IF THE LAST TWO YEARS have proved anything, it’s Britain’s unwillingness for introspection. Many among the millions who voted to condemn the country to the scrapheap in last June’s referendum did so because they erroneously – but sincerely – believed that most of our problems could be solved by ending our membership of the European Union.
However, as many high-profile politicians have agreed, they are more often problems of our own making. In an article written for The Daily Telegraph during the halcyon year of 2013, none other than then Mayor of London Boris Johnson blamed ‘chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure’ for Britain’s ailments, noting that ‘most of our problems are not caused by “Bwussels”‘. It’s difficult to disagree with him, but one wonders why Boris failed to come up with any solutions, particularly when the answer was apparently ‘nothing to do with the EU.’
Labour and the Conservatives offered their own answers during June’s general election. To my mind, they both came up short, producing policy after policy rooted in nostalgia. For both parties it is easy to pinpoint a moment of ideological deviation – usually committed by the other team – that steered Britain in an apparently catastrophic direction. Labour and the Conservatives both yearn for that prelapsarian age of nationalised rail or abundant grammar schools, before their opponents got their grubby hands on government and spoiled everything. What this means is that the manifestos offered to us by both major parties were more reactionary than revolutionary: instead of looking to the challenges of modern Britain, they took most of their cues from the 1970 – or earlier.
It has usually fallen to the Liberal Democrats to offer something different. Chiefly because it’s been so long since a Liberal government was in power, there are few powerful, nostalgic symbols on which their manifesto can draw. As a result, the Lib Dems have typically been bolder and more imaginative than their opponents. Only rarely, however, have they succeeded in offering something truly radical. Electoral reform, though undoubtedly transformative, has become such a mainstay on the Liberal manifesto, so as to become passé, so to really stand out, the Lib Dems need to offer something big, bold, unique, and removed from ideological constraints.
Radical centrism should represent a pragmatic alternative to the policy-by-nostalgia of the Conservatives and Labour.
Nick Clegg once called the Liberal Democrats the party of the radical centre. It’s not quite clear what he meant by that: there hasn’t been much in the way of truly radical thinking from the Lib Dems for some time. Indeed, some people – who view centrism as a milky, split-the-difference, moral equivalency, nothing ideology – might see ‘radical centrism’ as something of a misnomer. I, however, have always thought of radical centrism as something the Lib Dems ought to proudly embrace. It should represent a pragmatic alternative to the policy-by-nostalgia of the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party that really gets to grips with Britain’s worsening problems.
More importantly, it should stand out, and become something with which the Lib Dems can be identified, as nationalisation is to Labour, and grammar schools to the Tories. But how can it do so? What would a truly radical, twenty first-century policy look like?
Earlier this year, The Economist put forward the pragmatic case for moving Britain’s capital to Manchester. The reason is obvious: The United Kingdom suffers from some of the worst regional economic disparity in Europe. Indeed, outside of London and the Southeast, most British regions are poorer than the EU average. One of the reasons for this – and this is something on which most economists agree – is that Britain has too few major cities. The country’s economic, political, and cultural life revolves around London, at the expense of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and so on. This has had a harmful effect on national politics, too: the rise of nativism and right-wing populism, and the success of the Brexit vote in many respects represent a backlash against an incestuous Westminster elite that has been characterised as out of touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary’ people across the country. Scottish nationalists are also quick to point out the vast distance between London and Edinburgh as a motive for secession.
What more radical solution is there than to shift Britain’s centre of gravity away from the Southeast, and what better time to do so than when the Palace of Westminster is in such dire need of wholesale renovation?
Manchester, The Economist contends, is the obvious choice. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Manchester’s physical links to Britain’s major cities, and even Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are much closer than London’s. Moving the capital to Manchester would shift the centre of political life decisively away from London and towards the parts of the country most alienated by Westminster. Furthermore, the city is far enough from the capital to encourage MPs, businesses, investors, and government departments to relocate to the city; Birmingham, for instance, would tempt too many people to simply commute from London.
Secondly, there is an abundance of underutilised and derelict industrial-era structures that could be co-opted for government departments and public buildings, with the massive Manchester Central Convention Complex – already a favourite haunt of party conferences – an ideal candidate for the new Houses of Parliament. The Palace of Westminster and Downing Street are widely considered to be cramped, old-fashioned, and no longer fit for purpose. The convention centre would be able to comfortably house all 650 MPs and 800+ Lords, something our current legislature is unable to support. Further buildings could easily be found for government departments, and the sale of existing properties in London would finance the move.
Manchester would bring with it a sense of renewal and modernity that medieval London sorely lacks.
Thirdly, the city has already benefited from significant regeneration, and as a result has better public transport and rail links than much of the rest of the North and the Midlands. This means it is uniquely placed among British cities (other than London) to attract many thousands more inhabitants, commuters, businesses and politicians; the relocated capital would surely encourage major infrastructure investment across the rest of the North. With Britain’s political elite relocated to Manchester, the long-overdue rail electrification of the North and Midlands would finally go ahead, with politicians finally encouraged to look beyond London and Southeast. This increased investment, a massive programme of house building, and a glut of firms migrating northward would raise living standards across the region and beyond.
Finally, Manchester, as a 19th-century city born out of the industrial revolution, would bring with it a sense of renewal and modernity that medieval London sorely lacks. The current capital lends itself to political malaise, and the pompous architecture of government to restrictive and inaccesible traditions. It would be much easier for ordinary Brits to engage with the political system if it were removed from the foreboding Palace of Westminster, which could itself be transformed into a cultural centre, or, in the spirit of the age, luxury flats.
London, of course, wouldn’t cease to be the country’s economic and cultural centre overnight. Instead, it would be as New York, Sydney, and Rio de Janeiro are to Washington D.C., Canberra, and Brasilia. But moving the capital would lift the pressure off London’s public services and transport, giving the city a much-needed breather. Really, relocation would be great for everyone. Obviously, it wouldn’t solve all of Britain’s problems, but it would do much to alleviate some of our most pressing concerns, particularly regional inequality, inadequate infrastructure, our crippling over reliance on London in all facets of British life, and the intense alienation people suffer from the Westminster political class. Furthermore, it would go some way to massage the concerns of Scottish secessionists. Government after government has been unable to address these problems, not because of incompetence, but because of a lack of imagination.
No mainstream political party is likely to advocate for this. Andy Burnham, populist though he frequently is, isn’t about to make relocating the capital part of platform as Mayor of Greater Manchester. But I sincerely believe that politicians ought to consider it. Britain is in bad shape, and it will take bold new ideas to get it moving again. Lazily relying on policy-by-nostalgia represents an abrogation of responsibility by Labour and the Conservatives; perhaps, then, advocating for this or something equally dramatic is the domain of the Liberal Democrats. If they are to seize the reins of a tremendous national revival, they must begin pursuing a shake up that goes beyond mere electoral reform. Relocating the capital city is just one radical idea among many. Will they, or anyone be brave enough to consider it?
Image credit: Manchester Town Hall – image by Steve Parkinson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)