on Liverpool: ‘Somewhere else again’

The Lord Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool were holding a joint parade to celebrate something or other. It was a great success. But the Lord Mayor of Liverpool stole the show! Jokes like this have been around for so many years. What is it about Liverpool that causes this dark humour? Do you have to be a comedian or a boxer or a crook (or all three) to be a Liverpudlian success?

This short paper is something of a self-indulgence and maybe out of date and out of touch. I lived for 15 years in this city and was often asked why! Or more politely, would I explain its fascination to an outsider. Granted, I was there from 1975 to 1990, one of the more dramatic periods in the city’s recent history: the extraordinary challenge to anti-Catholic prejudice offered by new ecumenical relationships, the political strength of the Labour party as subverted by Militant Tendency, the golden years at Anfield, the collapse of full-time employment and the many things that were done to challenge London government (including the Toxteth riots and their aftermath), leading to the new initiatives for economic and social regeneration that we see all around. Thus I recall Michael Heseltine, when he was designated Minister for Merseyside, correctly predicting that the Albert Dock development would far outlast his 1984 International Garden Festival.

Liverpool still bumps along on the bottom of any list of OECD cities, even now after some years of Objective One priority EU status for grant support. In my time Liverpool was bottom of a list of 103 European cities in terms of multiple deprivation, i.e. poorer than Naples or Marseilles. I thought it might be worth listing half a dozen or so reasons why this city is different. My view is that to be different under so many headings makes for an overall quantum difference, a place sui generis, or in scouse “somewhere else again”.

Starting with the obvious, any city’s geographical location is unique, by definition. It is usually the reason for the founding of the city in the first place. Liverpool took over from the Dee-side ports as they gradually silted up during the 18th century. John Wesley sailed to America from the Dee, Parkgate I think, though you would hardly believe it now. This transfer coincided with the rapid expansion of international trade, the first globalisation of the modern era. There was the notorious triangle, exporting manufactured goods to Africa, transferring slaves across to the Americas and bringing raw materials back to Britain. Fortunes were made. There were more millionaires in Liverpool than in any other English provincial city at that time. And the poverty was probably worse than elsewhere. Around 1875 something like half the nation’s international trade was routed via the Mersey, an amazing prosperity evident even now in the legacy of the finest public buildings outside London, including the Anglican Cathedral, all built with money in part derived from that slave trade.

But this prime geographical position was soon lost. Other ports took more and more trade so that although the total tonnage kept up till 1914 it was a decreasing proportion of an increasing total. This relative decline continued for over half a century, apart from the temporary surge during the Second World War, until by 1979 Liverpool was handling less than 10% of what had become a much smaller total (excluding bulk oil cargoes).

The geographical raison d’être has gone. Liverpool is not in the south-east but furthest from Europe; we are not in the north-east with oil and some European links; we are not in the south-west with the ‘silicon motorways’ M3 and M4. Not, of course, do we have the special status of Scotland and Wales. If the city did not exist there would be no economic reason to invent it. One regional capital is enough and Manchester is now it. (Sad to say!)

Second, the demography is unique in England.

Starting with those from outside these islands, a port city will always experience waves of immigration. In Liverpool community relations is not really about integrating new arrivals, though they still come – they have to start somewhere! The Jewish and the Chinese communities are the largest outside London.

The descendants of slaves are still here. Most non-locals, whether they call themselves black or not, are from long-established families settled before the 1960s.

The underlying challenge is not that of immigration nor should be dealt with as such. To deny immigrants equal opportunities in housing, employment or education may be understandable for a decade or so; to deny these things to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a different kind of racism. That is what must be faced by analysts and policy-makers in Liverpool. And, I guess, is being faced by CARE and other church initiatives.

Liverpool is of course also unique in that its population contains descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Irish arrivals in the middle of the 19th century. The sheer scale of the influx radically affected the life of this city in at least four major ways, all inter-locked, namely employment, housing, culture and the churches.

As to culture, the evidence of the Irish influence goes far deeper than the accent. However one caricatures the so-called celtic temperament, it is different. Liverpool folk are less intellectual (not less intelligent) and more physical; they are more emotional. They show an amazing native wit. With this goes a real appreciation of words and music, with creative talent in either or both. They will pick a fight, usually verbal but sometimes physical. They are intuitively stubborn and fiercely loyal. They prefer to work in teams: gangs on the docks or building sites, football in the parks.

In short, they are not like the ideal English model which Mrs Thatcher was able to seize on, individualistic tending towards private and selfish. The loner is noticeable and different, like Eleanor Rigby.

