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 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.
Carlisle could stand as proud as any in an audition for the privilege of being the nation’s capital. It played a vital role in the health and wealth of the nation long before some of our more illustrious counterparts were any more than a glint in the Industrial Revolution’s eye. An ancient settlement that later became the largest Roman camp on the Wall, my home city is no stranger to prominence in the socio-political drama of these islands.
Indeed, Carlisle has due heritage: Parliament has been held here before, on at least two occasions. The Great Seal of state was held at Lanercost Priory while Edward I journeyed north to pick a fight with the Scots; alas he could not finish the job, perishing on the windy marshes to the west of Carlisle, giving the city the honour of hosting the coronation of Edward II.
Of course, Edward was here for the same reason as generations before him, and generations after: Carlisle played a key strategic role in the affairs of the entire North. William Rufus seized the city in 1092 to finally extend his father’s Conquest to the north-North. He built a castle on the ancient Roman fort, which was later to become the residence of King David I of the Scots (“Prince of the Cumbrians”), who chose Carlisle as his favoured residence, passing away in the private chapel of the Keep in 1153.
Of course, if you’re Cumbrian, then you’re Cumbrian, and thus slightly different from just English, or Scottish, or even Welsh, but containing hearty dollops of all three (and Irish too – but more of that later). Geographically and historically, Carlisle was part of a Celtic kingdom locked in a tug of war between later Scottish and English overlords. Carlisle’s two dragons on its coat of arms references its Brythonic roots, and wander the Cumbrian countryside map in hand and you’ll soon find more than just the odd clue to its Welsh heritage in its place names and dialect.
Throw in William Wallace (‘wylisc’), a Strathclyder (so Welsh really), and the buried bones of Robert de Brus, father of… yes, you guessed it, and finish off with the centuries old tug of war over Carlisle – at one moment part of Scotland, at another part of England – and Carlisle begins to show itself as a particularly lively theatre of British cosmopolitanism.
It doesn’t stop there. We’re also claiming St Patrick, Old King Cole (Coel Hen – enriching childhoods with memorable ditties from time immemorial), as well as the setting to any firm history that does exist around King Arthur (this is not even controversial), all of whom if not directly from Carlisle are certainly from its hinterland. St Cuthbert visited Carlisle regularly – it had been granted to the diocese of Lindisfarne by Ecgfrith – and St Ninian set out from Carlisle to convert the Picts, while St Mungo – whose legend still shapes the arms of the city of Glasgow – was a Stratchclyder who more than left his mark on field and marsh around Carlisle.
Indeed, one might even make a case that the first steps of the inexorable journey toward a unified Isles took place not far from Carlisle, as Athelstan sought to bring to heel the Northumbrians, the Welsh, the Scots and the Vikings in a little village of henge and earthwork, called Eamont, just outside Penrith.
Carlisle has earned its place at the top table in the gathering places of these lands. Of course, the historical may not convince everyone, so for the doubters let us turn to the practical. Geographically, Carlisle sits at the very nexus of the Isles – it is more or less equidistant between our northernmost reaches and the south coast, a gateway city straddling the old roads north to Glasgow, north-east to Edinburgh, the Wall road east to Newcastle, West to the coalfields and old ports (and nuclear plant) of Maryport and Workington and Whitehaven, and of course south down the ancient A6 to what we might call Down There.
And remember that Carlisle is the biggest city in England – though admittedly 98% of its land use is rural (most certainly an upgrade from the cramped living of central London). Add to that Carlisle’s long and historic status as a nationally important hub for rail and freight – at one point with a seven rail companies serving its station, second only to London – as well as its long established cultural and historical links with Ireland through constant waves of immigration and trade (Cleator Moor, on the west coast of the county, is affectionately known as “Little Ireland”), and you come to realise that Cumbria has been a lynchpin of UK culture and cohesion for centuries.
Ah, I hear you cry, but could you accommodate the refined tastes of the metropolitan classes that would no doubt descend on Carlisle should we be raised to just prominence? Well, we had the first ever pillar box, we are the home of McVities and make more custard creams than you thought imaginable (that’s the meetings sorted).
Carlisle is also the home of Linton Tweeds, suppliers to Chanel, thus satiating the sartorital demands of the sophisticariat, while we also have the two oldest prizes in horse racing, dating to the 16th century, horses being a key export and cultural signifier of these lands for nigh on 2,000 years. Walter Scott was married here while William Paley – scourge of every A-level philosophy student, and Richard Dawkins – was archdeacon and is buried here, at our cathedral.
One struggles to imagine what more any soul could need.
There is a serious point to be made too. If there is any case to be made for moving the capital, however temporarily, then it is to break the monopolistic dominance of London on the political and cultural capital of the UK, to renew the democratic covenant with those beyond the M25. Illustrious rivals – Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool – might all have a strong claim for a relocated Parliament, though the politically disruptive pulses flowing through society now are more parochial than that. It is the steely cries of our neglected towns, our isolated regions, our down-at-heel coastal areas, our struggling countryside that is ripping up the status quo. Decamping to another metropolis, particularly a place with a broadly similar sociocultural outlook, would do little more than replicate the problem.
In this sense, Cumbria provides a unique microcosm for those who would seek it out – the post-industrial decline, the struggling coastal areas, the decimation of rural services, the creaking infrastructure. What better place to stand as proxy for a debate we really need to have?
There will be significant downsides of course, and it would take great sacrifice on our part, though I’m sure we would be willing to do so, for the national interest. The increased traffic, the extra noise, the pollution, the jump in house prices, the gentrification, the hipster cereal shops…
On second thoughts, maybe Jon Elledge had a point. Maybe keep it down south after all. Why not try Manchester instead?