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 are lots of reasons a country might need a new capital. Perhaps the old one has been split in two and surrounded by someone else’s territory, as Berlin was, in the Cold War days when little Bonn was the chief city of West Germany. Perhaps you have to make an impossible choice between two rivals who will both be furious if you pick the other – which I believe was the reasoning behind making Canberra capital of Australia. Maybe you just don’t want your enemies to be able to find it, the plausible excuse for Canada’s choice of Ottawa and Burma’s relocation of its government to Naypyidaw.
Or perhaps you fear the mob, as the USA’s founding fathers were said to have done when they shifted their capital from Philadelphia to a swamp on the Potomac, and equipped Washington DC with wide and sweeping avenues which could easily be swept clean of trouble by a whiff of grapeshot. Similar allegations have been made about Astana, the spooky, very spacious and wind-scoured city on the plains of Kazakhstan, safely out of reach of any sort of People Power revolt, because the People would take so long to get there.
But the reason for moving our national capital to Portsmouth would be more subtle. There are plenty of great cities in the United Kingdom that would serve as fine capitals – picturesque and ancient York, full of history; majestic Liverpool with its two cathedrals and its face turned towards the Atlantic; graceful Dunfermline with its ruins, towers and spires and its plentiful memories of kings. It even crossed my mind to suggest Swindon, perhaps the place I know that is most typical of modern England, and where I once spent three very educational formative years.
What's the point of central government?
But after some thought I have settled on battered, warlike Portsmouth with its constant reminder of our seaborne heritage, and its harsh and unpretty edges. In Portsmouth you cannot ever forget, even in the supposedly soft south, that plenty of British people have lives that are far from being easy or affluent. I have settled on it because I love that old and often ugly city in spite of itself, and because I don’t think I know anywhere more concentratedly British, in the way that we used to use the word before devolution got a grip on us.
It is also because our legislators and civil servants would be bound to behave and think differently (and better) if they found themselves in those surroundings. Perhaps foreign diplomats, too, might learn a thing or two about Britain that modern London could never teach them.
And above all there is the sea, ever present, never resting, with its great double tides constantly sweeping round the Isle of Wight. For the sea is the foundation of our constitution. Without it we would be just another piece of the continent. With it, we have had a thousand years of peace and safety in which to develop our unique laws, from Habeas Corpus and Magna Carta to the common law and jury trial, which are the real safeguards of our liberty.
And it is not just the sea, but our readiness to defend our control of it, and to fight those who would seek to attack us across it, that has preserved our freedom. Every day in Portsmouth you do not just see, hear, feel and smell the sea – sometimes glittering, more often sullen or angry. You also see the things that have made it a safeguard rather than a threat – the lovely warships that, in a long historical procession going back centuries have slipped out of the narrow harbour entrance to maintain our naval power.
Hardly anyone can see these majestic shapes and be either unmoved or uneducated by them. And in Portsmouth Dockyard sits one of the greatest monuments of our country, HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, one of the most concentrated sites of national history outside Westminster Abbey itself.
Ditch the City, enrich the nation
Here too are fortifications, power solidified (or in some cases folly solidified): Henry VIII’s Round Tower, and Palmerston’s ring of Victorian forts, indestructible to this day, crouched on Portsdown Hill above the town, and dotted along the coastline and in the sea itself. They were built at colossal expense to preserve the city from an imaginary French invasion, the Trident of their day.
It is still hard to walk far in the old heart of the city without being reminded of the merciless German bombing of 75 years ago, which killed so many and destroyed so much, and ought not to be forgotten entirely, ever.
But Portsmouth is not just guns and history. It is literature and education too. It is the birthplace of Charles Dickens and of that very different author, Olivia Manning. Jane Austen and Henry James did not like it, which is perhaps why I do. It was the scene of Rudyard Kipling’s dreadful boyhood and of H.G. Wells’s hated years as a draper’s assistant, experiences which spurred both men to great things. It was also where Sherlock Holmes first sprang into the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle, a newly-qualified doctor who invented the great detective as he waited in vain for patients to appear at his Portsmouth door.
Well, let us be technical: the door was in Southsea, Portsmouth’s more elevated twin sister, with its esplanades and piers, only minutes away from the seaport’s raucous pubs and tattoo parlours. Of course it is in Southsea that the politicians, civil servants and diplomats would inevitably fetch up – but proper, grubby, hard-edged Portsmouth would never be far away.
And it was where that great man John Pounds pioneered schools for the children of the poor – a task that has gone into reverse a bit in recent years and needs some new impetus. More people should have heard of him.
Yes, let them go there.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday