How the city has changed! In 2019, 50 years after we had finally left Liverpool, we decided to make a sentimental return for a few days. I had first arrived there as in infant in 1938, not a good time as Hitler's Luftwaffe started to blitz it in 1941 and my early childhood memories are of air-raid sirens, searchlights, barrage balloons, the crash of bombs, nightly visits to the shelter, and burning buildings the next morning.
When my father left with the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1942, we moved for safety to stay with his mother in Yorkshire and returned in 1946. The city was still smouldering and many of the slums had been destroyed, so a massive house-building programme was underway, driven by the newly elected Attlee Government. Liverpool began to recover, and the essential spirit of the great cosmopolitan seaport began to appear again.
By 1960, as I commuted across the Mersey to my morning lectures in medical school, I saw a sign of the renaissance, a hand-printed poster for The Beatles. What a clever name, I thought! In 1965, Gerry and the Pacemakers wrote Ferry Cross the Mersey
, immortalising that mirky river and my daily trip.
So Ferry, cross the Mersey
'cause this land's the place I love
And here I'll stay…
I didn't. Liverpool, once a great transatlantic port, became the world centre of pop music. There was a spirit to the city again, but in 1969 as a young doctor I left it for the last time and headed with my family to the USA.
Sadly, over the next decade the city lost that spirit. Containerisation, though a necessary efficiency, wrecked the lives of thousands of dock workers, the shipbuilding industry declined, and local government became a by-word for corruption. A fifth of the population had been displaced to soulless housing estates on the periphery and the city's iconic river frontage was largely derelict. By 1981, this urban decline had led to open rioting in the area of Toxteth. But that year, the Environment Secretary, the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, came to see for himself. Rather like Capability Brown, he saw the possibilities of regeneration in the decayed Georgian and Victorian buildings. He set out to clean the river and its frontage and to institute independent development corporations. While not all his plans were successful, the results as viewed from 2019 have undoubtedly been transformative.
There has long been a Scottish connection with Liverpool, especially with Glasgow, the other great Atlantic trading port. Both cities shamefully owed much of their original wealth to the slave and cotton trade but became established in shipbuilding and, later, trade of passengers and goods to the USA, Africa and round the world.
In the early 1820s, William Laird had arrived from Greenock to start his iron and boiler-making business and then built the first iron ship in the nearby Wallasey basin. The operation shortly moved to its present site in Birkenhead and amalgamated to become Cammell Laird and to build many of Britain's most famous Royal Naval and merchant ships. Seafaring was in the blood of Liverpudlians and the city's cosmopolitan population bore witness to this. Even I had joined in briefly, sailing as ship's surgeon from the Pier Head to Montreal and back via Greenock during a break from training as a physician.
Probably best known is the Scottish football link, going back to the 1890s, in my time represented by the incomparable Billy Liddell, recruited on the advice of another Scottish coal miner's son, Matt Busby, who was then playing for Liverpool. Many of the best Scottish footballers have made their reputations in that city; just think of Kenny Dalglish, Ian St John, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and currently Andy Robertson. However, even last season when Liverpool FC were to become runaway league champions, football was not the reason we went there. It was for the sentimental reason that it was there, in the Victorian wards of the old Liverpool Royal Infirmary, that my wife and I first met.
Liverpool is now a tourist destination, and we saw it through tourists' eyes from the Mersey ferry and the top of a bus. Museums reminded us of the city we had known, the blitz, the Cavern Club. There were the Walker Art Gallery where, as a child, I marvelled at the Pre-Raphaelites and the great post-war Van Gogh exhibition, the Philharmonic Hall where we had heard Paul Tortelier play, the Everyman Theatre and the Art Deco Philharmonic pub. There were the two great modern cathedrals, the over-ambitious plans for which had been radically altered to accommodate post-war austerity.
There was a buzz about the place; the quick-witted humour of the people and their friendliness, enthusiasm to talk about Liverpool, football, and the city's history. There were now also excellent restaurants and a huge modern shopping centre complementing the splendid original Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, many of which have survived – even our old Royal Infirmary, though now no longer a hospital.
When we asked about this renaissance, it was clearly attributed to Heseltine's vision and energy, this in a city that still holds on to the hope of a future Labour government. He saw the evidence of past glory in the historic docks and waterfront, and found a means of building on it that restored pride to the city. Cruise and container ships have replaced the transatlantic liners and smoky cargo vessels, and Liverpool FC, with traditional Scottish help in a multinational team, has climbed up from the 2nd division when we left the city to become once again one of the world's best clubs. Even shipbuilding across the river has revived.
As someone from the north of England with Scottish ancestry, who has now lived in Scotland for over 40 years, I am very much aware of the malign influence of rule from Westminster and its London-centric view on Britain's other great cities. I often wish my Jacobite ancestors had prevailed and settled with a division of Great Britain somewhere central, Derby perhaps, so that we now had two balanced nations. Ours might include Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, although I suppose we would be quarrelling about the site of our parliament, as people in Glasgow and the Highlands may now resent government from Edinburgh.
One thing is plain to me; the north of England is closer to Scotland than it is to the south, both culturally and in spirit. Both are rebellious and recently that rebellion has been expressed rather similarly. In Scotland, it has resulted in a separatist movement, in the north of England in Brexit. The reason is the same, antipathy to a remote and out of touch government. The Scots have always migrated south to England, and like the footballers, most have traditionally found work in the north.
The cities of the north of England have lost the brightest and the best to migration south and traditional industries have declined, leaving a sense of hopelessness. European migration has been perceived as a threat to employment for those left behind in the north of England where there is no hope at present of self-rule, so paradoxically they have been persuaded to vote for a very right-wing and very cunning English Conservative Party. And people like me, the late Alasdair Gray's English settlers in Scotland, cry out in despair and in vain.
The threats to the United Kingdom and to our great cities cannot be seen in isolation from those to Europe and the developed world, nor from the aspirations of the underdeveloped and deprived masses. They are environmental threats to civilisation itself, the four horsemen of plague, climate change, maldistribution of wealth, and poor governance, driven by the whip of uncontrolled capitalism. Perhaps at some time in the near future, federalism will be seen to provide a democratic solution within these islands but, as in Liverpool, revolutionary economic thinking with investment from significant redistribution of both power and resources is necessary to halt the decline. Isolationism, from the UK or from Europe, is exactly the opposite of what we need now.
As I looked out from the ferry, I saw the possibility of a better environment for my Scottish and British grandchildren than the one we have donated them.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own