Liverpool – a Federal Capital for the United Kingdom?

Should the capital of the United Kingdom should be moved from London to Liverpool?

For as long as I can remember the Liberal Democrats and the Liberals before them have been committed to a federal United Kingdom, but there have been many views about the exact form this federation should take.

The advantages of federalism are obvious. It separates macro-economic, foreign policy and defence decisions which have to be taken at a national level, and brings all other decision-making closer to those affected, resulting usually in better informed, and so better, decisions.

The UK, unlike many democracies, has always been a centralized country, though somewhat less so since Scottish and Welsh devolution. Within England, important decisions are still overwhelmingly taken in London, which receives disproportionate investment and media attention. The North rightly feels neglected, as to a lesser extent do most other areas outside the South-East. Meanwhile the South East is overcrowded and congested. Alienation from the centre is driving Scottish and Welsh Nationalism and break-up of the UK is all too foreseeable.

Innovative thinking is needed to overcome these problems, so I hope readers will seriously consider the following proposal:

  1. London should cease to be the capital of the United Kingdom, and become instead just the capital of England
  2. There should be a new federal UK capital in Liverpool.

This change would seem to have the following advantages.

  • it would bring big investment and economic growth to Merseyside, which has long been a deprived area;
  • it would go some way to decongesting the South-East;
  • Liverpool is closer to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland than London and has strong ties with all three, which makes it a more appropriate place than London to be a federal capital. This should reduce support for break-up of the UK;
  • the change would force national politicians to spend time in the North, so the phenomenon of the “Westminster Bubble”, of London-centric MPs who do not know what is going on elsewhere, would disappear or be much reduced;
  • it would reduce the North/South divide.

I have been asked why Liverpool and not Manchester. Knowing both cities, I feel that Liverpool with its waterfront feels more like a potential capital city. Its links with Wales, Ireland and Scotland are more clear and obvious, and it needs inward investment more. If a change of capital was linked to long-talked about devolution to the English regions there would be a different but important role for Manchester as regional capital of the north-west.

The one major uncertainty about this plan is that I do not know if Liverpool people would actually welcome their city becoming UK capital. I hope that this article will stimulate a debate on the issue and clarify whether my proposal is viable.

* Paul Harris is a Councillor on Oxford City Council, representing St Margaret’s Ward. He was the founder of the Bar Human Rights Committee, and is currently counsel representing the Chagos Islanders in litigation against the British Government.

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  • David Becket 25th Feb '19 - 11:52am

    Haltwhistle claims to be the centre of the UK, but access is very difficult. Taking access into account the area around Birmingham International is as good as you will get.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Feb '19 - 12:03pm

    The cart is well before the horse here. A federal capital (if we needed one) would need in my view to be democratically chosen by the people, as the German one was after reunification.

  • Peter Watson 25th Feb '19 - 12:22pm

    According to Wikipedia, the geometric “centroid” for United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is “a position “in the middle of Morecambe Bay”, approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off the coast at Morecambe, Lancashire, at Ordnance Survey grid reference SD4157566760.”
    But if it led to a better train service in and out of Lime Street and a scrapping of the toll between Runcorn and Widnes then I’d happily support Liverpool as an alternative to a floating platform in Morecambe Bay (though the current occupants of the Westminster bubble are all at sea anyway).

  • nigel hunter 25th Feb '19 - 12:27pm

    Would it not be wise to ask the voter what they know about what a federal state is? When they are better informed then they can discuss the pros and con and which city/cities should be considered in a poll As far is London and the south east is concerned it is DEFINATELY time to discuss the future of the country.

  • Anything that would increase traffic on the M6 and M42 near Birmingham would be a bad idea. They make the M25 look like a racetrack. There is a place near Selby York which is equidistant from the four capitals in the UK where an entire new capital could be built.
    The general idea of a UK federal capital outside London is well worth considering but we need to promote proper discussion of regionalism. There is currently limited support for devolution to the English regions but we should be pushing for a major overhaul of our constitution including STV. The current Brexit shambles makes a powerful case for STV to break the two big parties, both in the grip grip of extremists

  • Since the UK only has one city of any size and importance, and the federal government will want to be close to the centres of power in finance and business, as well as the foreign embassies etc, it makes far more sense to keep London as the federal capital. (Or are you going to try to get the Royal family as well as all the foreign embassies to move?)

    The question is where to put the English capital. My suggestion would be Winchester, for historical reasons.

  • “Fiddling Whilst Rome burns”…The chances of government moving away from London are zero; why bother discussing the ‘where?

    Meanwhile, in the real world government and councils are ‘fiddling’ the disaster that rough sleeping and homelessness.

  • According to Wikipedia, the geometric “centroid” for United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is “a position “in the middle of Morecambe Bay”, approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off the coast at Morecambe, Lancashire, at Ordnance Survey grid reference SD4157566760.”

