Why we need a more progressive account of the North’s heritage - RSA

Why we need a more progressive account of the North’s heritage

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In one of his first speeches as prime minister, Boris Johnson came to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Standing in front of Stephenson’s Rocket, he pledged his commitment to a faster rail route between Leeds and Manchester and the revival of the idea of a Northern Powerhouse.

The location of the speech and the symbolism of the Rocket are not insignificant. Notions of heritage, place and identity are regularly deployed by the populist right to invoke our support. As we approach the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, perhaps it is time for a more progressive account of our Northern heritage.

Boris backs the Northern Powerhouse

Any visitor to Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry cannot fail to be impressed by the story it tells of the industrial revolution and subsequent discoveries and innovations that began in Manchester and have gone on to influence the world. Little wonder then that first George Osborne and now, Boris Johnson, have chosen the venue to make ‘landmark’ speeches about their aspirations for the Northern economy. In each case they have chosen to stand in front of the iconic locomotive, Stephenson’s Rocket, to announce their commitment to rail investment as the key to reviving northern prosperity.

As a long-standing champion for increased transport investment in the North, I am not going to begrudge the Prime Minister’s small but significant pledge to better connect Leeds and Manchester. Transport infrastructure, then and now, remains fundamental to economic productivity and social connection and the gross disparities in public investment between the North and London go some way to explaining the productivity gap, as the former mayor of London knows only too well.

But Mr Johnson’s speech in Manchester was much more than a transport policy announcement, it was an invocation of years gone by. In talking about so-called left-behind towns, he spoke of their “famous names, proud histories and fine civic buildings” and in celebrating Manchester he spoke of the “heritage and creative industries that make it such a lively, wonderful place”.

Heritage and its populist appeal

The industrial heritage of the North is surely something about which the whole nation can be proud and the fact that the UK economy remains high up in the ranks of developed nations has much to do with our industrial past, at least in the popular imagination. Our history textbooks continue to remind us of the halcyon days of Britain’s railway empire and the on-going desire for the resurrection of a ‘strong manufacturing base’ – advanced, circular or otherwise – betrays a certain nostalgia for bygone success.

Nostalgia wins votes. And it is no wonder that the political right, with its emphasis on conservatism, loyalty and tradition, realises this and mobilises history and heritage more effectively than the political left. The very phrase 'Take Back Control' alludes to the sense that people once had power that they no longer feel they possess. But as with all history, memory can be suitably selective.

A more subversive story about Stephenson’s Rocket

Stephenson’s Rocket is an interesting case in point. Boris Johnson was right to remember that it took the inarticulate George Stephenson and his supporters several years to persuade the Westminster elite of the initiative to build the world’s first inter-city railway between Liverpool and Manchester. But Mr Johnson chose not to recount the story that on the occasion of the railway’s opening in 1830, Liverpool Tory MP William Huskisson fell under the wheels of the Rocket, was pulled out by Stephenson himself, and later died of his injuries. The subsequent delay to proceedings meant that by the time that the train carrying the Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, rolled into Manchester the angry crowds pelted him with rotten vegetables and quickly drove him back out of the city.

This may seem a superficial detail but it points to a very different account of the Northern industrial story. Both Husskison and the Duke of Wellington were deeply unpopular figures in the North. After the 1826 power-loom riots, Hussikison, then President of the Board of Trade, dismissed the idea of a legally binding minimum wage that would have transformed livelihoods for the Northern working classes. Meanwhile the Prime Minister, Wellington, led opposition to the Reform Bill that would make wide-ranging changes to the English electoral system. Having lost a vote of no confidence in 1830, he then used the House of Lords to block it again until it was finally passed in 1832.

Why social reform is as important as transport investment

While certainly a symbol of the North’s industrial success, the Rocket is also perhaps a reminder of the challenges facing local industrialists in the face of the government machine, the working class struggles of the nineteenth century, and a long-standing antipathy between North and South. Boris Johnson would do well to learn from the Duke of Wellington that shiny infrastructure is one thing but unless it is backed by social reform, future visits to Manchester might not guarantee such a warm welcome.

