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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Like a badly loaded barge, national life is made lopsided by London’s dominance. It affects the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; everything that matters seems to happen in London, an illusion fostered by the overwhelming concentration of the national and international media in the city. Despite the well-meaning attempts of that same media sometimes to include ‘the provinces’ in their output (how often, for instance, in the current Brexit debate have you heard a ‘vox pop’ illustrating Leave sentiment from some neglected quarter?), the end result often reeks of metropolitan condescension.
Britain has, to coin a new meaning for the word, a very severe case of ‘Capitalism’: a complaint which magnifies London’s importance whilst diminishing everywhere else. It would be a salutary corrective if some other city were given the chance to shine, and I have just the place in mind.
An Oxford-educated Scotsman I once knew sneeringly dubbed Bristol ‘the Birmingham of the West’ after I had confided my affection for the place. Unwittingly perhaps, he had doubly offended me, for I have lived in both Bristol and Birmingham and found much to admire in each of them. But I do think that in one sense at least, he spoke a truth. For Bristol is – like Brum – a hard-working, feet-on-the-ground sort of place which goes about its business without too much fuss. But which, as a result, consistently punches below its weight.
Unlike say Liverpool or Newcastle, Bristol lacks definition in the national imagination. This is partly to do, I think, with the national obsession with football. Though Bristol has in Rovers and City two well-established sides, they both haunt the lower divisions and have never thrived in the modern era. And this matters in terms of national visibility. Imagine Liverpool or Manchester without their football clubs: each would be much-reduced and would count for less on the national stage. And yet Bristol is, by many other measures, a much more successful city than any of its northern sisters. Economically, at least, Bristol puts its rivals in the shade.
The Bristol city-region (which includes three other councils – North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bath, and North East Somerset) has, by far, the highest productivity of any big conurbation outside London. Household incomes are correspondingly the highest outside the capital. On a measure commonly used by economists – gross value added – Bristol comes top of the so-called ‘core cities’ league. What all this adds up to is a thriving regional economy based on an enviable mix of industries.
Bristol’s long and successful tradition in aerospace (Concorde first flew from the runway at Filton, in the North of the city) showcases its precision-engineering prowess, but the city also has a thriving financial services sector and a growing reputation in the creative industries: it is home to Aardman Animations – the creators of Wallace and Grommet – and that success has initiated a cluster-effect. There’s a real buzz down in the imaginatively restored city docklands, which have come back to life in recent decades and where many of these creatives work.
But the case for Bristol does not rest on the grey substrate of economics alone. There is also its matchless topography – the sheer beauty of the place. If on a sunny day you walk from the centre of Clifton – along, say, Royal York Crescent (the longest symmetrical crescent in Europe) – up through Clifton village to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge, there is delight at every corner. The views across the city, the solid dignity of the buildings and the swooping grandeur of the Avon Gorge lift the heart.
The gorge is a natural wonder and very few cities can boast such a wild treasure in their midst. Amongst British cities only Edinburgh, with Arthur’s seat rising gaunt and untrammelled, can really compete. A few months ago I took that very walk, extending it down through the dense woods that cloak the steep sides of the gorge, and was reminded just how special a place this is.
Since 1952, the gorge has been designated as a site of special scientific interest and it enjoys a unique micro-climate, which makes it home to an unusual variety of plants and animals. In its sheltered crannies, botanical rarities with wonderful names like Spiked Speedwell, Autumn Squill, Honewort and Bristol Rock Cress thrive whilst Peregrine Falcons soar in the air above.
As you descend to the muddy waters of the Avon and approach the old heart of Bristol’s port, there are reminders everywhere of the city’s nautical heritage. For Bristol has played a central role in Britain’s long history of exploration and naval endeavour. It was from here in 1497 that the Italian navigator and adventurer John Cabot set sail under warrant from Henry VII and, in a remarkable feat of seamanship, sailed with 20 crew in the 50 ton Matthew right across the Atlantic, making landfall probably in Newfoundland.
The sea and the trade it carried have long been at the heart of Bristol’s prosperity. In the mid-eighteenth century Bristol was the centre of the slave trade and grew rich on the profits of that cruel commerce. Correct modern sensibilities deplore the fact of the trade and in Bristol, as elsewhere, attempts are underway to expiate the sins of our fathers in a flurry of fatuous gestures. For instance The Colston Hall is being renamed, because the merchant Edward Colston was involved in the trade.
However, Colston’s case illustrates the absurdities of airbrushing history in this way: for he was also a great philanthropist who devoted part of his wealth towards – among other things – educating girls in the city. History tends to be more complicated than the protagonists in this debate allow. But as Louise Mitchell, the chief executive of the Colston Hall, so tellingly puts it:
“It’s very important to us as a progressive forward-looking arts organisation, that we include everybody and people felt uncomfortable entering the building because of the perception that it had in some way profited from the slave trade.”
As it happens the Colston Hall was actually named after the street in which it stands – Colston Street – but mere facts count for little in such overheated controversies.
Given that Bristol also profited greatly from tobacco (the Wills family – great benefactors to the university – made their money from the deadly weed) it might seem that its historic prosperity is mainly rooted in trades now deemed dubious. But that should not be allowed to cloud the issue. Bristol’s long and illustrious history as an entrepot is woven into the wider history of the nation.
Though fashionable opinion may now deplore some historic aspects of the city’s commercial vigour, there is no denying that it exemplifies a particular kind of English entrepreneurial-ism that makes it well-suited to be a new capital city. The phrase ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion’ supposedly derives from the particular robustness that sailing ships needed to withstand the rise and fall of the Avon’s tide; I can think of no phrase that better sums up the qualities our new capital would need.