Tristram Hunt: How Second City rivalry can be exploited for our benefit
' WHAT makes us Brummie?' was the tricky question posed last week by Birmingham City Council. Led by local councillor Waseem Zaffar, the investigation was an attempt to discover what gives a city and her people a collective identity.
It is an intriguing exercise, with some serious implications for us in Stoke.
At the heart of the inquiry is an ongoing crisis about Birmingham's place as Britain's Second City. Councillors and Brummie businessmen have watched with concern the remarkable revival of Manchester over the past 20 years. Under the inspired leadership of the two knights – chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein and council leader Sir Richard Leese – the city has turned around its economic fortunes and re-populated the urban centre (although last week's murder of two brave policewomen was a reminder of the ugly past).
Such has been the tension over Second City status – and the struggle over Government funds, sporting events and cultural festivals that comes with it – Birmingham and Manchester signed an informal 'peace treaty' earlier this year in order to end the rivalry. Few think it will last.
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Of course, such rivalry is nothing new. In their Victorian hey-day, the two cities battled it out against each other. Manchester modelled itself as the 'Florence of the North' with an architecture which directly imitated the great Italian city state. Just look at those wonderful warehouses along Portland Street, or the Manchester City Art Gallery which recalls the palazzo style of Tuscany. All of this was testimony to the trading, mercantile spirit of 'Cottonopolis.'
Birmingham, by contrast, chose Venice for its inspiration – not least, because of the city's waterways. So-called Venetian Gothic architecture was the style for the city's buildings, and with the Big Brum tower behind the Council House a direct replica of the campanile of St. Mark's in Venice.
The city mayor during the 1870s, Joseph Chamberlain, was unashamed in championing his metal-bashing city. When it came to the British economy, empire and global exports, Birmingham was convinced she was the Second City.
But what of today? As Sion Simon, a former MP in the city put it to the committee: 'People the world over know what Liverpool is – the city with a world famous football team and the Beatles – but Birmingham does not have such a reputation." He told the inquiry that this was because the distinctive Brummie characteristics were a unique "self-deprecating and dry sense of humour" and an inability to boast, something which, he argued, made selling the city difficult and that could not be said of 'Scousers' or 'Mancs'.
I am not sure how true that is, but I do know that part of the recent success of Manchester has been down to its own investigation of its contemporary identity. Led by the designer Peter Saville, the city thought very hard about its unique attributes and what its selling point could be in the 21st century. The strap-line it came up with was 'The Original, Modern City' – a piece of branding which drew upon its remarkable history of the industrial revolution, but also its modern capacity for innovation. It was a call to arms as much as a description of the city.
Birmingham needs to do something similar. Yet it is a bigger city with a more diffuse racial and ethnic make-up, and might well find it harder to identify its precise function.
So, what is Stoke-on-Trent's role in this? Personally, I don't think we need a grand inquiry into the nature of our Potteries identity. Of course, in order to exploit your attributes you need to be clear about who you are; but, a public inquiry into re-imagining our identity can come a bit later. At the moment, we have enough on our plate in generating jobs, improving schools, getting the infrastructure right, and promoting a positive image to outside investors.
The real question is who do we back – Manchester or Birmingham? The recession has not been kind to either city but before the crash both ranked in the top hundred cities in the world in terms of economic output. And we have them on our doorstep. We should back both: a vibrant Manchester and Birmingham is in our civic interest – as long as we have the transport provision, supply chains, and political contacts to exploit our proximity.
Let's hope the people of Birmingham find their answer, but we should be clear about what we're about: ensuring two prosperous Second Cities boost the prospects of Stoke-on-Trent.