Is there such a thing as ‘Scouse exceptionalism’?
Englishness may be a weak horse when it comes to identity
After Henry II invaded Ireland he sent over his youngest and most dislikeable son, the future King John, to rule there as lord. John’s three elder brothers had been given the best territory in Aquitaine, Normandy and England, and so the monstrously spoilt baby of the family received the consolation prize. Arriving with a small army and a pile of cash, John soon alienated the native lords by tugging on their beards, which he, 12th-century trustafarian gap-year posho that he was, thought hilarious. They found him deeply irritating, and he soon had to head home: Anglo-Irish relations were off to a rocky start.
John went on to become one of England’s worst ever kings, losing much of northern France, alienating the aristocracy and eventually provoking a civil war which the peace treaty at Runnymede in 1215 could not prevent. But on the plus side, he did found a city on the River Mersey in Lancashire — so no John, no Paul, George or Ringo either.
The city which King John founded would rise spectacularly with England’s ascent as a world power, becoming ‘the second city of empire’, but no other English city would be so hard hit by the country’s decline. That is, indeed, if Liverpool can be called English — the people themselves are not entirely clear.
Merseyside’s cultural distinctiveness was on display on Saturday when some Liverpool fans booed the national anthem before their FA Cup victory against Chelsea, as they have been doing for some time now. And while some try to explain this in terms of material deprivation, resentment at the Thatcher years and since, it’s arguably far more about identity, and fairly old migration patterns.
In the past few decades many parts of Lancashire, South Yorkshire and the North-east of England have suffered similar ordeals from deindustrialisation and, much more recently, cuts to local government services, but it would be unthinkable for fans of, say, Burnley or Sunderland to boo ‘God Save the Queen’.
What it may come down to is ‘Scouse Exceptionalism’ and the idea that the people of the city are ‘Scouse, not English’. This is an idea explored by Peter Hurst, a Lancastrian who has long settled in the city and so sees things as an ‘inside-outsider’. Hurst writes that: ‘One gets a sense of Scouse exceptionalism from the way in which Liverpudlians police the boundaries of Scouseness with the sobriquet “woollyback” (usually shortened to “wool”,) a term liberally applied to the people who live in the surrounding areas of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire and the Wirral. The woollyback moniker serves as a reminder that Liverpudlians see themselves as being slightly different from the people who live in those areas outside of Liverpool.’
Certainly there is a section of the population who feel far more attachment to their city than to England, to the extent of not supporting the national team, although how widespread that feeling goes is a matter of debate. Although there have not been large-scale surveys on the question, wider political patterns do point to something unusual about Liverpool
Until 10 years ago, the city was part of a solid swathe of northern England, from the Mersey to the Humber, which consistently voted Labour and had done so for decades. While from 2017 onwards the Conservatives made huge inroads within this ‘red wall’, the great realignment has left Merseyside untouched, still solidly red.
Deprivation doesn’t really explain it: Liverpool is poor by English standards, but not much poorer than many similar-sized cities, and income has become far less salient in British politics; the Tories even managed to capture some former mining communities in the 2019 election. But all of those red wall constituencies had Leave majorities, and Leave-voting was heavily linked to English identity, which is weaker on Merseyside.
So while ‘it is clear that the events of the 1980s — managed decline, monetarism and Hillsborough etc — are absolutely necessary in regards to understanding the anti-Tory enmity that exists on Merseyside,’ Hurst writes, ‘it is less clear that they are sufficient. It is my contention that we have it the wrong way round — Scouse exceptionalism is not so much a product of the anti-Tory sentiment that exists in Liverpool as its well-spring.’
Why is Liverpool so different? Ultimately because of the same people whose beards were tugged by King John. Following the Great Famine of the 1840s, huge numbers of migrants crossed the Irish Sea, where they settled in already-established slums such as St Giles in London and Little Ireland in Manchester, but the extent of Irish migration in Liverpool was on a different scale.
At one point a quarter of the population of Liverpool were Irish and today three-quarters claim descent from the island. Migration, once it reaches a critical mass, fundamentally changes the nature of a city, to the extent that it is not clear who is integrating into whom. So Liverpool is ‘a Lancastrian city that has undergone a process of partial Gaelicisation,’ in Hurst’s words, and ‘this hybridisation of cultures is primarily where the sense of Scouse exceptionalism stems from originally’.
London absorbed large numbers of Irish immigrants, but never enough to change the character, and heavily Irish areas, such as Notting Hill, Camden, Kentish Town and most of all Kilburn, all steadily lost their Gaelic character.
This was in huge contrast to Liverpool, where even the accent changed. Writing about the city’s slums in 1907, one Dixon Scott declared that ‘the majority here are either Irish or of Irish descent. It follows, therefore, that here alone in Liverpool do you get a specific dialect. They speak a bastard brogue: a shambling, degenerate speech of slip-shod vowels and muddied consonants – a cast-off clout of a tongue, more debased even than Whitechapel Cockney, because so much more sluggish.’
That would become the hybrid Scouse accent that so enchanted America in 1963, presenting a different image of Britain to the world. A very different Britain indeed; in fact John Lennon declared that same year that ‘We’re all Irish’ to a crowd in Dublin. All four Beatles had Irish blood, although Ringo’s connection was quite distant, and both John and Paul wrote protest songs during the Troubles.
