For at least a thousand years, London has been England’s first city. The unofficial title of ‘second city’ has changed hands many times. York, Norwich, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool have all taken a turn. Since the First World War, Birmingham has generally been considered the UK’s second city. It became the second most populous city in England in 1911, and in Britain forty years later, overtaking Glasgow. Today, some believe the title should go to Manchester, even though Birmingham, with a population of 1.1 million, is twice the size of the City of Manchester. But Greater Manchester, with 2.9 million people, is a political unit, and with Andy Burnham as mayor it has demanded and gained some of the political privileges and independence of Greater London. What could have been called Greater Birmingham, a unit including the Black Country, Coventry and the outer suburbs, has a very slightly larger population than Greater Manchester. What it is actually called, though, is the Metropolitan County of the West Midlands, a name that diminishes its metropolis, whereas the name Greater Manchester aggrandises the smaller city at its heart. Salford, Rochdale, Stockport, Leigh and Altrincham have been nodes in Greater Manchester for decades now, but people in West Bromwich or Dudley, let alone Coventry or Wolverhampton, would blanch at being described as inhabitants of Greater Birmingham.
Manchester today feels like the country’s second city in a way that Birmingham doesn’t, from the scale of its neo-Gothic architecture to its centrality in popular culture, from the macho confidence of its civic leaders to the intensity of its property boom. Getting off a train in Manchester – or Glasgow, or Liverpool, or Newcastle, or even Leeds – you’re faced with evidence of a municipal pride that seems bafflingly absent from Birmingham, the founding city of ‘municipal socialism’. The main station at New Street is set within a shopping mall, Grand Central, which blurs into another shopping mall, the Bull Ring. Richard Vinen, writing the first serious history of Birmingham in a long while, is aware of how hard it is to pin the city down, to explain what it is or what it is for. Planners in the 1960s, he says, ‘were sometimes perplexed as to why Birmingham had been settled in the first place’. It had no fort, no castle, no major river, no cathedral. Until the 18th century it was overshadowed in size, wealth and importance by nearby places such as Coventry, Lichfield and Worcester. Ideally, a second city should present an alternative to the centre, a different set of values, a different ethos or way of life; Marseille compared with Paris, Los Angeles with New York, Hamburg or Cologne with Berlin, Milan with Rome, Shanghai with Beijing. Vinen has little that is nice to say about his hometown, but he does finally conclude that Birmingham fits the bill, offering a sharp contrast to the power represented by the Roman colonial capital, London. A city in constant flux, with a bourgeoisie but no aristocracy or court and little literature, a place without mythology or ghosts.
When Birmingham started to expand in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and then exponentially at the turn of the 20th, its ‘very success served to remove it from view’ in a country whose media are perennially obsessed with a caricatured contrast between a rough North and a soft South. (Manchester likes to talk tough, but is in many ways a more bourgeois city than Birmingham.) Birmingham became prominent because of its industrial power, but its history is very different from that of the ‘industrial North’. It sits in the middle of England but it is not ‘Middle England’; it is one of the most multicultural places on earth, but it is not exotic. The upshot is that this economically and demographically important place is relatively culturally obscure. ‘What made provincial life seem glamorous to London commentators in the prosperous Britain of the 1950s and 1960s,’ Vinen writes, was ‘poverty or picturesque working-class culture’. But Birmingham was affluent, and not at all picturesque. With its ‘booming economy and a working class which had largely been drawn from other places within the last few decades’ – Wales, Poland, rural Worcestershire, industrial Staffordshire, Pakistan, Jamaica – it ‘did not fit the central casting notion of what an industrial city ought to look like’. Vinen points out that whereas the thrillingly nihilistic film Get Carter (1971) emphasised Newcastle’s postwar reconstruction as a city of towers and flyovers, Birmingham’s even more comprehensive redevelopment was the setting two years later for the Cliff Richard musical Take Me High, in which the Christian rocker traverses Spaghetti Junction and the Bull Ring.
