Affleck’s Palace, the iconic indie emporium situated in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, was our Saturday home as teenagers. The cultural venue for the beautiful, wonderful and weird, it stood for everything that defined the soul of the city and everyone in it: its illustrious musical heritage, artistic flare, and retro-meets-“ahead of the curve” trends. Kick-starting careers like Red or Dead’s founder, Wayne Hemmingway, and urban architect, Tom Bloxham, it was a place to be proud of, a cultural home to call “our own”, uniting identity, community and place.
This civic pride rings true across the North. Historically disconnected from the wealth of the South – and the capital’s access to global markets – northern towns and cities forged their own cultural path underpinned by both a strong desire to be creative and an unrelenting drive for social change. The Manchester music scene in the 80s, which brought us bands like The Stone Roses and The Smiths, epitomised this drive as struggling communities sought to wrestle with the brutal reality of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism.
But globalisation has since hit the North hard. The decline of industry, the rise of the internet and robotics, and the pulling power of the capital – the dominant magnet for talent – has once again had a detrimental impact not only economically, but also socially and culturally. Communities have become increasingly fragmented and atomised, as people move south in search of different jobs. Between 1918 and 1981, the proportion of the population in England living in the North declined from 35 per cent to 30 per cent, and in the 35 years since it has declined further and more rapidly to 27 per cent. What used to bind them – identity as miners, steelworkers, members of labour movements and unions, political affiliation – has now gone, and very little has come in to take its place.
People used to wear their identity on their sleeve: you could tell what a person’s politics was simply by the way they dressed and the music they listened to. Long gone are the good old “Madchester” days, where cultural identity, through music, was embedded in the very heart and soul of the city and its people. Much like everything else, music has become detached from people and place, with playlists now an atomised and eclectic mix, driven by populist markets that find their home on places like Spotify.
The more we have opened ourselves up to the world, the more inward-looking we have become. This cultural irony that typifies many northern towns and cities has not only separated people from each other – as the northern Brexit vote unveiled – but from politics, public service and the unique common cultural drive for local social change. This requires a completely different level of response from Government and our local leaders. Yes, we need to “re-balance” the nation, create more jobs and drive up levels of employment, but economic interventions alone won’t be nearly enough. The North is in need of a cultural renewal.
The Government’s Northern Powerhouse agenda has brought with it some positive investment in local cultural infrastructure. Hull has recently benefited to the tune of an additional £13m to contribute toward its year as City of Culture and its legacy. In Manchester, plans for a £110m performance space (the “Factory”), granted £78m of central government funding, is underway.
But meanwhile and elsewhere, under the central mandate of austerity, we see local authorities making cuts to key sites of cultural heritage that have a core civic purpose. The last surviving 19th century steam powered mill and associated textile museum in Lancashire, for example, is currently under threat. Despite the Government’s generous grants, it still remains true that London takes an overwhelmingly large piece of the cultural funding pie. Londoners benefit from £65.18 per head investment in their cultural infrastructure, compared with just £4.91 per head outside the capital.
If we want to see the much needed return of real cultural affiliation, identity and participation in the North, these funds need to be distributed more equitably and invested more wisely. This will require a coming together of local cultural leaders and communities, but also a pan-North strategy to ensure that no place is left behind. We at ResPublica are calling for the introduction of a Northern Cultural Tsar to lead on its development and advocacy.
It will also demand an understanding that cultural identity emerges from within rather than without. Abstract ideas as to what it means to be “British” no longer resonate. We crack out the Union Jack during the Olympics and on the Queen’s birthday, but it’s then (at best) folded up and placed back in the attic. “Britishness” has become a commodity that we use and discard when it suits us. The coming together around “British” events and teams only temporarily unites us as a collective United Kingdom, but does very little to restore disaffected communities for whom this free market approach to identity has been so damaging.
In contrast, the most successful cultural initiatives have been driven by the people, for the people. Cultural identity emerges from who we are as individuals, and who we want to be as a community. It’s not an imposed and intangible ideal, dictated by Government or the market – it’s a locally discerned “good”, rooted in place, history and communal aspiration. The Granby 4 Streets project in Liverpool, which won the Turner Prize last year, demonstrates just how successful this approach can be. What was formerly a deeply deprived, ugly and dangerous neighbourhood, abandoned by both government and industry, is now a beautiful and vibrant community, where locals have restored its cultural identity and advanced significant social change.
We need to learn from this initiative and the many others like it. Only then can we grasp the cultural opportunity in the North and let it unite us once again.