How a declining British town changed its fortunes
The games are the culmination of several good years for the city. Peaky Blinders bathed the local accent in gangster glamour. Several large companies, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have set up regional offices there, encouraged by the prospect of faster connections to London when HS2, the new high-speed railway, is completed. The city has a brand new tram network, a mile of mouth-watering restaurants and the world’s largest Primark. Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands region which includes Birmingham as well as other Black Country towns such as Wolverhampton and Coventry, has become the most influential of Britain’s new metropolitan mayors, not least because he is a Conservative.
Until recently, Birmingham’s story was one of decline and disappointment. But it wasn’t like that before. In the 1880s and 1890s, intellectuals flocked to what one American visitor called “the best-governed city in the world.” Birmingham commissioned a succession of fine buildings and a wide new boulevard – Corporation Street. It has also been the world leader in slum clearance and the provision of municipal services such as gas, water and sewage.
The impresario of it all was Joseph Chamberlain, one of the great political figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who was mayor from 1873 to 1876, became an MP and a minister. His sons – from different wives – were equally, if not more, influential. Austen Chamberlain was twice Chancellor of the Exchequer; Neville Chamberlain served as Prime Minister in the lead up to World War II.
Joseph Chamberlain tapped into two great local resources. The first was a civic gospel that preached that local industrialists had a duty to give back as much as they could to their communities. In many towns the industrialists—once they had done their job—retired to the countryside and lived like feudal barons. In Birmingham, local families, many of them Quakers and Unitarians, tried to improve the place that had given them their wealth. The Cadburys led the way by creating the model town of Bourneville for their workers, filled with spacious craftsmen’s houses with their own gardens.
The second was the creativity of local businesses. Chamberlain’s Birmingham was one of the small workshops and niche products. The mayor himself is an example of this: he moved there at the age of 18 to take over his uncle’s business, which at one time produced three-quarters of the world’s screws. From the 1920s, the city reinvented itself as a motor city – Britain’s Detroit – with companies like Austin, Rover Motors and Dunlop Rubber within easy commuting distance.
The fortunes of the city changed dramatically from the 1960s. It is hardly original to say that Britain is an overly centralized country with London dominating the economy and Whitehall, and in particular the Treasury, trying to micromanage a country he knows little about. The quality of governance in Birmingham has plummeted thanks to ill-conceived reform, notably the 1973 reorganization of local government. The Labor Party – which dominated for most of the 1960s and 1970s – increasingly treated Birmingham as a fiefdom, even a rotten borough. The auto industry has often been paralyzed by industrial action.
Things began to change during this century. Birmingham played a vital role in Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s devolution of power to British cities – and the far more ambitious leveling strategy that followed. Nick Timothy – a Brummie who adored Joe Chamberlain and was Theresa May’s right-hand man when she ran the Home Office under Cameron – sketched out a plan to make the town and the party more appealing. It was a combination of the old civic gospel and industrial strategy. However, May’s attempt to implement this strategy failed when she became Prime Minister herself, as all her attention was absorbed by Brexit. Timothy also annoyed too many people. But his ideas eventually blossomed in the Northern Strategy which gave the Conservatives an 80-seat majority in 2019.
Does the city’s recent turnaround have a chance of lasting? Or will the curse that befell the city in the 60s and 70s once again reduce its dreams to ashes?
It is foolish to be too optimistic in today’s feverish atmosphere. Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, plans to level herself by creating enterprise zones rather than rekindling Chamberlain’s civic gospel. Failure to establish a stable trade relationship with Europe could lead to problems for the wider automotive economy.
Still, there are some reasons for optimism. The automotive industry continues to thrive despite Brexit. The nearby University of Warwick is home to world-class research into batteries and electric vehicles. Street brought a problem-solving, post-partisan spirit to his job as mayor of the West Midlands.
Britain needs capable mayors as a second line of defense against an increasingly dysfunctional central government. They are another pool of talent beyond the world of think tanks and spads. Hopefully Street and Birmingham shine longer than the two weeks of play.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Liz…: Adrian Wooldridge
Boris Johnson isn’t going away – and Tories know it: Tara Lachappelle
Conservatives shouldn’t cancel ‘Trussonomics’ yet: Lionel Laurent
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is a global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at The Economist, he is the author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World”.
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