This is apparently inspired by Joseph Chamberlain, the Victorian mayor of Birmingham who was effectively the forerunner of municipal socialism, using the power of the local council to build the city.
But, and this may come as a surprise to Londoners, not all provincial cities are the same or developed in the same way, and there are better examples to follow than Birmingham.
If I may fly the flag both for my home city and for free markets, if you want a 19th century model of a successful, vibrant city, liberal Manchester is a far better one than Chamberlain’s municipal, council-controlled Birmingham.
Rather than a Lancastrian version of Chamberlain, Manchester elected Richard Cobden, ardent supporter of free trade, as alderman and as MP (for neighbouring Stockport). Rather than supporting government control and subsidies, Manchester founded the hugely successful Anti-Corn Law League to campaign for free trade and low taxes.
So which vision worked best; Chamberlain’s or Cobden’s?
Transport infrastructure, a current modern obsession, was built earlier in Manchester, and by private initiative.
The first true canal in England was the Bridgewater, in Manchester, opened in 1761, built using private funds. Birmingham didn’t get their first one finished until 1772, possibly because they adopted a collectivist “committee” approach to developing and managing it. Birmingham’s canals were nationalised and became quiet backwaters with a few pottering tourist boats; Manchester’s have remained privately owned and commercially successful.
Manchester had the first modern railway in the world, the Liverpool and Manchester, built in 1830 to export the products of Manchester‘s manufacturing. Birmingham had to wait until 1838 for its first railway link, and only got one then because Mancunians funded it on their way to London.
And look at the result. Throughout the 18th century, Manchester was tiny; fewer than 10,000 people in 1700, and only 22,481 in 1773, half the size of Birmingham. But by 1891 Manchester had over 2 million people, while Birmingham had less than half a million. In the 120 years to 1891, Birmingham grew ten-fold, but Manchester grew a hundred-fold.
But what of cultural and intellectual life? Was Manchester a barren city of “dark satanic mills”, dedicated only to making money, while Birmingham’s social life flourished under Joseph Chamberlain and his wise, benevolent local government institutions? Not a bit of it.
Manchester’s Hallé orchestra was founded in 1857, by the musician Charles Hallé. Birmingham didn’t get their Symphony Orchestra until 1920, perhaps because they relied on politicians to do it for them (Joseph’s son, Neville).
Manchester has the oldest free public library in Britain, the privately-funded Chetham’s (founded 1653 and much expanded in the 18th century), and the private subscription Portico library in 1802, while Birmingham’s council-run library wasn’t opened until 1866.
Manchester’s first public art gallery was built and run by the private Royal Manchester Institution in 1833, while again Birmingham, lacking Manchester’s private initiative, had to wait until their local council got round to opening a municipal gallery in 1864.
Manchester built its concert hall in 1856 by private subscription, not through taxes or local government initiative, and called it the Free Trade Hall in honour of the repeal of the Corn Laws and the city’s global trading links that brought its prosperity. In contrast Birmingham’s concert hall, built by the local government “Street Commissioners”, was dogged with problems of over-runs (in time and cost) and industrial accidents, including the death of two construction workers.
Intellectually, Manchester got its first university in 1880, which grew out of the privately funded Owens College (initially based in Cobden’s old house). Birmingham, as in so much, was decades behind. While Manchester’s university was founded, funded and run on a voluntary, private basis, Birmingham’s was bound up with local government, Chamberlain and the City Corporation (indeed it draws its heritage back to medical teaching attached to the municipal workhouse). And despite, or probably because of, its heavy municipal involvement, Birmingham didn’t actually get a university until Joseph Chamberlain (by now an MP rather than Mayor) pushed through the Birmingham University Act in 1900.
Manchester’s outlook was always internationalist, trading around the world. The Free Trade movement that it founded sought to lower trade barriers, initially to abolish import duties on corn in order to reduce food prices for the less well off, but the campaign ultimately resulted in what is arguably the world’s first free trade agreement, the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty with France in 1860.
From the beginning, Manchester’s liberalism was about making life better for the working classes. The Corn Laws, high taxes on imported wheat, kept prices high to the benefit of aristocratic landlords but made bread expensive for workers. Cobden and the Manchester-based Free Trade movement took on those vested interests and won, cutting living costs for the poor.
The Manchester industrialists provided well-paid jobs that attracted millions to the city. Manchester’s private entrepreneurs, artists and philanthropists, acting independently or through voluntary co-operation, enriched the intellectual and cultural life of the city. It was decades before Birmingham’s council, with its municipal stranglehold on the city, managed to follow Manchester’s lead.
So which system was better – Manchester’s free-market liberalism or Birmingham’s municipal corporatism?
Never mind the theory; look at which city people wanted to live in. The two were developing at the same time, less than a hundred miles apart, under very different systems – they are a perfect experiment.
The answer is clear. People could see the results of the two alternatives, and they preferred the fruits of Manchester liberalism by a factor of ten.
So May is the champion of Joseph Chamberlain and his municipal socialism, pushing the failed model of government intervention. But who is making the vital arguments for Manchester liberalism, that a liberal society, business and social, is the best way to help the poor? Where is the Cobden of our day?