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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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