Vinen makes some effort to extend his history of Birmingham back to the Middle Ages; the truth is that bar the founding in 1552 of King Edward’s School, which would become an influential elite institution, there’s little worth saying about the place until the 18th century. But there is a lack of deep continuity in the histories of many interesting places – consider Berlin, Shanghai, Mumbai, or nearly any city in the Americas – and from the late 18th century onwards Birmingham becomes very interesting indeed. Vinen’s account of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’ is gripping. He doesn’t make it altogether clear why Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin chose to base their Lunar Society at Soho House in Handsworth, but he does paint an intriguing picture of the industrial-scientific circle that grew up around them. For these men, the line between industrial development and scientific experiment was porous: sometimes their ‘experiments involved objects’ and ‘sometimes they involved people.’ Theirs was a world of journeys in hot air balloons and Sadean efforts to improve education for waifs and strays chosen expressly for the purpose. Boulton commissioned the city’s first major factories – steam-engine-powered behemoths like the Soho Manufactory, opened in 1766 – inside the city’s current limits, producing a range of metal goods, and served by the Soho Foundry in Smethwick, in the coal and steel belt of the Black Country. There was ideology and drama here beyond the grim calculations of Manchester mill-owners. The manufactory was ‘reckoned to be the largest factory in the world’, and was ‘built to impress’, with its Palladian façade. It was set in extensive grounds, which Boulton had enclosed from formerly common land, and came to boast an aviary, a menagerie and a tearoom.
The Lunar Society’s interests went beyond making stuff, but Vinen stresses the limits on their speculations: their radicalism was based on the sanctity of property. Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen, founded English Unitarianism and had what Vinen regards as an overbearing, patronising attitude towards Catholicism – anyone so foolish as to believe Catholic doctrine was to be pitied rather than persecuted. All this came to an end with the Priestley Riots of 1791. Protesters attacked the guests at a dinner for ‘any friend of liberty’ held at the Royal Hotel on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille; Priestley’s house was burned down, along with the homes and chapels of other Dissenters. Vinen thinks the mob’s hostility was understandable: the group had enclosed common land, put people to work in infernal conditions, and mocked their patriotism and religion. Later, an alliance would form between the society’s successors in middle-class Nonconformism and a much more radical local proletariat. They demanded incorporation – municipal self-government – and electoral reform. The pact broke down in the Bull Ring riots of 1839, when shopkeepers and factory owners supported the violent suppression of Chartist demonstrations by the Metropolitan Police, bussed in for the occasion. For the next hundred years, Birmingham would be unwelcoming to the labour movement; this overwhelmingly working-class city elected mostly Liberal and then Conservative MPs. The city’s two great myths relate to this era: first, the invention of ‘municipal socialism’ here by an elected local authority; second, the social peace and class mobility made possible by an industrialism consisting of many small, flexible factories. Vinen is harder on the second tale than the first.
There is an indicative aside late in Second City where Vinen laments the renaming of Civic Square as Centenary Square in 1989, the hundredth anniversary of Birmingham’s elevation to ‘city status’ by Queen Victoria. The Birmingham of the late 19th century hadn’t done much to celebrate this honour, but it did regularly celebrate the now forgotten date of 1838, when it was incorporated, that is, granted municipal self- government. The desire, on the part of its civic fathers, for Birmingham to be seen as a ‘Big City’ sometimes intersected with their attempts to maintain an interventionist, independent self-government, and sometimes parted ways. This is particularly true of Joseph Chamberlain. Second City is full of Brummies, like Kenneth Tynan or the members of Duran Duran, who successfully pretended they were from somewhere else, but Chamberlain remains far more identified with Birmingham than his native Camberwell. He was its mayor for just three years, between 1873 and 1876, and spent far longer than that as a national politician, but the ‘gas and water socialism’ he and his clique in the Liberal Party introduced would set the city’s agenda for decades to come.
