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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Today, Liverpool is in the papers for the right reasons. Liverpool FC’s long awaited victory in the Champions League doesn’t just feel like a triumph on the pitch – it’s a validation of Jürgen Klopp’s inclusive, hard-working and always-improving culture; it’s a celebration of a football team that reflects the best parts of the city that (give or take a few Everton fans) loves them.
This victory and the efforts leading up to it reinforce my belief in Liverpool. It makes me all the more convinced that it’s where the future of the nation could and should lie. But I’m also aware that, in spite of today’s headlines, if you want to understand Liverpool’s appeal, you have to slough off a long history of bad press. As long ago as 1849, Herman Melville was complaining: “Of all sea-ports in the world, Liverpool, perhaps, most abounds in all the variety of land-sharks, land-rats, and other vermin, which make the hapless mariner their prey.”
And then, towards the end of the twentieth century, people really began to stick the boot in. The city endured long stagnation and then a sharp descent into the mass unemployment and deprivation of the 1980s, the Toxteth riots and the infamous Derek Hatton years – when the Militant tendency took control of Liverpool City Council.
Liverpool became a byword for urban decline, bad planning, and hatefully ugly modern architecture. It was the butt of endless bad jokes about moustaches, tracksuits, accents and thieving. A few good jokes too. Bill Bryson took a train to Liverpool in Notes from a Small Island. “They were having a litter festival when I arrived,” he wrote:
“Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes, and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape.”
You get the gist. I’m as guilty as anyone for making people think ill of Liverpool. The city made the top 10 of Crap Towns, a book about the worst places to live in the UK, which I edited in 2003. Back then, when I was canvassing opinion, hundreds wrote in to complain about the city and the rut it was in. They were especially frustrated because the city had fallen so far.
My correspondents pointed out how fantastic Liverpool could still be, with its rich culture, with its history of innovation and rebellion, with its astonishing architecture (to give just one illustration: it has more Georgian buildings than any other UK city except Bath). “I think it has the potential to be a visionary city,” said one contributor – if only someone would come along to help it fulfil its potential.
Fortunately, the people of Liverpool did just that. There was its triumphant year as European Capital of Culture in 2008 – when it was proved that Liverpool could not only compete with the best of them when it came to inspiration and artistic flair, but that hundreds of thousands of people would flock to its world-beating museums, galleries and music venues.
Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of pounds began to pour into Liverpool from the EU. Buildings around the historic waterfront and throughout the city have been brushed up, restored and saved for future generations, public spaces have been fitted out with fountains, trees and seating, the public transport infrastructure has been radically improved, there are new cruise liner terminals, and thousands of skill-building projects have been initiated around the city. Its magnificent centre looks cleaner and brighter than at any point in its history.
And it doesn’t just look better, it feels better. When I was growing up in Lancashire in the 1990s, I was frightened of Liverpool. It was the big bad neighbouring city. The place where my 80-year-old relative got mugged, where people were scared to leave their cars in case their radios got stolen, of wailing sirens and a low constant throb of trouble. When I visited, I barely noticed how impressive so many of its buildings were, because I was too busy keeping my head down, concentrating on getting to where I was going unscathed.
Now it feels like one of the most walkable and welcoming cities on earth. The change has been psychological as much as architectural, a British version of the renaissance in New York after it cleaned up its act. Which feels right. The cities have always been closely tied – and look so similar that Liverpool often doubles as the Big Apple in Hollywood films. When you visit Liverpool nowadays, you also get that same stiff neck from staring up at so many imposing buildings as you do in Manhattan. The same realisation that you’ve just been walking around saying “wow” when you probably should be getting somewhere.
It’s been quite the turnaround – so just imagine how much more Liverpool could achieve if it were made into the UK capital. That feels like justification enough for making the move. There’s a strong moral case for continuing to undo the years of neglect that have still left large parts of the city poverty-stricken and underpopulated. There’s a similar case to be made for having a capital in the North, bringing improved transport infrastructure, investment and political awareness to a region so criminally neglected by Westminster.
But there’s an even stronger practical case for shifting the political centre of the UK to Liverpool. Liverpool still has thousands of empty houses – not to mention countless commercial properties and vast acres of office space. They could comfortably and stylishly accommodate Parliament and all its attendant personnel. Those people would find themselves in a city that already looks like an international capital, that has top class universities, excellent schools, and world-class art galleries and museums.
They’d also be somewhere fun. Somewhere that now has a thriving cultural scene, exemplary food and drink, and that has always had the kind of nightlife that inspires local kids to form bands and conquer the world.
Somewhere that is putting the problems of the past behind it and has earned a better future. If you don’t believe me, go there.