London would recover; the north would be transformedby Polly Mackenzie / January 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain needs a major reset, Brexit or no Brexit. The howl of rage from half the country that was expressed as a vote to leave the EU must be answered. But Brexit—even if its champions were telling the truth—offers little in the way of hope or change for those people and those communities who voted for it. Nothing would better symbolise a national reset than moving our parliament away from London to Manchester.
Our current parliamentary estate has become a potent symbol of political decay, propped up by scaffolding, beset by leaking roofs and draughty doors, even the clockwork of the nation’s favourite bell falling to bits. Billions are being spent shoring up these crumbling edifices, as we misguidedly try to preserve the old order in the old stonework.
Those of us who love London have to accept that this city is toxic to millions of people. It is a byword for distance, disengagement and disconnection from the rest of England. Government from London cannot offer the transformative moment the country needs: a recognition that the rage has been heard and that change will really come.
Moving parliament offers the chance to fundamentally rebalance our economy, as well as our politics. For 30 years or more, governments have promised to regenerate the north, rebalance growth away from the overheated south east. Billions of pounds have been invested; entire civil service careers have been spent mapping and planning and designing initiatives with all the goodwill and ambition in the world. Some achievements have been wrung from this sustained effort. Labour transformed the city centres of many great northern cities. Transport investment is finally arriving across the north’s rail network, in a much more coordinated way than before.
But all this goodwill is fighting gravity and it isn’t working. London and the south east still outstrip everywhere else in wealth and growth. The UK is Europe’s most regionally divided nation. Only when politicians have to go to work every day on the rickety trains of our northern cities will they really change this, and give the north the infrastructure investment it actually needs to grow and thrive.
There will be huge agglomeration effects of shifting this vitally important state institution to a city where it might do some good, rather than just contributing to the overheating of the housing market. It won’t be just politicians who will move: it will be journalists, public affairs companies, regulators and regulated industries: anyone whose business relies on knowing what the government is up to.
London will remain our financial and cultural capital, and recover from the economic shock quickly. The north will be transformed.
Countries do not need to have their economic and their political capitals in the same city. The US has four cities bigger than its capital. Australia and Canada each have five. Shangzhou is 25 per cent larger than Beijing. And countries can move their capital for the sake of the nation: Canberra was established to stop Melbourne and Sydney from quarrelling; Abuja replaced Lagos as Nigeria’s capital because the latter was considered a divisive place to be (as well as being hot and overcrowded). Brasilia was established as Brazil’s capital, replacing Rio de Janiero, in 1960. Belize, Botswana and Pakistan followed soon after. And Burma recently moved its capital city to Naypyidaw.
But of course, the traditionalists will declare, it’s alright for these foreign, modern sorts of places to go messing around with the institutions of government. We can’t: we’re English. We speak the language (as Bernard Shaw put it) of “Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible.” We’ve got the very Mother of Parliaments. They declare that parliament is a symbol of a thousand years of history and must, therefore, be protected from anything that smacks of modernity or reform.
This is of course, historical hokum. There have been buildings used for and by our rulers on the site of Westminster for 1,000 years, but the vast majority of the current Palace of Westminster was completed just 150 years ago. It looks older partly because Westminster Hall, which fronts the road, is truly ancient, but mostly because our rather nauseating national predilection for the ancient led to its being designed in the Gothic style.
Parliament’s history is not of continuity but of a series of radical changes forced upon it. From the destruction by fire of the old Palace in the 1830s, to the destruction of the debate chamber by bomb in the 1940s; from the establishment of something approaching democracy in the Great Reform Act to the full national franchise for men and women in 1928: parliament changes when it needs to change. A proper reading of history shows that our greatest institutions survive when they adapt. Parliament now needs to move, if it wants a chance of being loved again.
We can take Big Ben north with us, if people want to. We can hold the state opening of parliament once a year in our crumbling relic on the Thames, if it makes life easier for the Queen and her golden carriage. But now is a time for national rebirth, and we must mark that with change, not stagnation.