Chamberlain’s rise in the local Liberal Party broke the stranglehold of a petit-bourgeois ‘shopocracy’ on municipal politics. After he was elected mayor in 1873, his administration took over the private gas and water companies which had failed to provide clean water and reliable heating – ‘a degree of state intervention that was not to be carried out at a national level until after 1945’. (In the thick of the takeover Chamberlain, who had made his money as a manufacturer of screws, claimed that if the government blocked the purchase, he would pay for it himself.) Municipal transport and housing would follow, though in 1876 Chamberlain gave up the mayoralty for Birmingham’s seat in the Commons. It was all phenomenally popular in the city; ten years later, when Chamberlain split the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule, he took Birmingham’s voters with him into a coalition with the Tories. Alternately demagogue, Nonconformist, atheist, republican, imperialist, capitalist, statist and ‘socialist’ of sorts, Chamberlain’s stamp is on a lot of what is most interesting in Birmingham. But Vinen is careful not to overstate it. The most impressive architectural achievements in the city centre, such as the Town Hall, precede Chamberlain, and the seat of civic power, the Council House, for which he laid the first stone, is remarkable only so long as you don’t compare it with the mighty municipal edifices of Leeds, Bolton, Rochdale or Manchester.
Chamberlain’s other legacy is Corporation Street, planned with great fanfare and funded with the proceeds of the gas and water companies. Although it also made use of slum clearance grants, no slum-dwellers were rehoused on it. The street was designed as a showcase of municipal grandeur, and as proof that an English provincial city could match the glories of the Italian Renaissance or contemporary Paris. In this it failed. There are some mildly impressive buildings at either end of the street, sandstone Italianate where it starts and bright red terracotta Gothic where it terminates, but the ambition to emulate a ‘Parisian boulevard’ is unmet. Treeless and straggly, it isn’t even all that wide compared with the roads that would be scythed through the city a hundred years later; its major monument today is a hangdog statue of Tony Hancock (who grew up in Bournemouth). Chamberlain claimed that the rents from Corporation Street’s commercial clients would make the project pay for itself – which they did, but not for ‘almost thirty years after his death, by which time his youngest son was prime minister’. Yet at the time people were very impressed. Vinen quotes the Spectator in 1891, lauding Birmingham as an exception to the English anti-urbanist rule: ‘The Midland metropolis has developed something of the spirit which marked the cities of Greece and Rome and of medieval Italy and France.’
If this spirit had a location, it wasn’t the city centre but Edgbaston, which Vinen describes as ‘a state of mind as much as a place’. It still retains its capacity to surprise, though not in the same way as new urban districts in the North such as Ancoats in Manchester or Little Germany in Bradford. Those places shock with their mass and megalomania, Edgbaston is startling because of the success of its sleight of hand. A very short walk away from the city centre, it is a colony of Italianate villas in extensive, lush grounds on winding streets, carefully planned so as not to be downwind of the city’s industrial emissions. It isn’t Florence or Paris, but a wholly English vision of suburban utopia, at the heart of the city. Unlike the bungle of Corporation Street, it is real, and an unqualified success. Now the centre of Birmingham’s middle-class intelligentsia, Edgbaston originally developed as the result of a complex alliance between the rising industrial bourgeoisie and an older power: the land is owned by the aristocratic Calthorpe Estate, which was still tending it carefully as late as the 1960s, when John Madin was commissioned to design by far the best modernist housing in the city for the area. Other social improvement plans have grown out of it: Edgbaston adjoins Aston Webb’s overripe Victorian university buildings, and is close to the rangier, folksier (for Vinen, simply ‘twee’) Bournville. Having this place at the centre meant that, as the one-time conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra Adrian Boult pointed out, there was a stronger civic culture here than in Manchester or Liverpool because its industrialists lived in Edgbaston, not in Cheshire. It also provided a model of successful city planning that moved away from dense, grand boulevards and other European models towards an English (and soon, American) suburbanism.
Vinen’s account of Chamberlain and Chamberlainism is full of unexpected insights and tangents, not least about his passionate imperialism. This led to his alliance with the Tories and was the impetus behind his major legacy in government, the reconceptualisation of the British Empire, no longer to be regarded as a random collection of ruthlessly exploited entrepôts and latifundia, but as a settler-colonial trans-oceanic superstate. Chamberlain had no interest in the existing cultures of the settler colonies: Vinen argues that he saw Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa as a series of giant Birminghams – which explains a lot, if you’ve ever spent time in Auckland. In these new states, ‘hardworking men made their own way’ in lands ‘without aristocracy or ancient universities’ or an established church.
