‘I want to take you to China…’ Culture at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse

Manchester’s cultural and sporting brand is increasingly important in attracting global investment to the city

may-kiernan-100Much of the discussion about ‘DevoManc’, or the Northern Powerhouse agenda, has so far overlooked one important element. The significance of the role of popular culture in shaping and enhancing the profile of Manchester as a global city – and thus enhancing the argument for the devolution of power to the city – seems absent from discourse.  This is not to say that other cities in the North of England may not want to lay claim to at least part-ownership of the North’s, if not the UK’s, popular culture history.  Liverpool held Capital of Culture status in 2008 (with Hull to follow as City of Culture in 2017); and Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle all have the industrial and, importantly, post-industrial histories, which provide the necessary urban hinterland (rather than wasteland) which frames the relevance of popular culture mainstays: football, music and fashion.  Manchester, however, punches above its weight, particularly in cultural production.

Leaving the size of the Greater Manchester economy to one side (its ten boroughs comprise the largest functional economic area outside London), and the dominance of a Labour city council, which has produced a single minded leadership of Council Leader Sir Richard Leese and Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein to restore ‘Manchester’s greatness, Manchester’s contribution to football, music and fashion and the economic and social value of those assets marks an important trajectory from Cottonopolis to the creative industries.  Manchester has played a central role in defining the UK’s popular culture and therefore youth identity, two important elements which are then reflected back in the city itself.

The creative industries economy in Manchester represents approximately 7.7% of the local economy but it is one of the fastest areas of economic growth nationally and Manchester’s creative industries have the biggest share of the market outside the South East.  Both of the city’s two Premier League football teams are now important global actors, bringing revenue, branding and significant profile to the city with individual players from Beckham to Tevez, Silva and Agüero further attracting spotlight to Manchester.  Hosting two popular and successful clubs certainly gives the city at the centre of the Northern Powerhouse an edge over its rivals for ‘second city’ status and attracts visitors from across the globe, including China, as we will discuss.  Certainly, very few people are flying in to watch Aston Villa this season…

Manchester has also created national and international youth culture movements and the visual capture of that music in photos, film, record sleeve design and fashion has ensured the continuing legacy of bands like Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Oasis, and Inspiral Carpets. At the height of their fame, the latter band on this list was promising to take their audience to China, perhaps attempting to demonstrate their wild and untamed ambition.  They can have little imagined that in 2016, it would be possible to take a tram from the city centre to the airport and catch a plane direct to Beijing.

The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Manchester in October 2015, ahead of the opening of this new business and cultural link between the city and China, particularly illuminates our argument about the importance of culture to the city’s profile. If media reports are to be believed, President Xi would actually have preferred to visit Birmingham, but Chancellor George Osborne exerted his influence and so Manchester became his destination instead.  Osborne himself certainly appears alive to the importance of culture within his devolution project, as while President Xi did see some old favourites on such state visits – the National Graphene Institute is a fairly traditional port of call – he also spent time at the Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City FC, and the National Football Museum.

Hosted by Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, Xi and Prime Minister David Cameron visited training facilities and spent some time interacting with the club’s recruitment and training technology.  Whether the President recommended any Chinese footballers is not a matter of record.  The highlight of the visit as far as the media were concerned is a now infamous ‘selfie’ involving Xi, Cameron, and City striker Sergio Aguero.  It’s worth noting that many around the world probably had to ask who the two guys Aguero was posing with are.

That Xi and Cameron visited Manchester City is interesting, and not just because it has been construed as a snub to the club Xi reportedly supports, Manchester United. Despite their membership of Labour, Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein both support the city’s blue team.  The Etihad Stadium was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and while it may have owed a little to footballing pride, the visit certainly had the potential to demonstrate Manchester’s capacity to complete key projects and host international audiences.

After his visit to the Etihad, the President’s trip continued with an afternoon at the National Football Museum where he saw his compatriot Sun Jihai inducted into the museum’s Hall of Fame.  Popular as he was whilst at Manchester City, with a grand total of 130 appearances over six seasons and only three goals, Jihai is no Aguero.  Inducting him into the Hall of Fame is one of the more obvious ways that football has been used for diplomatic purposes over the last few years.

Overall, the amount of time Xi spent on football during his trip to Manchester is indicative of the importance of the sport not just to the city’s identity, but to its appeal as an international destination and a site of investment. The amount of money invested into Manchester City by Khaldoon Al-Mubarak has transformed the club, and civic leaders must hope that similar sums will be invested in other enterprises across the city if the Northern Powerhouse is to succeed.  Inducting a former Manchester City squad player into a football Hall of Fame will be seen as a small price to pay indeed if it attracts Chinese interest and investment to the city.