Damian Flanagan is Chair of Manchester Conservatives.
While we are all busy trying to make our way – maintaining life and livelihoods as best as we can – through the long ordeal of the Coronavirus pandemic, we might also be grimly aware that our very nation seems to be intractably moving apart.
Calls from the SNP for a second independence referendum – ignoring the understanding that the 2014 poll would be a “once in a generation” event – combine with opinion polls north of the border consistently showing a majority in favour of permanent separation. In Ireland meanwhile the possibility of holding a border poll in Northern Ireland is regularly discussed, inviting opinions ranging from glee at the prospect of long-cherished Irish unity for some, horror at the financial burden for others, and dogged determination to remain part of the UK from Unionists.
As things continue to pull apart, it might appear that our role here in Manchester is simply to act as by-standers to what might yet prove to be the beginning of an end game for the UK, watching London cope as best as it can with these forces of division.
But if you think about things differently, it is Manchester, not London, which stands at the geographical heart of the UK. Indeed, one of the key problems our relatively small nation faces is that, to people in Belfast and Glasgow, London feels distant and out of touch, lost in its own cultural bubble.
Indeed Manchester seems far better equipped than London to sympathise with the economic realities of what is going on in cities far closer to us and often with similar industrial histories and post-industrial problems.
Rather than seeing Manchester as “northern” – a profoundly London-centric view of the world – how about we start seeing Manchester instead as “central”? It is central both in terms of the position we occupy in the country we live in and to the prospects of that nation continuing for another 300 years.
We might ask a bolder question – why exactly does London, tucked away in the south east, have to remain the capital of the nation anyway? True, London has of course the overwhelming economic power and population, but plenty of nations – think Canada, the US, Australia – position their political capitals in places separate from the largest city. A nation’s capital should be placed to reach out to every part of the land. In the UK at the moment, London palpably fails to do that.
Looked at historically, one reason why London emerged as the nation’s capital was profoundly connected to the ruling elite – from the Romans to the Normans to the Tudors – maintaining land interests in continental Europe and needing to stay in close contact with them from a defendable position away from the coast. At the point where Henry VIII finally lost the last vestigial footing in France, the great age of sea trade and worldwide exploration began, making London, positioned on the estuary of the Thames, perfectly placed to be the engine of the nation’s success for another 400 years.
But in today’s new age of “Global Britain”, where we have just decisively cut our ties with the political arrangements of continental Europe and broken free to reach out to the rest of world, why is it necessary for London to remain the centre of UK politics, an arrangement which clearly does not appeal to large numbers of people in the other nations of the UK?
It’s time not for more federalism – the very thing which is driving the UK apart – but for a political reconfiguration that recognises where the centre of the nation we live in actually is. We want a *united* kingdom, with government agencies and institutions operating in Manchester – the second largest conurbation outside London – that help to keep the entire nation together.
Moving to Manchester a reformed upper chamber of Parliament – perhaps elected by proportional representation – would make a healthy start. It would also open the eyes of many of our London-centric legislators as to what the issues facing cities like Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow actually are.
This is our precious nation and we can not just sit on the sidelines while London allows it to drift apart. Manchester, at the heart of the nation, is ready to step up and play its part in its political destiny of holding the UK together.