    Peter, I think you have found a use for HMS Queen Elizabeth, the HoL could be decamped to HMS Prince of Wales…

  • Peter Watson 25th Feb '19 - 3:46pm

    @Roland “I think you have found a use for HMS Queen Elizabeth”
    Excellent suggestion. And even if we have no aircraft for the carrier, any catapults could be usefully employed to test the aerodynamics of our otherwise useless politicians.

  • @Peter Watson it doesn’t have catapults, does it? I thought the Coalition cheaped out on that?

  • John Marriott 25th Feb '19 - 7:03pm

    It’s not 1 April, is it? Why replace one capital in the southeast corner of England with one in the northwest corner. What’s wrong with Oxford, Cllr Harris? It’s relatively central and you of all people ought to be singing its praises. To be honest, changing our capital is about the last thing on most people’s agenda at the moment.

  • Richard O'Neill 25th Feb '19 - 7:20pm

    London had emerged pretty organically as our capital over two millennia of history. It’s a world city. Few countries have an asset like London.

    As a young Londoner worried about overcrowding in the south east, particularly regarding housing, i still find it a bizarre proposal.

    If there were an English Parliament I’d have no real objection to it sitting elsewhere. Oxford was Charles I’s capital during the civil war, after all. But the national capital belongs in our biggest and most famous city.

  • Mark in Liverpool 25th Feb '19 - 8:23pm

    A lot of comments here arguing for London seem to be missing the point that federal capitals are often specifically chosen *not* to be the biggest city of any constituent state.

    That said, the chance of our Home Counties / London overlords ever giving the North more than the infrastructure crumbs from the table is approximately zero, so while I appreciate the thoughts behind this article, it is all rather academic…

  • Richard O'Neill 25th Feb '19 - 10:21pm

    Can I just add I love Liverpool. It’s a large and historic city, which also seems to disqualify it as a candidate.

    Federal capitals are generally small places either chosen or built because they are innocuous. Looking at Canberra, Ottawa, Brasilia I’d generally say they’ve failed.

    As for Washington, a town built entirely for politics it has an emotional distance from Americans on a whole other level.

    Whatever people think of London, and even as a native I’m not it’s biggest fan, you are likely to encounter real people with real problems who exist beyond the Westminster bubble.

  • @Mark in Liverpool A lot of comments here arguing for London seem to be missing the point that federal capitals are often specifically chosen *not* to be the biggest city of any constituent state.

    And you seem to be missing the difference between choosing a new capital for a new country, and moving the capital of an existing country.

  • The Federal capital should be somewhere that has good transport links (by road, rail and air) to the rest of the UK and that is fairly central. It does not matter that any of us like or dislike a particular location. It is much more important that we have sound principles for change, e.g. all regions that send representatives to a new Federal Parliament are equally important and the ‘travel load’ of getting to and from there is fairly shared.

  • With the Palace of Westminster potentially needing to be closed for the renovations, a few years ago, the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Conference voted York as a place to move Parliament to.
    It has fast links to London and Edinburgh and also to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. The Archbishop is second to Canterbury too.
    If it was good enough for Emperor Constantine to run the Roman Empire from it should be OK for the UK.

  • Diane Reddell 26th Feb '19 - 11:02am

    I would go for Newcastle Upon Tyne but I’m biased but do we really need a communal meeting space with the technology available. Microsoft teams for debates, Skype calls for meetings, for voting- all can be used from constituency offices. Cut down on travelling, flexible working for MPs with children/people needing care etc.

  • Oh, it riles me when people start going on about some random choice for a “federal capital” while the party seems to be moving backwards in its policies on federalism. We’ve resorted to a devolution policy (autumn 2018) which doesn’t even mention federalism and whose only contribution to the significant restructuring within England – actually an important point on the long road to a new structure and constitution for the whole UK – is to allow a “make it up as you go along regardless of the consequences or any ideas of fairness” approach.

    And yet people want to discuss and pick random cities or make measurements of the geographic centre of the country. I want to scream.

    A proper federal structure should deliver power down from the UK to the home nations and regions within England and this will deliver power and status to a number of cities which will go a little way to redressing the balance with London. We don’t need to move the capital of the UK.

  • The whole driving force behind Federalism is to equalise and democratise the political power within the UK. It would catastrophically undermine the moral authority of a Federal UK for a Federal Parliament to be tied to London. The Parliament of our combined nations needs to be bought to the people and must be answerable to the people. That cannot be done in London. London can remain as the capital if needed – in the same way that in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the capital but Den Haag is the seat of government.

    One potential compromise would be to keep the Upper House of a Federal Parliament (in whatever form that would take) in London, in the same way that the German Bundesrat is located in Bonn rather than Berlin. That would allow some level of Federal decision-making to be maintained in London, would remove the prime political power away from London and closer to the people.

  • Daniel Walker 14th May '20 - 7:35am

    @Rodolfo “In all federations, the federal capital is not located in any of the federated states/provinces.”

    Berlin is a province as well as the capital, as is Delhi. Ottowa is part of Ontario. Canberra and Washington DC are separate, but that sort of special status isn’t required for a federal state.

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