Vinen cautiously endorses the myth of Joseph Chamberlain and municipal socialism, but has unalloyed contempt for the myth of Birmingham’s small-trades social peace. This notion was popularised in the 1960s by the historian Asa Briggs, whom Vinen dismisses as an ‘academic entrepreneur’. Briggs intended his description of Birmingham, most familiar from its capsule version in Victorian Cities (1963), as a corrective to Marx and Engels’s vision of the Lancastrian industrial capitalist metropolis as the wave of the future, an immense single-industry machine with an impassable divide between rich and poor. (Among Briggs’s disciples was Jane Jacobs, who drew on his ideas to construct a theory of benign capitalism in The Economy of Cities, which has in turn influenced generations of neoliberals.) The essential idea is that Birmingham, as a city of hundreds of small trades rather than one great trade like, say, Bradford or Rochdale, boasted a highly skilled working class that could adapt easily to fluctuations in the trade cycle, and that this explained Birmingham’s relative imperviousness to the labour movement. Most of the city didn’t elect Labour MPs until 1945, which was in part a result, Briggs argued, of its fluid class mobility, with many workers in small factories becoming small bosses themselves.
For Vinen, this is comforting nonsense. What is certainly true is that Georgian and Victorian Birmingham was far less specialised in its trades than the textile towns of the North or the mines and foundries of the Black Country. It made all manner of consumer goods – ‘artificial limbs, billiard tables and dog collars’ – the production of which required skills that were transferable, so that the city’s industries were highly responsive to slumps and changes in demand. But Vinen makes clear that class conflict was if anything more pronounced here than in the North. Trade unions were less influential because they were more aggressively suppressed. ‘Prosecutions under the Master and Servant Act’, he writes, ‘which was used until 1871 against workers who attempted to organise in ways that might be construed as a breach of contract with their employers, were more common in Birmingham than in Liverpool, Sheffield or Manchester.’ He suggests, via the writer Walter Allen (one of the few Birmingham intellectuals from a working-class background), that class consciousness might actually have been sharpened by knowing your own boss. The factory owner, for Allen, was ‘my enemy; he stands in my way,’ and seeing him every day in a small factory intensified that resentment. There is little evidence that ‘men’ were more likely to become ‘masters’ than they were in Manchester. And in any event the story that Birmingham’s industrial structure was dominated by small trades became less true over time: the city’s peak of affluence in the 20th century was based on massive, Americanised factories such as Austin, Dunlop and Cadbury’s.
Chamberlain’s municipally managed capitalism, now administered not by the Liberals but by the Liberal Unionist wing of the Tories, continued into the 20th century in the form of massive council-house building and a few experiments in enlightened industrialism. It was at this point that Birmingham became England’s second city, and while this was partly a consequence of aggressive expansion to incorporate the suburbs (though the Black Country remained unannexed), the city’s population growth in the 20th century was impressive. Vinen notes that ‘about 3 per cent of the entire working age population of Wales moved to the Midlands between the two world wars,’ mostly to Birmingham. The two poles of its industry in the first half of the century were the fanatically anti-union car manufacturers Austin, based at Longbridge (which after a few mergers and nationalisations became British Leyland), and the confectionery empire of Cadbury’s, whose factory and garden suburb at Bournville continued the city’s tradition of Nonconformist middle-class radicalism as well as Edgbaston’s verdant anti-urbanism.
As Quakers and, for a time, public supporters of the Labour Party, the Cadbury family provided a much more pleasant and comfortable working environment than most Birmingham employers, with good housing, and lots of money and green space for (healthy, non-alcoholic, non-competitive) leisure. They were also qualified enthusiasts for the time-and-motion studies and strict work supervision of American ‘scientific management’; Vinen notes that the neat squares of the Dairy Milk bar were perfectly designed for Fordist mass production. Bowls clubs and half-timbering notwithstanding, ‘the company’s consideration for the interests of its workers was accompanied by a close attention to extracting the maximum value from them.’ Although Vinen is careful to show that Birmingham provided better working and living conditions than most places in Britain, his stress falls on the city’s dark side. This is also true of his account of the new suburbs that appeared during the interwar years, nearly half of which were built by Birmingham Corporation for workers and their families, immense estates of semi-detached houses on looping roads, such as Kingstanding and Northfield. These were better built, more spacious, greener and more comfortable than anything in the inner city (except Edgbaston), but were still based on a rationalisation of work and the creation of smaller, patriarchal families.
