In 2004, Liverpool’s Pier Head was awarded Unesco world heritage status. Its three ornate, imposing buildings, the so-called “Three Graces”, each bespeak an age of imperial grandeur, when Liverpool – which once laid claim to being the second city of the British empire – was a centre of international trade and industrial might. Here, hundreds of thousands of Irish migrants landed, seeking to escape famine and poverty. For those who could afford it, Liverpool was the first stop on a journey to the New World. But those who couldn’t stayed and gave the city its distinctive character and its un-English reputation, as well as its Scouse accent.
On Wednesday (14 October) Liverpool City Region, which encompasses Liverpool and five surrounding local authority areas, became the first place in England to enter tier-three Covid-19 restrictions. In advance of this, intensive care units in Liverpool were 95 per cent full and the city had recorded the third highest number of hospital admissions in Europe. Pubs, bars and gyms have been closed, households are banned from mixing, and public transport is for essential journeys only.
Today the baroque arches of the Liver Building are being used to film the new Batman release. The shoot, already delayed by the pandemic, will continue despite the new restrictions. Small groups of onlookers, paused joggers and office workers on cigarette breaks watch a helicopter circle the 18ft Liver Bird statues, where Robert Pattinson’s stunt double poses precariously on the edge of a balcony.
Rory and a friend, who did not want to give his name, are hanging around on bikes near the Batman set. What do they think about Liverpool being placed under new restrictions? “Coronavirus is meant to be a thing, but you can still sit there and film Batman and have Robert Pattinson standing on the end of a balcony?” his friend asks mockingly, laughing at the surreal scene – a Hollywood film set in the epicentre of a pandemic, a rainy day in a locked-down city mimicking Gotham. “It’s a fucking joke, do you know what I mean?”
Rory agrees. “There are people there in power taking pay rises, and then there are mothers and fathers on the streets who have lost their jobs. It’s a shambles. It’s not going to last long in this city because you’ve already got gyms and places like that staying open and saying ‘we’re not putting up with this no more’’’. Several gyms in the city region have been fined for refusing to close.
“Boris Johnson hasn’t had the best history with the city itself,” Rory says. In 2004, while editor of the Spectator, Johnson published an editorial claiming Liverpool had “an excessive predilection for welfarism” that had bred a “deeply unattractive psyche among many Liverpudlians”. People in the city, it added, “see themselves whenever possible as victims”. The then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, sent Johnson to Liverpool to apologise, but Johnson remains a hate figure in the city.
Rory’s friend is sceptical about whether people will comply with the new restrictions. “We won’t stand for it, Scousers… we told the Tories to fuck off when Maggie Thatcher was prime minister and we’re telling them to fuck off again.”
This is a city that often prides itself on its combative spirit, on defying the establishment and Westminster authority. In the battles between the left-wing city council and the Thatcher government in the 1980s, and in the 30-year fight for justice over the Hillsborough stadium disaster, Liverpool has always seen itself as a place apart, a place that stands up for itself.
But in recent days its local leaders have been accused of pandering to Johnson’s government, accepting the tier three designation without nearly as much fight as their neighbour and civic rival, Manchester.
Derek Hatton, the former firebrand councillor who became famous as the lead spokesperson for Liverpool’s Militant-controlled council almost 40 years ago, accused the Liverpool City Region mayor, Labour’s Steve Rotheram, of showing “hardly a peep of fighting talk, let alone fight”. Just because the government had imposed the restrictions, Hatton wrote on Twitter, “doesn’t mean we have to accept it lying down.” There was “massive support in the city” he claimed, for resisting the government, that “just needs tapping into”.
This version of events is rejected by Rotheram and by Liverpool City Council’s mayor, Joe Anderson (the existence of two elected mayors on Merseyside has caused no end of confusion for some Westminster journalists). Rotheram’s cause wasn’t helped when the Prime Minister praised him in parliament for coming to an agreement.
“Boris Johnson threw [Rotheram] under the bus – no, under a fleet of buses – when he did that,” Anderson tells me. “It’s political skulduggery.”
Some reports have, however, suggested that Greater Manchester avoided tier three restrictions because of the open rebellion of the metro mayor, Andy Burnham, and its other local authority leaders. There is also anger at Lancashire’s proposed tier-three restrictions, which appear to be lighter than Liverpool’s and include a more generous support package. Gyms will remain open in the neighbouring north-west county, and local leaders have negotiated £42m in extra funds.
“We were called in to be presented with a fait accompli,” Anderson says. “It’s an insult to people’s intelligence to try and portray this as if we’re on the same page [as the government], working together as partners. That’s absolute bollocks…
“Manchester had hindsight. They’ve been able to use what has gone on with us to make the case and make the argument… Ed Lister [Johnson’s chief strategic adviser] said to me ‘we’re not closing schools, we’re not closing universities, we’re not closing retail, so the only place we’ve got left to hit is hospitality’.”
Liverpool’s economic recovery from the days when cabinet ministers talked of “managed decline”, and when the city was known as the “Bermuda Triangle of British capitalism”, has been based on the growth of the tourism, culture, hospitality and university sectors, all ravaged by the first lockdown and now facing a second one with even less financial support.
“People who know me know full well I’m no friend of the Tories,” insists Anderson, who has a difficult relationship with No 10. “I’m glad Tories are as rare as rocking horse shit in Liverpool.” And he’s not wrong. Labour candidates in the city often achieve vote shares that would make Vladimir Putin blush. In the Liverpool Walton parliamentary constituency, Labour has won over 80 per cent of the vote at the last three general elections, and the year Anderson was elected as mayor in 2012, both the Greens and the far-left Trade Union and Socialist Coalition received more votes than the Conservative candidate.
Paul Mason recently wrote in the New Statesman that the popular response to the northern English lockdowns had led to “the strongest level” of anti-London sentiment since the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The anger among the public and local politicians is palpable.
Back on the Pier Head, the site of dockers’ strikes, Militant rallies and now Batman films, Rory suggests his own solution: “If you want to do your own lockdown and own restrictions – well, I’ve been saying for a long time: Liverpool should put down for independence, as its own city, as its own little country outside the United Kingdom.”
“Scousers out, mate,” his friend interjects. “Mason Owens’ music.” (A reference to the local singer whose songs, such as “I am not an Englishman”, celebrate Scouse exceptionalism and an only semi-ironic separatism.)
In a city that has arguably felt more estranged from the English mainstream than any other, this sentiment is now perhaps greater than ever.