Originally from Craigavon, Paddy Hoey, who writes on republicanism, has been a journalist on Merseyside for 21 years. The following piece which featured in edited form in The New European is a tribute to Liverpool's independent and cosmopolitan spirit. It is a critique of the narrow right wing nationalism that helped produce Brexit.
- There are times when I am exasperated by aspects of the city and by the conduct of Liverpudlians, times when they embarrass me in front of my visiting friends, times, indeed, when I am repelled or alarmed; and yet, when I go to other cities in England, cities that are glossier, better ordered and emphatically more prosperous than Liverpool, I find them by comparison to be un-flavoured, their citizens almost anonymous beside the salty wacker and his missus, his judy that was.” - Howard Channon, Portrait of Liverpool. (1970)
Howard Channon, a Derbyshire-born boy who fell in love with Liverpool, first as a Navy man preparing for WWII deployment during the 1941 blitz, and then when moving in 1952 to work as a journalist on the city’s daily newspapers, produced a brilliant yet often overlooked book that is an essential guide to understanding why Liverpool remains so different to the rest of England.
In the light of the European Union referendum result, Portrait of Liverpool provides a beautiful explanation for a city unlike any other in Britain and one which instinctively, and steadfastly, refuses to march to the beat of the rest of the country.
Written in 1970 when Liverpool was at a pivot point in its modern history, existentially torn by between the decline of the docks and the loss of passenger ships and long before the 1990s EU funding-led regeneration, Channon evokes a city that is moving on after slum clearances and city centre rebuilding. He captures a city in transformation but which has steadfastly rejected abandoning its own essence in the face of the latest great wave of modern globalization.
Despite the flux he describes, in many ways, he captures exactly what the city remains to this day:
When the world looks at Liverpool it sees ships, soccer, slums and a steeplechase […] It is building skyscrapers but keeps opulent Edwardian pubs…
Channon’s own rebuttal of this persistent stereotype is telling in the light of Brexit:
Two centuries of trading with the world have made Liverpool a cosmopolitan city, the least provincial in outlook and the most mature in attitudes to colour and race (though that is not to say that it is free from prejudice.)
In many ways, what both Channon and the referendum captured was a place with little in common with the immediate environs that surround it: a primarily Celtic city built on Welsh and Irish immigrants that looks not to St Helens but to St Helena, a city suffused with an internalized sense of otherness from the rest of Britain but yet is global in its ambition. It’s a city with the oldest China Town in Europe, and a long term Caribbean and African population that is tied umbilically to global trade by the River Mersey, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Few places have two areas called Little Scandinavia, Liverpool does. The result of the referendum merely confirmed Liverpool’s historic attachment to other difficult port cities on the edge of Europe, why would you worry about Mansfield when your granddad had travelled to Montevideo and Madagascar? As the wonderful Scouse writer Paul Du Noyer noted after Liverpool was declared Britain’s number one music city in the early 2000s, it is “a sort of sunless Marseille … defiantly non-provincial, the capital of itself.”
Liverpool and Merseyside are also basic, practical studies in the politics of the referendum vote. The rebuilt economy, which has prospered with £2bn of European funding, has seen a city transformed from one which is was on its knees in the early 1990s to one which is now punching above its weight on the global stage. Objective One and European Regional Development Fund cash have since 1994 been used to develop buildings that house medical research clusters, and technology and science
parks that lead the world.
The city’s four universities have all developed their facilities thanks to European money, swelling student numbers and pumping money into the economy and sparking a residential development boom. They attract large numbers of overseas students and teenagers from Northern Ireland and Britain who choose to remain after graduation beguiled by Liverpool’s Celtic sense of community and identity and a vastly lower cost of living to other metropolitan areas. The universities were also central in articulating the case for Remain, with Professor Michael Parkinson of the University of Liverpool’s Heseltine Institute noting:
I am proud that Liverpool voted to stay by a big majority. I think it was partly because it has benefited so much from Europe in the past and partly because it is an open, internationalist outward looking city. But I think it was also because many of its people genuinely do feel more confident about the city’s prospects than at any time in the past three decades. And they are right.