There were advantages for workers in the new structure that went beyond the improvement in material conditions; having just one landlord, for example, made rent strikes easier to organise and to win. The disciplined, conscious workers of the new outer ring were much more likely to vote Labour than the inner-city proletariat, who remained loyal to the Chamberlains. Inner-city workers were older, and their industries were more closely tied to the tastes of their rulers: the new factories made cheap chocolate, but workers in the jewellery quarter feared losing their jobs if the rich were unable to buy their trinkets. At this point, contrary to Briggs’s argument, Birmingham’s differences from other industrial cities were much more marked than they had been in the 19th century; it had around the same population as Glasgow, but there were just 70,000 unemployed during the Depression in 1932, compared with 125,000 in Glasgow.
In the years before mass car ownership, these dispersed estates had significant flaws. Birmingham remains the largest city in Europe without an underground metro system, and its suburban workers were wholly reliant on the bus network. The landscape was denuded of the pubs, music halls and community life that defined the inner city; bus conductors would call out ‘Siberia!’ on arrival at the Billesley estate. What few facilities there were became very important, but these weren’t the improving community resources of Bournville. Mega-cinemas like the monumental, streamlined Odeon at the centre of Kingstanding were ‘often the first institutions to provide centres of collective life’, shaping the sensibilities of bored dreamers such as the young Tynan. Much like the giant Birminghams of the settler colonies, the city came to suffer from an intense ‘cultural cringe’. The semi-proletarian novelists of the Birmingham Group, including Walter Allen, Walter Brierley, Leslie Halward and John Hampson, and poets with a background in the city, such as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, avoided living there if they could. In public, Neville Chamberlain would praise the city for which he was an MP and with which his family was so closely identified; privately, he sneered that ‘all the people of cultivation go to London.’
The postwar era was Birmingham’s golden age by any economic measure: thirty years of full employment, the near eradication of its slums, rising standards of living and a complete rebuilding of the city for a leisured, car-driving proletariat. It’s a paradox, in Vinen’s telling, that there is remarkably little nostalgia for these decades; the good old days are projected much further back, to what was a fairly miserable 19th century for the majority of Birmingham’s population. The city’s industries did very well out of the Second World War, and its factory workers were praised for their heroic efforts. ‘A few Birmingham women achieved fame as Stakhanovites,’ Vinen writes, such as Evelyn Duncan, a capstan lathe operator who ‘broke the world record for shell production’. The war accelerated the migration of people to work in Birmingham’s factories. Though the city was bombed, it got off lightly compared with London, Liverpool, Hull, Southampton or nearby Coventry; it is one of the few places where it may be genuinely true that more of the built fabric was destroyed by ‘the planners’ than the Luftwaffe.
The demiurge of Birmingham’s rebuilding wasn’t a planner at all, but the city’s chief engineer between 1935 and 1963, Herbert Manzoni. Distrustful of architects and architecture, town planning and utopias, conservation and continuity, Manzoni shaped Birmingham as few other British cities have been shaped. Like Robert Moses in New York, he was without sentimentality or apparent social concern. The starkness and cheapness of Birmingham’s appearance today is owed to his relentless driving in of aggressive roads and driving down of architectural quality. Chamberlain’s initial successors largely left the city centre alone, but Manzoni reshaped it so dramatically that Auden, returning to Birmingham in the 1960s after thirty years, said it had changed more dramatically in that time than his adoptive home of Manhattan.