Forgive these generalisations but do not dismiss them. This is not just a class thing. And though of course there is much greedy individualism in this city, it has surely not overcome the celtic spirit. Consider, in passing, how the rich Scots who ran the empire from Liverpool bequeathed public building and parks to the city as such; contemporary businessmen (not to mention pop stars and footballers) are often as rich but do not do the same.

The darker side of collectivism is the tendency to move from inter-dependency to dependency, to assume that someone will provide, whether it is the boss or the government. It is this latter characteristic that has blinded analysts to the plus side of Liverpool’s instinct for doing things better together.

If the demographic pattern derived from the geography, the pattern of church also derived from the movement of peoples. With their poverty and their temperament, the Irish brought their religion. This had a profound political effect. Now the proportion of Liverpool Catholics who attend mass regularly has shrunk from thousands to hundreds. But whether practising or non-practising, Catholics outnumber the others, making Liverpool different again. Not that Christianity has remained the true collective community faith which I would assert it was meant to be. Congregational life is not always greater than the sum of its parts: not always an expression of a collective life which goes beyond the personal spiritual requirements and experience of the members. This applies even within the Catholic tradition, as the work of the Shrine demonstrates, as well as in the Anglican or more Protestant traditions. And as to engaging with the world and secular systems, that is rare, whether in support of or in contradiction to the powers that be. Of course such engagement offers quiet personal support to some sympathetic individuals who are wrestling with their morally ambiguous contexts; but whether that is enough or even good is worth thinking through. And I spent five years of my life doing it.

In my time the ecumenical movement among committed church people was as much an act of repentance as anything. It reflected back on the dreadful damage done both to the Christian witness and the city itself by the bitterness and prejudice which lasted well into the 70s and resolved to move forward away from sectarianism. Then ecumenism gradually became a force for good beyond the boundaries of church life. The leadership and friendship of Derek Worlock and David Sheppard, with the Methodist John Newton as ‘third man’ for much of the time, offered real hope that the celtic sense of community could turn into a plus and the regeneration of the city might be wholesome and just.

The pattern of church allegiance had an effect on Liverpool politics making this, too, different from any other city. During the inter-war years when across Britain the Labour Party was gradually becoming strong enough to take power in local elections, the situation in Liverpool was different. The Catholic hierarchy decided that Catholics could vote Labour (itself a difficult decision) which meant, by and large, that they did. And this meant that the Protestant, Orange, working class vote went to the Conservatives well into the 1960s. This political fluidity was seized on by the Liberal Party which developed a power base strong enough to hold the balance of power from 1974 (when Labour became the largest party) till 1983 (when Labour eventually won an overall majority). The Thatcher Government was totally discredited in this city: half the manufacturing jobs, some 40,000 jobs were lost between 1979 and 1984. The Liberals effectively took over and have retained the role of alternative, with most of the Tory votes too.

The story of Liverpool politics during the years following 1983 is certainly unique. Whether power simply went to the head of the Labour group or whether there was a conspiracy on the left worthy of the name strategy I am still not sure. Probably a bit of both. But the result was a level of debt on the capital programme which was simply unsustainable and a system of local authority monopoly of services which fell further and further behind.

As a result job creation here is different. Though I have not done the research to back this up, I should be surprised if the proportion of publicly funded jobs in Liverpool is not still higher than anywhere else in England, taking into account the various schemes of direct employment or indirect subsidy. I would also guess that the number of households where no-one has earned a living for some years is still very high. I recall the chairman of a leading employer saying of his staffing ratios that he was between a rock and a hard place: if did not sack a third of his workforce his company would go broke anyway. Surely things have improved, but whether that improvement has resulted in shared hope is another matter.

Liverpool was different in so many ways that together they made for a quantum difference. One last example, housing. Even in my time the two strands of collectivism were dominant here more than elsewhere. There was a single-mindedness on the part of the Labour rulers to maintain a house building programme of more than £100m, which was achieved for four years by some extra-ordinary (almost apocryphal) juggling. Then there was the rise of housing co-operatives, including the first new-build co-op in England. I guess the situation is now radically different.

My question in 2004 is whether all this has now gone, subsumed in the affluence of the 90s as the fruits of the Thatcher years took prosperity overall to new heights. Have we lost the instinct for doing things together? How strong are local community groups now? There were thousands (yes, thousands) once, sharing concerns and activities across a full range of music and arts, sports, children’s play, personal caring. Are they all collapsed or about to collapse, like church congregations everywhere? Or is there a residual spirit of celtic co-operation which can take new forms but still bind us together somehow. In which case, are the churches leading on this, or still not quite fitting into civil society even here? The so-called partnership model beloved by New Labour invites voluntary bodies and faith communities to join in prioritising some statutory spending across the land. That won’t last; it is a fashion. But it is an opportunity.

The distinctive characteristic of Liverpool, produced from its history as I have tried to show, may be fading. You tell me.