Britain is a divided nation – let’s bring people together by moving parliament to Manchester, a former council leader writes
The time has come to put down a clear marker amidst the confusion and uncertainty of British politics. This uncertainty deepened yesterday when Nicola Sturgeon committed to holding a second referendum on Scottish independence, even though the last “once in a generation” vote was only held in 2014.
When the Houses of Parliament are evacuated for six years in the 2020s to allow the Victorian buildings to be refurbished, the Commons should not meet in a prefab chamber in a Whitehall courtyard. Our national prestige requires that, when we will be negotiating trade deals and a new relationship with Europe, parliament’s buildings also represent the best of Britain.
An opportunity exists that would constitute a powerful statement of an emerging country. Parliament should meet in Manchester in its magnificent town hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1877. Indeed, the town hall’s neo-gothic architecture has often been considered a facsimile of Westminster.
Fortuitously, the Great Hall is almost exactly the same size as the chamber of the House of Commons. Also, the best venue for major political conferences in recent years has been Manchester, with the council-owned Central Convention Centre, the Midland Hotel and the town hall making an excellent combination. Even the BBC has moved there.
What could be more appropriate than to recognise the home of free trade, the cradle of the industrial revolution and a renaissance city of the 21st century, as the model for Britain’s future? The symbolism of parliament meeting in a great northern city, after Brexit, within a stone’s throw of the Peterloo massacre, would be unmistakeable. Imagine the Queen arriving in Albert Square for the state opening!
Manchester was certainly at the heart of Britain’s dominant commercial position in the 19th century as the home of the cotton industry, as its civic and commercial buildings bear witness. The motif of Manchester is the worker bee, symbolising industrial endeavour and part of the design of the beautiful mosaic floor of the town hall. In the 20th century, nearby Trafford Park became the biggest and most modern industrial estate in Europe through massive investments by American companies: Westinghouse Electric and Ford. It would be hard to find a better metaphor for our country’s trading aspirations.
But what makes Manchester a brilliant symbol of a new Britain is its recent achievement. By the 1970s, Manchester was a faded provincial city, but in the last 25 years it has been transformed. Led by council leader Sir Richard Leese and chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein, the authority has pursued a visionary policy of municipal entrepreneurialism. Working closely with private and public sector partners, Manchester city council has achieved civic improvements that are the equal of any city in the world. To have known Manchester in the past and to visit the city today is to appreciate that success. To a great extent, Manchester now stands on its own feet and looks out to the world. It is the foundation of the northern powerhouse and a witness to what can be achieved socially, economically and culturally.
Britain, however, has never been so divided in our lifetimes, as yesterday’s events showed. An important part of reducing those divisions will be to recognise the status of those parts of Britain outside of London. Growth in our economy and future prosperity will depend upon resources and confidence in every part of the country, so an active policy to support local initiative and promote civic patriotism will be vital. Establishing a Manchester parliament will send a strong message of our national intent in this regard.
It will be contended that it would not be convenient: that Manchester would be too far removed from Whitehall departments so that the civil service could not work closely with ministers. There is an easy answer to that: divide the Parliamentary week into two. During the £4bn refurbishment, it is intended to continue to use MPs’ offices and committee rooms outside the main buildings, so let parliament convene there on Mondays and Tuesdays: allowing MP’s to raise constituents’ concerns, ministers to work with civil servants and select committees to go about their business. But on Tuesday evening let the parliamentarians travel to Manchester for two days of sittings in the main chambers. It only takes two hours by train. Urgent meetings can make use of video and telephone conferencing.
Manchester town hall needs to begin a £400m refurbishment of its own. That programme will take as long to complete as it will take simply to design and plan the upgrade of Westminster. My suggestion is that instead of spending money buying Richmond House in Whitehall and building a temporary chamber in its courtyard, Parliament should make a substantial contribution to the works in Manchester in return for a free let for six years. Oh and the House of Lords could meet in Albert Hall on Peter Street, which was once a Wesleyan Chapel.
After all, there are more important things than administrative convenience.
Andrew Judge was born in Salford and is a former Labour parliamentary candidate who sits on Merton council in London, where he previously served as leader.