Vinen is perhaps right that postwar Birmingham’s combination of the tacky and the looming is part of the reason its true golden age isn’t remembered as such, though at the time vertiginous constructions such as the Gravelly Hill interchange (‘Spaghetti Junction’) and the multi-level futuristic cityscape of Smallbrook Queensway were celebrated as equivalents to the Los Angeles freeway system. But he isn’t entirely correct to say that nobody is nostalgic for the architecture of that time. There was a long, bitter and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to conserve Madin’s Brutalist Central Library, for instance; and there is a long-running column on the city’s postwar architecture and public art in the Birmingham Post, ‘Brutiful Birmingham’, written by a trio of local enthusiasts.
Madin’s work was exceptional, but otherwise remarkably little housing of real quality was built in postwar Birmingham when compared with London, Sheffield, Norwich or the New Towns. Manzoni preferred the package deals offered by – often local – construction companies. The best of Birmingham’s municipally employed architects, Alwyn Sheppard Fidler, recalled that ‘when I went to Birmingham you could have called it Wimpey or Wates town.’ Sheppard Fidler embraced tower blocks set in open space as a principle for council housing, something he wouldn’t always be thanked for in years to come, but resigned after his designs were watered down once too often. A few of his high-rise estates survive: Lyndhurst, which Vinen mentions, noting that it has long been considered ‘hard to let’, and Chamberlain Gardens, which he doesn’t discuss – a pity, as it evokes Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse relocated to the gardens of Victorian Edgbaston. Sheppard Fidler’s successor, Alan Maudsley, largely responsible for bleak and monolithic developments like Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood, was jailed in a corruption scandal linking him with the contractors Bryants.
Vinen isn’t very interested in style or architecture, which is very Birmingham of him. But these things matter. The most monumental of its council housing towers were the 31-storey Sentinels, placed at one of the entrances to the city centre. They were inspired, like so much of Manzoni’s city, by the United States – on this occasion by Chicago, where Birmingham municipal delegates on a fact-finding mission were highly impressed by the curvaceous, rippling twin towers of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, a sculptural megastructure, containing flats, offices, an ice rink, a concert hall, restaurants and a multi-storey car park. The Sentinels, though, are just two very big, flat, nondescript tower blocks system-built by Bryants. The only thing they have in common with Marina City is that there are two of them.
Aesthetics aside, these estates were all car-centric. Inner-city districts such as Lozells and Aston were carved up for expressways and flyovers, and workers, more and more of whom were moving to the suburbs, owned cars in increasing numbers. Many worked in car factories, so could buy at a discount. Administration of housing on the new estates was explicitly discriminatory. Birmingham, like many cities, offered council housing only to those who had lived in the city for more than five years, which meant that the Windrush generation of immigrants were housed not in the new high-rises, but in converted Victorian dwellings in inner-city Handsworth. The corporation stipulated that no more than one in six tenants in a given building could be black. The rule was struck down as racist by central government, but as Vinen notes, the intention had been to disperse new migrants away from inner districts like Lozells or Small Heath to predominantly white suburbs like Longbridge or Castle Vale. The policy pleased no one. Many immigrants wanted to live in inner-city areas like Handsworth because they were ‘established sites of non-white settlement’, yet housing there ‘was now effectively rationed’. And the reception of non-white people in the suburbs could be hostile. Vinen quotes the account of an Asian family who, arriving in a van to move into their new flat in Castle Vale, were immediately surrounded by a crowd – ‘not just little kids, they were grown men and women’ – hurling abuse and threats. They put their stuff back in the van and left.
As Birmingham boomed it drew migrant labour from Ireland (both the Republic and the North), Pakistan, India and the Caribbean. Irish labourers preferred jobs in construction, which gave them more freedom and flexibility than the increasingly giant Fordist factories. (‘A group on the ferry from Dublin answered the question ‘Why are you coming?’ with one word: “Wimpey”.’) The Irish arrived in Birmingham later than in Glasgow or Liverpool. The city had no tradition of sectarianism or Orange activity, but an uneasy tolerance was smashed by the pub bombings of 21 November 1974, which led to a wave of bigotry and assaults on Irish communities. Yet, as Vinen notes in his sensitive accounts of the Irish city and the framing of the Birmingham Six, the bombings killed several Irish people.
Racism was virulent, if not quite as relentless as in the Black Country – something Vinen attributes partly to the influence of the city’s many communist conveners and shop stewards. Smethwick, just outside the city limits, was where Conservative campaigners, in the run-up to the 1964 general election, used a notorious rhyming slogan based on a racial slur, and although Enoch Powell gave his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham four years later, trade unionists were quick to point out that he wasn’t the MP for Birmingham, but for Wolverhampton, twelve miles away. Racism was worst in the older industries, by then based mostly in the Black Country: one Pakistani worker ‘was relieved to move from a Smethwick foundry to a Birmingham car factory because he no longer had to pay bribes in order to avoid having to do the most unpleasant jobs’.
The efforts to combat racism made by the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Communist Party weren’t popular. The prominence of communist conveners such as Dick Etheridge and Derek Robinson at the old Austin works in Longbridge was misrepresented by the media as the reason for their frequent and sometimes chaotic strikes, but the car factory bosses knew better, and would call the stewards in the middle of the night to beg them to calm angry workers. The communists preferred, with occasional success, to channel workers’ grievances into planned action and winnable strikes. Vinen writes sympathetically about the role of Birmingham’s eight hundred or so party members, but is typically dismissive of the idea that the city could ever have been home to a socialism any more radical than that of the Labour right, dominant in the city from 1945. Writing about the Battle of Saltley Gate in 1972 – a co-ordinated action between NUM pickets organised by Arthur Scargill and local activists and workers, which helped defeat the government in that year’s miners’ strike – he is doubtful how much solidarity there really was or could be between the miners and Birmingham’s better-paid engineering workers: ‘The culture of a big industrial city was very different from that of the mining areas.’
Deindustrialisation hit the city very hard in the 1980s. It was totally unprepared: its only experience of mass unemployment had been during the Depression, when thousands had moved to the city from Wales. The effects ‘bit first and most deeply’ in the inner city, but Vinen suggests that they were longer-lasting in the single-class, racially and culturally homogeneous outlying estates. People who lived in Castle Vale during the 1980s, when unemployment reached 28 per cent, ‘recalled an almost dystopian world of drug dealers, gangs with baseball bats and an occasion when a television was apparently thrown out of the window of a tower block onto a police car’.
Since then Birmingham has, like other cities, attempted to reinvent itself as a centre for finance, property, shopping and pop culture, with varying degrees of success. It has never been able to capitalise on its music scene in the way Manchester has, but can claim to be the home of heavy metal and (along with Coventry) two-tone. Some of Birmingham’s pop-culture heroes, like Duran Duran and Ozzy Osbourne, turned up to open the Commonwealth Games this year, and perhaps it’s a good thing that the city’s cultural industries are not in the grip of cynical ex-punks and ex-ravers, as Manchester’s are. But this also means that Birmingham hasn’t adapted easily or convincingly to the branding demands of the ‘creative city’. Attempts in the New Labour era to put up ‘iconic’ buildings, such as the fussily monumental and frequently closed new library or the grim museum and conference centre Millennium Point, were unimpressive; the great popular success was a futuristic Selfridges, an annex to the Bull Ring. The city’s designated ‘quarters’ include a ‘gay village’ with few actual LGBT venues, a Chinatown with few Chinese people and a ‘Balti triangle’ where most of the restaurants have closed. Such efforts to create ‘identity’ and distinctiveness are doomed to defeat, Vinen argues, in a city without either of these things. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Birmingham’s most successful post-industrial activity is shopping. The city’s malls serve around four million people from across the West Midlands, and white suburban shoppers continue to flock to the Bull Ring and the new Grand Central mall, despite ludicrous claims from the likes of Fox News that the city is a ‘no-go area’ for non-Muslims.
