Birmingham or Manchester: Which is Britain's second city?

Obviously, it's Birmingham.

Ten years ago, one of the most iconic buildings in the Birmingham skyline, Selfridges, was added to the Bullring shopping complex. It was part of a massive regeneration project, which is continuing today with "The Big City Plan". New Street Station is being transformed. The architectural marvel that is the new Birmingham Library opens next month, and there is even an inner city park being built on the Eastside, the first park in the city centre since Victorian times.

All are part of an attempt to rebrand Birmingham. It longs to reaffirm its status as Britain's second city, after Manchester's has increasing dominance over a title it has held since World War One.

As a born and bred Brummie, with a mother and girlfriend both from Manchester, I feel that I am better placed than most to judge the relative claims of each claimant to the princeship. And in all honestly, there is just no competition.

Hands down, Birmingham is Britain's second city. Why? Most obviously because size does matter. With the largest population and GDP outside of London, in quantifiable terms, the Midland metropolis trumps Manchester. But of course, Manchester’s declaration of superiority has never been based on size, but rather on "culture", supposedly based on quality, not quantity. However, as I see it, even if we analyse the supposed "Capital of the North" in terms of its cultural attractions, Birmingham still comes out on top.

Oasis, the Stone Roses, New Order, the Smiths, Joy Division, et cetera are listed on demand when you ask a Mancunian about their music scene. OK, so they were brilliant bands. They were. The up-and-coming music scene of today is centred in Digbeth, the "Shoreditch of Birmingham", as the NME calls it. As the likes of Peace and Swim Deep demonstrate, the ‘B-town’ scene is fast eclipsing Madchester as a hub of new indie bands.

Even if one does insist on harking back to past musical giants, it’s not only Manchester that boasts a proud history. Pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh, all originate from Birmingham, lest we forget that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, UB40, the Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran, and the Streets were all Brummie's who created an eclectic mix of genres and should not be dismissed.

Beyond music, admittedly, the recent move of elements of the BBC to Salford Quays and the enduring national treasure that is Coronation Street has brought greater media exposure to Manchester. Such exposure has fuelled misconceptions, demonstrated in a recent poll carried out by Trinity Mirror Data Unit. 28.8 per cent of people living outside of Manchester defined it as the second city, compared to only 18.3 per cent of non-Brummies choosing Birmingham.

However, again, if we delve beneath the perceptions, Birmingham boasts a range of oft-forgotten cultural gems. The city has more canals than Venice, lined with beautifully quaint barges, the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world (which surely rivals Manchester’s Lowry centre), Digbeth’s Custard Factory with its vintage stalls and jazz music, the world-renowned acoustic haven that is the Symphony Hall, Birmingham’s Royal Ballet and of course, Cadbury World, a treasure-trove of unlimited chocolate and life-size drumming Gorillas.

Manchester’s curry mile must also bow down to Brum’s "Balti-Triangle", internationally recognised as the home of curry. Don’t just take my word for it, the New York Times listed Birmingham 19th in its 45 Places to Go in 2012 last year, thanks to the spectacular nature of its baltis. Space was one place behind in 20th, and Manchester didn’t even make the list.

Perhaps with all of this in mind, supporters of Manchester’s claim to the title cling on to the success of their hugely prolific and famous football sides, claiming that the prowess of United, and more recently, City, justify their sense of superiority. But by that logic, following their FA Cup win last season, surely Wigan should be considered one of the most important towns in the country, at least temporarily? Surely Swansea can claim to be the 9th most important city in Britain following its 9th place finish in the Premier League.

Even in football, one of Manchester’s strongest claims to superiority, if we delve beneath the surface, it is clear that Birmingham more than rivals its strength. A survey that featured in the Telegraph in 2011 tallied the hometown of every top flight footballer since 1992, and found that Birmingham had produced 55 Premier League players, while Manchester could only boast 42.

Whether it is due to the abysmally poor standard of Birmingham-based soaps such as Doctors and Crossroads, or the lack of media centres in the Midlands, non-brummies increasingly doubt their second city status. This needs to change. Birmingham possesses all of the ingredients that make a great city, and is still improving, as its "Big City Plan" continues to transform the centre’s architecture. All it needs is more a little self-confidence, so chins up fellow Brummies - our time is now.

10 years on from its construction, Birmingham's Selfridges building has become an iconic landmark. Picture: Getty Images.
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories