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 or 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.
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“New York, New York (so good they named it twice).” But what about old York – so good they named it over and over again across the millennia? It was Everwic to the Normans, Jorvik to the Vikings, Eoforwic to the Angles, Eboracum to the Romans. But the Celts named it first: Eburakon, which means ‘the place of the yews’. Those long-lived, melancholy trees are ancient markers of the sacred – so perhaps York’s name hints at an even older, undocumented history.
One thing is for sure: the roots of York are sunk deep into English soil – deeper, indeed, than the idea of England itself. But perhaps such considerations don’t matter to you. Perhaps you’re a thorough-going rationalist who’d pick an alternative capital on the basis of population size or economic productivity or some other bean-counting consideration. But if that’s your game, why move the capital at all? On just about any conventional measure, London beats our other cities by an insurmountable margin.
Other nominations in this series are based on familiarity not rationality – a town or city where the author was born or has come to love. That’s admirable, but a capital city has to stand not just for one person but for everyone; not just for one lifetime but many lifetimes.
In this regard, York has experience. It already is, or used to be, a capital city. Most obviously, it’s the capital of Yorkshire – England’s biggest county and God’s Own Country. In medieval and early modern times, it was the seat of the Council of the North. Earlier, it was the greatest city of the Danelaw and the capital of the Jorvik kingdom. Earlier still, it was one of the Roman capitals of Britain – ‘Britannia’ being divided into two (or, at times, more) provinces. To this day, the Church of England is divided into two ecclesiastical provinces – Canterbury and York. Hence the grandeur of York Minister and the existence of England’s other Anglican Archbishop.
It has to be said that this history also exemplifies the long subordination of the North to the South. The Archbishop of York is junior to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Council of the North represented the King in London. The independence of the Danelaw was eventually extinguished, and the North harried by William the Conqueror. The Roman province that Eboracum was the capital of was called Britannia Inferior (and, later Britannia Secunda). Even in the 20th century, it was Whitehall practice to refer to the country beyond the South as “outer Britain”.
There can no better reason for choosing a new capital than to re-empower the North. Here are three scenarios in which it could happen:
1. To stop the UK from being completely dominated by London (assuming London doesn’t force the issue by breaking-away, Singapore style).
2. To establish an English parliament and an English national government equivalent to the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.
3. To establish a modern-day version of the Council of the North so that strategic decisions affecting the whole of the North of England can be made in and by the North of England.
In each scenario, York is the historically legitimate choice.
But the case for the city does not end in the past. Geographically, it is situated not only in the North, but at a strategic location linking the area’s two great urban clusters: the Trans-Pennine conurbation which runs from Liverpool to Leeds; and the Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside cities of the North East. Oh and don’t forget Hull and Humberside, directly to the East. The capacity for convection stretches further afield – down to the Midlands and East Anglia in one direction and up to Scotland in the other. York therefore has the potential to serve as a new and non-Londoncentric focal point for the United Kingdom.
York itself is not the biggest of cities. Though it has a history of manufacturing (most famously, chocolate), it was not one of the main centres of the industrial revolution. But that should be seen as an advantage. For a start, choosing York would mean not having to choose between England’s so-called core cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. The choice of York would avoid elevating one of these eight rivals over the others.
York also has room to grow. Not part of a wider conurbation, it’s a city with a proven record of success in overcoming deindustrialisation and building a prosperous modern economy. However, any expansion is artificially restricted by a greenbelt.
Understandably, residents want to avoid ugly, unsustainable, traffic-choked development. As unfashionable as greenbelts are today, they are what stopped the cities of the North from merging into a poorly-planned megacity (or London from swallowing up the whole of the South East). However, large scale development doesn’t have to be unsustainable. It doesn’t have to be wasteful of land or dependent on the car. It can be respectful of a city’s heritage and inspired by the character and materials of the local built environment. Development, if it draws upon the wisdom of tradition and the wonders of modern technology, can make places better not worse.
In the past we’ve been able to turn small cities into great cities – and it would be a terrible indictment of our own times if we felt we could no longer do so.
One way or another this country needs to house its growing population. It also needs to rebalance its economy – unlocking the full potential of the North instead of putting all our eggs into one basket (London). I’m not suggesting that it’s northern cities like York that should should build all the new houses. As a southerner (so southern I’m half-French), I wouldn’t dare.
There’s nothing wrong with York as it is now – it’s a lovely place. I fully support the right of its people to shape their own future, to be and become whatever they want to be – not least having control over a fair share of the country’s infrastructure investment funds.
York was built to be a great city, a home to leaders, a capital.
It should have the opportunity to choose greatness again.