Much of Birmingham is poor, but we don’t hear much about it, perhaps partly because the city, suspended between North and South, isn’t the sort of place politicians have in mind when they talk about ‘levelling up’. In 2018, Vinen notes, the constituency with the worst unemployment in Britain was Ladywood; Hodge Hill, Erdington, Perry Barr and Hall Green all had worse unemployment than anywhere in the North except Hartlepool. Industrial decline made Birmingham a more firmly Labour-voting city, and it remains so. Both Miliband and Corbyn piled up vast majorities there, and in 2019 only one of its seats swung to the Conservatives – outer suburban Northfield, the site of the Longbridge car plant. For Vinen, this is the dark heart of Birmingham, the crucible of its 20th-century golden age and then the scene of its collapse. He goes into some detail on the city’s votes in the EU referendum in 2016 – a slender margin for Leave – and in the 2019 general election. He finds that the poorest areas, often in the inner city, voted decisively to remain in the EU, much as they did in London. But Northfield was one of three Birmingham constituencies in which every ward voted Leave. What was going on around the empty space of the Longbridge factory wasn’t poverty, Vinen argues, but loss. ‘The political mood of Northfield was one of regret for a vanished past,’ but people weren’t clear about ‘when that past might have been’. The parts of the welfare state that Corbyn promised to rebuild were unlamented. ‘Council estates were not regarded with much affection even by those who had once been excited to move to them,’ while improved workers’ rights sparked little interest: ‘The turbulent labour relations of the 1960s and 1970s were not remembered favourably even, and perhaps especially, by the workers who had gone on strike.’
This goes to the heart of Vinen’s book and is what makes it unrelentingly melancholic. Birmingham’s recent history is off-limits in the story the city tells itself and the world. The large factories that characterised Birmingham for much of the 20th century had ‘simply disappeared from view’ by the early 21st. The wave of nostalgia the city has experienced since then prefers picturesque irrelevancies such as the jewellery quarter, an area of Asa Briggs-style small trades in Georgian workshops, centred on a cast-iron clock tower dedicated to Joseph Chamberlain, from which the Labour Party hung the red flag when it finally took the city in 1945. Vinen insists he is telling the story of a successful city, but much of what resonates in the book is about failure. There are few things quite so typical of Birmingham as complaining about Birmingham, and as a native of the city, Vinen is scathing about everyone and everything, from the popular local historian Carl Chinn to the ‘derivative, ludicrously implausible and badly written’ Peaky Blinders, which is filmed outside the city in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, a place that makes ‘Birmingham in the age of the Austin factory and the Dunlop works look as though it was dominated by Victorian workshops’. This admirable willingness to shoot down Brummie bullshit does, however, mean that he misses some of the more daring and political work made by Birmingham residents for whom there was never a golden age, the dark-humoured TV sitcom Man like Mobeen, for example, set in Small Heath, or The Trojan Horse Affair, Hamza Syed’s remarkable podcast series on local and national Islamophobia.
As a second city, Birmingham isn’t much like London, but its characteristics – industrialism, a relative lack of pomp and tradition, a mental distance from court, and from Oxford, Cambridge and the City of London – are all shared by Manchester. Birmingham City Council abandoned its own innovation, municipal socialism, decades ago. The city’s convivial multiculturalism is valuable and important, but can be found in London, and without quite the same level of paranoia about one particular minority. Finding an ethos that is distinctly Birmingham’s own is tough. Much good has come from influential but small minorities, whether the Unitarians and Quakers of the Enlightenment and the Chamberlain era or the similarly ascetic, upstanding communist shop stewards and conveners of the mid-century golden age. There are also negative virtues: the local sensibility isn’t lachrymose, like Liverpool’s. It is less macho than Manchester, less shabby than Sheffield. It lacks the parochial pride of the cities of West Yorkshire, and the small-mindedness of the Black Country. Vinen’s subtitle claims that Birmingham is the place that ‘forged’ modern Britain. In a sense that’s quite true. Britain is full of places that boomed in the 20th and 21st century, like Swindon, Luton, Reading, Southampton, Warrington, but lack any obvious identity. They tell no stories about themselves, and have no particular ‘civic pride’; as Gertrude Stein put it, writing about a different sort of place, ‘There is no there there.’ Places that don’t know how they came into being, what they are or where they’re going, but offer a decent, if declining, standard of living. Such places define Britain every bit as much as Hackney, Salford, Bishop Auckland, Oxford or Glasgow. Birmingham is not the second city of that country; it is its capital.
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