Catholicism and Irishness were once intimately linked in UK politics, and two of the Beatles — Paul and George — were baptised Catholic, although the old religion was fading by then (and the group would play a key part in that second Reformation). The sheer size of the Irish community in Liverpool had led to a sectarianism that didn’t exist elsewhere in England. The city had an Irish Nationalist MP until 1929 and a Protestant party up till the 1970s. The Orange Order was relatively large, and still holding parades into the 21st century.
Liverpool also voted on sectarian lines, which was why it was historically a Conservative city — something bizarrely unthinkable today. David Jeffery, the author of the Strange Death of Tory Liverpool, writes how ‘The Conservative Party was the dominant political force in Liverpool from the mid-eighteenth century, and remained so until the middle of the twentieth century…. In 1972, the Conservatives lost control of the council for the final time and in 1987 failed to return a single councillor. Today, Liverpool is a by-word for anti-Tory sentiment. Indeed, so implausible is the idea that the Conservatives could be electorally successful in Liverpool that following the city’s 2012 mayoral election, BBC Radio 5 Live reported that the Conservative candidate was defeated by a rival dressed as a polar bear. Whilst incorrect, the Conservative candidate still finished a humiliating seventh on 4.49 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 59.33 per cent.’
(As a counterpoint, Jeffery is highly sceptical of Scouse Exceptionalism.)
Although there was a slight sectarian element in Merseyside football, it was always somewhat vague and long disappeared. Everton, supposedly the Catholic club, were actually founded by a Methodist community, one of four Premier League sides originating with church groups, along with Southampton (Catholic), Aston Villa (Methodist) and Manchester City (Church of England).
This is obviously nothing like Glasgow, where religious identity and football are intimately linked, and as BBC commentator Archie McPherson famously said during the 1980 Scottish Cup Final riot: ‘At the end of the day, let's not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other.’
Yet even in England religious identity has some lasting effects. While the Archdiocese of Liverpool is said to have the largest number of ex-Catholics in the world, there was still a strong inverse correlation between Ukip support in the north-west of England, in the 2014 and 2015 elections, and the relative size of the baptised Catholic population. The kind of English nationalist vibes Ukip gave off were still unattractive to people who have a distinct semi-Irish identity.
This distinctive identity has been strengthened by what Hurst calls the ‘long-standing othering of the Irish in England,’ so that ‘from this soil a sense of exceptionalism has flowered i.e the distinct sense that to be a Liverpudlian is to be Scouse not English.’
So it has grown during a period when elsewhere regional identity has been in decline, including a dramatic decline in English regional accents — a decline which Liverpool has resisted. In the 1980s, as Liverpool’s economy suffered hugely, the city in some ways became more culturally prominent, not just due to the success of its football teams but also its radical politics, not to mention TV shows which tended to emphasise its difference from Core England. (This included Brookside, that strange Channel 4 soap set in an ordinary suburban cul-de-sac in the city — except that Brookside Close was, someone once calculated, statistically the most dangerous road in Europe, featuring a Fred West-style murder victim buried under the patio, a nightclub explosion, an incestuous relationship and, as so often happens in suburban cul-de-sacs, a plague.)
Perhaps Liverpool’s distinctiveness grew further in tandem with the mutual alienation between Scouse identity and that of Core England. Brookside inspired Harry Enfield’s Scousers, which was good natured but whose popularity perhaps reflected a mild national antipathy.
Much of this antipathy was aggravated by football hooliganism, which had become a ubiquitous social problem across the country. In the mid-80s there was particular revulsion after the Heysel disaster; although that kind of hooliganism had become widespread among English teams — just two months earlier, Millwall fans had rioted at Luton — never before had it had such tragic consequences.
Core England’s sense of distaste was perhaps most inhumanely exemplified by the Sun’s notorious Hillsborough reporting, which repeated untruths about that horrific day in almost blood libel terms. Although football fans were widely presented as sub-human by media at the time, had Nottingham Forest or Chelsea or Manchester United fans been killed in a similar manner, would a national paper based in London have made those claims? No one can know for sure, but it’s debatable.
Some Liverpudlians thought the Government, the authorities and the wider English establishment looked down on them, thought them as not their own. People don’t like being looked down upon, and especially don’t like it after almost 100 of their people have died in almost unthinkable agony. And this relationship echoes the old Anglo-Irish conflict. The criticisms once or twice levelled by southern Tories, that Liverpudlians see themselves as victims and wallow in it, is essentially how the English have traditionally seen the Irish. Similarly, the feeling after Hillsborough, that London would not treat its own people in the same way, echoed the Irish grievance about the Famine (which was certainly true). The relationship is essentially the same.
I also wonder, though, if one reason for a strengthened Scouse identity is Osama bin Laden’s Strong Horse theory. As empires decline in power periphery regions begin to lose their sense of identification with the core; it happened in ancient Rome and it’s happened to London’s empire, too.
Although now forgotten, at the start of the 20th century there was a considerable number of Irish Catholics who identified with Britain; Scottish Unionism lasted much longer. It was not deprivation that drove the latter away, but more that Britain — which has always been a disguised Greater England — is a weak horse.
Today Britishness has become an explicitly progressive and multicultural identity and, also, a pretty thin one; as a result, Englishness has re-emerged as a proletarian identity, while the identities of the periphery have grown stronger — in Scotland, Wales and Merseyside. Scouse nationalism may be an oppositional and hybrid identity, but it's also a strong horse, a winner — and people always follow winners.