In an April 2015, a poll commissioned by the Manchester Evening News found that 72 per cent of respondents were in favour of Manchester seceding from the United Kingdom.
Like the post-Brexit petition for London independence, perhaps the poll shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it does illustrate the independent Mancunian spirit – a spirit that’s also seen its civic leaders reshaping the city’s political institutions and economic strategies since its post-industrial nadir in the 1980s.
Today, Greater Manchester is moving towards electing its first metro mayor next year. Could it really go beyond that – to independence?
Manchester was the first of western Europe’s industrial boomtowns – but the city underwent a catastrophic process of deindustrialisation following the Second World War. Between 1971 and 1981, Manchester lost almost 50,000 full-time jobs and 17.5 per cent of its population.
Whole areas were described as “emptied”, characterised by social exclusion, crime and deteriorating living conditions: landscapes soundtracked by Joy Division. The world’s first industrial city seemed to be in terminal decline by the 1980s. A huge economic disparity subsequently opened up between London and declining industrial cities like Manchester. Per capita GDP in London remains double that of northern English regions.
Manchester's cotton mills in 1936. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.
This uneven development was driven by the forces of globalisation, and facilitated by the British state (a fact which helps to explain Manchester’s recent strive for greater autonomy). The disparity between the London and the north opened up dramatically from the late-1970s, when governments ceased trying to spread economic growth more widely among cities.
The most significant policy decision was the so-called “Big Bang” of 1986: the deregulation of London’s financial markets, enabling its emergence as the world’s preeminent financial centre. The proximity of the thriving financial centre to Britain’s existing political centre has encouraged successive governments – whether Conservative or Labour – to further enhance the capital’s dominance.
Manchester’s economic miracle
Manchester’s city leaders have since employed new economic strategies to re-define its role and improve its position in the global market. The turnaround witnessed in recent years has been so successful that it’s sometimes termed the “Manchester miracle”.
To prosper in the competitive global economy, cities need to harness their “monopolies of place” – those distinctive qualities granted by location and local assets that cannot be easily imitated elsewhere.
Improving regional and international connectivity via transport infrastructure upgrades is one economic strategy being employed to exploit Manchester’s position within the northern English conurbation, and at the tip of the European “blue banana”. Specific changes include the Northern Hub, a project to improve the rail connections between Manchester and other cities in the north, and the development of its airport’s international flight connections.
The recent announcement of direct flights from Manchester to Beijing by Chinese President Xi Jinping, underlines the importance of this strategy; it also highlights the increased Chinese investment flowing into Manchester, including £800m invested in the airport expansion, as well as other funding for wider urban regeneration.
Another set of assets contributing to Manchester’s growth are its universities, which draw highly-skilled future employees from across the globe to the city, and produce innovative research which has major economic benefits when commercialised. A 2003 report from Manchester council termed the city’s universities its “knowledge factories”. The term makes clear that they aren’t merely sites for scholarly learning, but play a role in economic growth.
A new form of city government
Precipitated by both the neglect of the London-centric national governments, and by the failure of the socialist city administrations to deal with the economic problems faced by Manchester in the post-war period, the city government changed course in the 1980s.
The Labour council had previously been driven by a redistributive and welfarist agenda, prioritising the protection of jobs in the declining industrial sector – policies in marked contrast to the aggressive privatisation and de-industrialisation pursued by the national Conservative governments of the time.
Manchester’s council dramatically changed direction in 1987, moving towards a governance form labeled “urban entrepreneurialism” by the radical geographer David Harvey: governing in alliance with businesses rather than relying on a centralised bureaucracy, and focusing on increasing the city’s competitiveness within the global market, for example through place marketing strategies. Others have instead labeled it realism: a new approach that acknowledges the failure of past redistributive methods to halt urban decline and social injustice.
In recent years, the Manchester city region has increasingly exercised power independently of the nation state. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), formed in 2011, brought the city-region’s 10 local authorities together into one body. From next year, the GMCA will be led by a directly elected mayor (most likely, Labour big beast Andy Burnham) with control over the policy areas of employment, housing, transport and economic development. The executive board exercising these powers will be assisted by a business leadership council comprising both public and private sector actors.
Another example is the council’s use of the transnational Eurocities network, bypassing the passivity of the nation state to seek international expertise in place-marketing tactics and acquisition of EU funding.
Manchester today. Image: Getty.
The state continues to be influential – not least because it facilitates the increasingly independent exercise of power by Manchester’s city institutions, as shown by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne’s pursuit of the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda.
The state also retains influence over Manchester through its membership of the EU – which, as the examples of the Eurocities network and EU funding suggest, has been a significant asset for the city. The implementation of Brexit could have a profound impact on Manchester’s economic strategy, and yet it is a nationally determined policy: both in terms of the referendum’s electorate, and in terms of who leads the Article 50 negotiations with other member states.
A “post-political” city?
The idea of a “Manchester Miracle” is tempered by the evidence of negative effects on social outcomes and democratic decision-making processes in Manchester.
Academic critics of the entrepreneurial and relatively independent city government and its new approach have pointed to the dangers of its “post-political” nature for two main reasons. The new streamlined, business-friendly institutional forms have been accused of, firstly, eroding democratic principles, and secondly, subordinating social justice to the pursuit of economic growth.
There has been a relatively lukewarm response from local activists to the imminent governance changes so far – yet the new political structures could in fact give greater opportunity for citizens to directly engage with local policy through more powerful, locally accountable representatives.
Like Sadiq Khan’s London, we could be witnessing the metamorphosis of the city of Manchester into a major political space – whether or not it gians its independence.
Fred Paxton is studying for a Masters degree in urban studies at the University of Copenhagen. He tweets as @fredpaxton.