Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 November 2007

Nottingham: The New Capital of England?

What’s the capital city of England? Every child throughout the world probably knows the answer to that question: London, of course. Images of Big Ben, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, etc. flash past.

But is London England’s capital city or the United Kingdom’s? London belongs to the whole of the UK, and almost every national institution headquartered there is, precisely, national (i.e. British) rather than English – with the exception of a few iconic cultural and sporting organisations, such as the English National Opera, the English National Ballet, Twickenham, Wembley or the FA.

In this respect, the capital city serves as a symbol for so many other instances (including, of course, parliament) whereby there are both national institutions for the UK as a whole, and parallel or subsidiary organisations for the nations of Scotland or Wales – but not England. Scotland has its capital in Edinburgh; Cardiff is the capital city of Wales – but it sounds rather odd to say England’s capital city is London. ‘In the absence of any other’, one feels like adding. This discrepancy – whose origins in the asymmetrical constitution of the UK are well known – struck me on reading Gareth Young’s recent post ‘Is Britain Doomed?‘ (well, actually Philip Hosking’s comment on that post) on the Our Kingdom blog, in which PH did refer to London rather dismissively as the ‘capital of England’. (The phrase puts me in mind of that ad of a few years ago, where a child is asked what the capital of ‘England’ is, and she thinks for a while before answering ‘E’ (i.e. letter E). Perhaps why that is so funny is not just because of the cleverness of the child in working out a coherent but wrong answer to a question she wasn’t sure of, but also the very fact that she didn’t know the answer – reflecting the ambiguity of London’s status.)

Maybe the fact that Philip Hosking’s unthinking assumption that London is the capital of England reflects a Celtic perspective on the UK, I don’t know. But from an English perspective, there’s not much of a sense that London is especially English, other than in the general sense that the UK itself is ‘English’: a product of English politics, statesmanship, military victories, culture and society over the centuries. English people generally are proud of London and of the fact that it is a great global metropolis, and the world’s financial capital (the capital of capital, if you like). But is it our capital; does it symbolise England?

It was for that reason that I added a facetious comment of my own to the Our Kingdom post pointing out that London was officially only the capital of the UK and that in this respect, as with the parliament, England doesn’t actually have a capital city. I then invited suggestions for the capital city of what would effectively have to be a devolved or independent England, if the country’s new capital were to have any formal rather than merely symbolic status. I suggested Canterbury: partly because it was the birthplace of Anglo-Saxon Christianity (and I’d personally like England to continue to have some sort of continuing official status as a Christian country), and partly, facetiously, because it’s got good access to Brussels via the Eurostar!

On reflection, however – and yes, this is the sort of sad rumination with which my brain is so frequently afflicted – I’d like to change my selection to Nottingham. Why Nottingham?

  1. The capital of England couldn’t be London as this would replicate all the Westminster-villagey, London-centric things that are wrong about UK politics; plus it would inevitably mean the federal English parliament and ministries would be too much under the thumb of the UK ones and would struggle to establish a separate identity and organisational culture
  2. You couldn’t locate the parliament in another big city like Manchester or Birmingham as this could result in that city trying to set itself up as a rival to London (and potentially failing); while it could generate a lot of jealousy and antagonism on the part of the other big cities that hadn’t been chosen
  3. It couldn’t be in a small but symbolically important city such as Canterbury, Winchester or York, as the coming of the parliament, the construction of a new parliament building and ministries, and the housing and infrastructure requirements would be overwhelming and would totally transform the city in which they were established. Equally, locating the parliament in York would get the Lancastrians up in arms (hopefully, not literally); putting it in Winchester would lead to accusations of South of England-centrism
  4. It would be good, nonetheless, to establish the parliament in a historic city with a rich and symbolic past
  5. Nottingham is just such a city, and its East Midlands geographical location is ideal: neither North nor South; good transport links to everywhere in the country
  6. It’s also a city in serious need of regeneration. Deciding to locate the parliament here would be the trigger for massive investment; plus it would be demonstrating the political establishment’s determination not to be identified with the privileged South but to be committed to English communities that need support
  7. And last but not least, it’s the home of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. What better symbol for our times of the people of England rising up in revolt against an overarching [pun intended] centralised state and a corrupt political elite!

Anyone got any better suggestions for England’s new capital?

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