The Prime Minister made some interesting comments on the social reform agenda. Repeating his comments on the steps of Number 10, he reiterated his determination to increase police numbers, invest in education, FE and health, and to find a long-term solution to social care. We shall see.

Perhaps more interestingly though, he spoke about “levelling-up” the powers devolved to local leaders outside of the big cities like London and Manchester. He recognised explicitly that:

“when the British people voted to leave the European Union, they were not just voting against Brussels – they were voting against London too.”

Commemorating Peterloo

On 16th August, Manchester will host commemorations of the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre. A surprisingly little-known event in national history where 60,000 men, women and children from around Lancashire gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand electoral reform. The day ended with at least 15 dead and more than 650 injured as the protest was charged by drunken yeomen and national troops. It took a further 13 years before the Reform Act was passed. I doubt the new Prime Minister will have that long.

This raises some important questions: are we, in the North, prepared to be fobbed off by superficial nostalgia, high-vis jackets and platitudes about localism and social care or might we be inspired by a history of more radical social and electoral reform? Is it Peter Pan or Peterloo?

In January 2020, the RSA and its partners are planning to host to an International Festival of Deliberative Democracy at the People’s History Museum in Manchester where we will remember the democratic innovation that accompanied the North’s industrial heritage. Mr Johnson will be welcome to attend.

Preview Image Credit: Science Museuem Group

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  • The event sounds great but will people like me ever meet with the likes of you? The original RSA journals were published by a man from Sheffield, but of course to be in the thick of it he had to move to London, sponsored by Samuel Johnson so he could become a member. Nowadays he wouldn't have been able to afford the accommodation to live there let alone the RSA membership and the cost of conferences. There is a great movement in Sheffield to link all the heritage groups across the city and so we now have the Charitable Consortium Joined up Heritage but we thrash about in the wilderness because we are neither London or Manchester. Its not just about physical heritage its about political heritage, radical thinking, innovative thinking, which still goes on today but like our forefathers still struggles because of low incomes and low funding to get things off the ground. Heritage in Sheffield is used as a tool to help communities but is discounted by those in authority as of little value. Sheffield has the biggest volunteer network in the UK. They fill the gaps that social care has left due to lack of funding or misunderstandings of need. They do things on a shoe string but the shoe string is getting shorter. Things could be done better if we just had enough money to set up the structure so it was self-sustaining. Bit like our railways. A little extra funding and we would have a Northern Hub between Leeds Manchester Sheffield and Liverpool to rival London but doubt will ever happen. The North has never been allowed to be self sustaining and the austerity cuts make sure that will never happen as without a presence in London and an acknowledgement that innovative thought goes on in places like Sheffield we are left to build structures that take decades to build that elsewhere would take 5 years.

  • Heritage can be live and thriving, notably here Jodrell Bank, Graphene and Project Management, all Manchester first bees from individuals' bonnets now swarming world-wide. 

    Stephen Wearne

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  • I'm glad Ed got around to mentioning the People's History Museum. The entire museum (just a stone's throw from MOSI) is dedicated not to the social history of Manchester - but to an entirely left wing Socialist account of it. This brings to the fore the challenge of mixing up social history with that of engineering and artefacts. Whilst we can exhibit the quantifiable facts of a machine or technology, trying to paint a picture of the people and their politics is much more difficult.

    So, enjoy the event in January 2020. I would urge you though, over your cava and canapés, to remember that the displays and exhibits you see at the People's History Museum are less to do with the actual history of the City and more to do with a single political perspective. In this case, as in so many others, the word 'people' has been hijacked by a political minority.

    This is all a real shame as I agree with Ed; there is enormous value in recognising that innovation and social conditions and reform should never be looked at in isolation from each other. The only way that works though is by recognising complexity and exploring multiple perspectives. As long as places like the 'People's History Museum' run a single narrative of Socialists = good, Tories = Bad and urge us all to wave the red flag we are failing to do that. 

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