London’s stranglehold on British life: move itself. Shifting the government to another city wouldn’t just mean shifting 650 MPs and their staffs, but vast numbers of civil servants, journalists, lobbyists and other groups that cluster near political power. That’s the sort of GDP that could offer a major boost to a regional city – but which London, with its finance and film and tech industries, could lose without skipping a beat.
So why Manchester? One of the most compelling arguments in favour of shifting the government there isn’t about Manchester per se, but about the region around it. The city is slap bang in the middle of the urban North, with Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and umpteen smaller cities all lying within a radius of about 40 miles (roughly the length, as it happens, of London’s Central line). Backed up by the right infrastructure investment, an intervention in Manchester – unlike any other city – could boost the economy right across this region.
Such infrastructure investment has not, of late, been forthcoming. But this is the second argument for moving the capital to Manchester. Historically, the government and its civil service have found it rather easier to grasp the case for, say, London’s £15bn Crossrail service than it has for improved regional bus services or a functioning Trans Pennine Express. Once they found themselves commuting from Stockport or Huddersfield, though, their investment priorities are likely to magically shift.
All this was the central insight of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse policy: that there are 10m people in the overlapping conurbations of the M62 corridor, and that if you can fix the economy of those cities, you’ve gone a long way to solving Britain’s productivity puzzle. The policy never worked, because it never really happened – but the theory remains sound, and moving the government to Manchester would finally make it a reality.
There’s another, more philosophical argument for making Manchester the capital. The history we’re taught at school, and through the choices of TV commissioners, is that of the kings and queens and prime ministers. The fact our politics is conducted in the Palace of Westminster, with all the pomp and ritual that comes with it, reinforces the sense of continuity with all that: it suggests that government is something that other people do to you.
But there are other histories, which aren’t as widely taught, yet which cast our national story in a very different light. The radical history of the fight for democracy. The economic history of the industrial revolution, and the social history of those whose lives were transformed by it. Manchester was not only the site of these histories, but was created by them. The first city of the industrial revolution, its physical form was created by the needs of the cotton trade; its politics by the fight for parliamentary reform and the backlash in the form of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.
If London is the home of the British establishment, then Manchester is the heart of Britain’s radical history. It’s the perfect place to reconnect our politics with those other stories – the ones that say government is about us, not them.
Moving the capital would not magically erase the economic and social divides that run down this country like a canyon (you’d think, if things were that simple, we would have at least talked about it). But it could separate the political establishment from the financial one, making the latter less likely to influence the former merely by virtue of being at the same dinner parties.
Manchester, as its self-image suggests, already has all the ingredients to be major global city. It wouldn’t be one of those “…what?” capitals like Brasilia, Canberra or Bonn. It has one of the finest cultural offerings this country can offer – an abundance of fine Victorian architecture and top-ranked universities; places such as the Whitworth Gallery and Royal Exchange Theatre – and its music scene and football teams are world famous. It could be Washington to London’s New York, spreading the wealth and the power, and giving this country two major world cities rather than one so over-heated it’s in danger of spontaneous combustion. And it’s right in the middle of the country, next to a major international airport.
The old joke is right: England’s second city really should be London.