The university’s West Belfast-born law professor Michael Dougan even did the unthinkable by making EU constitutional law sexy in videos that became viral successes on YouTube and social media.
The tourism industry on both sides of the Mersey has also benefitted enormously from Europe, perhaps explaining why the boroughs of Sefton to the North of the city centre, and Wirral, to the south bank of the river, also voted remain. Peel Holdings, which owns Liverpool John Lennon airport and the majority of the docks on both sides of the river, has received vital EU funding to redevelop.
The bigger, more improved airport disgorges chic European weekend breakers and boisterous stag and hen parties from Ireland and the rest of Britain. They are joined each weekend by Irish and Scandinavian football fans and arty types drawn to world class drama and concert venues like the Philharmonic Hall and Everyman and Playhouse theatres, both of whom have benefited from EU cash. Thanks to a pop and rock heritage beaten perhaps only by only Detroit, New Orleans and New York, music lovers come at a higher rate than in any time in the city’s history, attending the Liverpool International Music Festival, Soundcity, Creamfields and the self-contained tourism cottage industry relating to those four mop top lads “that shook the world.”
Tourism, the docks and the river go hand-in-hand and ocean going liners, once the mainstay of the economy, are back on the waterfront and four massive Chinese built cargo cranes have recently joined the Bootle skyline north of the city ready to winch containers from the biggest container tankers on the seas.
As Professor John Belchem noted in his excellent 2006 collection of essays Merseypride, European money and the legacy of being European Capitals of Culture helped rebuild the cities of Liverpool and Glasgow after the terminal decline of shipbuilding and the docks in the 1970s. Liverpool-based Spanish/ Catalan academic Dr Beatriz Garcia said on the eve of the referendum:
The European Capital of Culture programme has been forever transformed and made truly relevant to contemporary Europe, largely thanks to two British cities and their daring questioning of what we think of as culture: first, Glasgow in 1990, the city that opened the door to non-widely recognised cultural centres and proved that cities in the margins have much to tell and inspire others with; then Liverpool in 2008, the city that showed how to document urban renaissance and provide irrefutable evidence that cultural intervention changes places for the better. In turn, the European Capital of Culture title has given an unparalleled spotlight to these cities, helping them tell their stories on their terms, when nobody else would listen.
It wasn’t merely that these cities had been abandoned or starved of money from the Thatcher Government it was that they had been the testing ground for ventures such as Enterprise Zones and Urban Development Corporations which achieved little. Despite these attempts at investment, Belchem noted that employment and regeneration declined in the city by 23% and 12% respectively in the 1980s and only recovered when EU money arrived. The city has also arrested a precipitous decline in population as locals found jobs at home and were joined by white-collar immigrants like myself, working in education, media and creative industries, medicine and science and technology. Look at the map of Remain areas, and you will see these two great Celtic cities, along with Manchester and their Welsh counterpart, Cardiff, both rebuilt as media and tech centres on EU cash.
Liverpool, or to be accurate, the new Liverpool City Region is also instructive in allowing us to see why predominantly working class people in post-industrial Britain seized the opportunity to vote leave as a protest. Within miles of the regenerated city centre, a semi-circle of council wards, Everton, Kensington and Toxteth, among the poorest in the country see little benefit from EU money in their areas and this arc of deprivation has tragi-comically been described as the ‘croissant of inequality’ by community activists of my acquaintance. Many still live in poverty, but they can see the technology and science parks and bio-medical science labs and they mean absolutely nothing to them.
Look beyond the city’s boundary and you will see a ring of post-war new towns and old industrial areas that voted to leave largely because they, perhaps erroneously, believe they have received none of the crumbs from the EU funding table. New towns, like Huyton and Kirkby in Knowsley, Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, and Runcorn in Halton, might still have vibrant communities but are surrounded by empty factories standing testament to the post-industrial globalization that decimated British manufacturing. St Helens, an old textile and coal mining centre within the Merseyside boundary, also voted to leave for similar reasons. They were ignored for two generations by political parties like New Labour which believed it could rely on old patterns of working class solidarity. The Tories never needed them for votes in the first place. That is a microcosm of the Midlands and the North Brexit vote and any new administrations would do well to listen to their cries for help. I won't hold my breath.
