Which is England’s second city?

A silver medal. Image: Getty.

I have recently picked up a new bad habit, because obviously I needed one of those. Whenever I mention Manchester in print somewhere, I have taken to describing it as Britain’s “undisputed second city”.

The reason this is a bad habit is because I am, quite consciously, trolling. You can make a strong case that Manchester is the second city; but the fact is certainly not undisputed, as demonstrated by the fact that, whenever I have done this, someone has pretty much instantly proceeded to dispute it. 

So what makes somewhere a second city? And should Manchester really get the crown?

What is a second city?

Let’s begin, as lazy content since the dawn of time has begun, with definitions. Ask our friends/overlords at Google, and you’ll find that second city generally means either a country’s second largest city, or possibly the second most important city after its capital.

Instantly, though, we have a problem, which is that those two definitions sometimes clash. The second largest city in Scotland is Edinburgh, which is also its capital. It would thus be absurd to refer to Edinburgh as the second city of Scotland, but absurd, too, to hand that crown to Glasgow. (Try it in a pub in the Gorbals. Go on, I dare you.)

In the same way, Chicago is sometimes referred to as the United States’ second city, apparently on the grounds that in the 19th century it was second in size to New York (it’s since been overtaken by Los Angeles, but the name persists in that of a well-known comedy club). But neither city is the capital: that’s Washington DC, which is something like the eighth biggest urban area by population.

If we assume that the second city is the largest, most important city that isn’t the capital, then the crown should really go to New York. But again, calling New York – arguably the single most important city in the world – the “second city” of the United States seems self-evidently ridiculous. 

So perhaps the problem here is that the idea of a second city is inherently a bit silly, which might be why I struggled to find a dictionary to quote three or four paragraphs back. But we’re in this thing now so we might as well finish it. 

A matter of politics

The UK’s largest city is also its capital, of course, so you’d think we’d be spared any of this pain. But we’re not because of two other problems.

One is that the UK is probably the most over centralised country in the developed world, but that over centralisation is not consistently applied. The two serious candidates for the title of second city of the UK on the grounds of size alone are, as noted, Birmingham and Manchester, each of which sits at the heart of a conurbation of somewhere over 2 million people. But both of those are in the eye-wateringly over centralised-England, and so neither is the site of any serious political power.

The half-finished devolution settlements of the 1990s meant that three other UK cities – the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – do have a measure of political power. What’s more, this power exists to some degree independently of London (while the Westminster government could in theory revoke the devolution settlements, it is never in practice going to).

So should Edinburgh, as both the largest of the three and the capital of the largest of the Celtic nations, maybe be considered candidate for the title “second city of the UK”? It has more control of its own destiny than either Birmingham or Manchester, after all.

Well – probably not, because it’s about a quarter of the size. But that too is contested, which brings us to our other problem: it’s actually quite difficult to determine how big some cities are.


A question of size

As the middle of last year, the City of Birmingham had an estimated population of 1.1 million, roughly twice the 550,000 people living in the City of Manchester. That seems to be a fairly substantial win for Midlands.

Except those figures are misleading: they only cover the official council areas. Much of what outsiders would think of as Manchester actually lies across municipal boundaries in other boroughs: Media City in Salford, Old Trafford in Trafford, and so on. Both cities actually blend seamlessly into neighbouring councils. And if you think the size of an urban area matters more than who happens to be collecting the bins, which it obviously does, then “municipal population size” is clearly the wrong measure.

Look at the population of the entire urban areas, and the results are very different: Manchester is on 2.7 million, to just 2.4 million for Birmingham. But you can argue that this is misleading, too. Is Wolverhampton really a part of Birmingham, because there are no fields between them? (Again: I invite you to go into a pub and announce it.) Is Bolton really part of Manchester? (As it happens, there are fields between those two, just fields surrounded by houses.)

There are more ways of measuring size still. The West Midlands – the metropolitan authority with Birmingham at its heart – has a population of about 2.9 million, bigger than that of the urban area largely because it includes Coventry, separated from the rest by some fields and an airport. Greater Manchester is also bigger than urban Manchester, but by a much smaller margin, giving it a population of around 2.8 million.

Lastly there are the metropolitan areas – the functional economic geography of these cities, based on commuting patterns and so on. These are inevitably contested, because the results are dependent on what researchers think constitutes a functional economic area. But as of 2017, the EU statistics agency Eurostat had Birmingham on 4.3 million and Manchester on just 3.3 million.

So – which of the two is bigger? Well, it rather depends.

It’s my own fault for trolling, really

It seems worth noting at this point that size isn’t the only way of measuring which city is more important, and that you don’t anyway have to look too far back into history to find a time when neither Manchester nor Birmingham was in the running for the title of second city anyway.

Before 1900, at various times, and for various reasons – size, commercial importance, political influence, number of rich residents – Glasgow and Liverpool were described as the second city of the empire. So, to include cities now not in the UK at all, were Dublin (big and rich), Philadelphia (most important city in the American colonies) and even Calcutta (most important city in the most important imperial possession; although, I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to find a primary source for that one). 

Go back even further in time to before the creation of the United Kingdom, and the candidates for second city of England are places that wouldn’t grace a top five these days (Bristol) or even a top 10 (Norwich, York). 

After all that, though, I stand by my original assertion that, if England does have a second city these days, it should be Manchester. Birmingham may have thought the title its right for much of the second half of the 20th century, at a time when it was still as rich and prosperous as the capital. But these days, it’s Manchester that has the cultural influence, the civic confidence and the energy, if only because it’s by far the less likely of the two to ever compare itself to London. It’s the leading city in a bigger, more populous region. For some time it’s also been more likely to top opinion polls regarding which is the second city which, since we’re talking about perception as much as reality here, seems important.

So yes, the question of which is the UK or England’s second city is a matter of some debate, and yes, I am trolling when I refer to Manchester as the undisputed victor. But the trolling lies in that word “undisputed”. With apologies to Birmingham, I genuinely think you’re losing this one. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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