But, away from the European debate and the macro-economic arguments, it is important to note that on a very basic cultural level Liverpool has never been fully interested in adhering to an English identity project because it has more fun being itself. This is most obviously pronounced, no pun intended, in the persistence of “an accent exceedingly rare.” Interviewed by the New York Times in 2005, Liverpool-born linguist Dr Kevin Watson noted that even after years of being derided across Britain, “scouse was getting scouser,” and that as regional accents were becoming diluted by Estuary English, “there are things happening in Liverpool that don't happen anywhere else.” In short, Liverpool continues to reject the trend to become influenced by the rest of Britain. An Irish blow-in like me revels in the accents and dialect of Liverpool as a means of expressing that we are different to the rest of England, it is the perfect bolt-hole for those of us who want to escape narrow classification.
To explain this sense of self-sufficiency in the globalized world we need to be frank: after the interrelated injustices of neo-liberal Tory Thatcherism in the 1980s and its crowning symbol, the state-sponsored pogrom of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, non-conformist, bolshie Liverpool was hung out to dry as an emblem of the left wing past Britain needed to be rid of. When thinking of the Celtic, not English roots of the city, it is instructive to note that in the wake of Hillsborough, Liverpool FC turned to Glasgow and Celtic Football Club for a benefit match that forged profound
roots between working class fans with deep attachment that survive to this day. And, 26 years later, the Liverpudlian bolshiness and perseverance of the Hillsborough families revealed the divisive class-based cancer at the heart of the British establishment that has divided and ruled for generations. I would suggest that when being presented by Thatcherite Tory grandees as the emblems of the Leave campaign, many young Scousers intrinsically saw Remain as the only logical response to the attacks on their city and class. We have long memories on Merseyside.
Unfortunately, during the referendum, most of non-metropolitan working class Britain didn’t learn the historic lessons of Liverpool and Hillsborough. They believed in the lies of the grinning neo-Enoch Powellite Nigel Farage, they were beguiled by P.G. Wodehouse types like Michael ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle’ Gove and Boris ‘Bertie Wooster’ Johnson, and voted like battered spouses who believe that they’ll eventually stop being abused. The working class Brexit areas never learn from the generations of abuse that have been heaped on them. They were serfs as miners, millers, potters and
foundary people, and no allegiance to the flag ever made them better off. In this month, the year of commemoration of the Somme, we remember how they have lined up behind flags in wars to validate their Britishness, and where has it got them? Wales and Cornwall, beneficiaries of vast amounts of EU money, voted overwhelmingly for leave, yet immediately asked for financial assistance from a government that is committed to a long-term austerity programme. The British working class is a battered spouse believing it can make the establishment stop hurting it. Liverpool has learned, through harsh experience, not to pursue that route. We remember nursing those bruises.
And, that’s why I get a ‘right cob-on’ when Liverpool is described as “self pity city” and how we are thieves and welfare derelicts. One famous right wing Twitter celebrity, not to be mentioned, recently described us as ‘benefits central’. It is as a result of this grotesque characterization, and in knowing we constantly get shafted and demonised, that we look not eastwards to the ‘woolly backs’, but to the world. As Du Noyer noted, the famous Liverpool FC fans slogan, “We’re not English, we are Scouse,” borrowed from Basques, is a perfect summation of Scouse otherness. It is both European and outward-looking as well as being a “fuck, right off” to the rest of England that has lambasted us for more than a century.
If Brexit was about a re-awakening of English national identity which is imbued with the narrow parochialism that allows fellow working class people from the Leave area of Sunderland to chant, non-ironically, at football matches of “in your Liverpool slums,” then Liverpool showed in the referendum that it is a city happy being peripheral geographically and culturally to English national identity. It is the Republic of Itself.
Go ‘ead, lad.