Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Liverpool: A city deeply connected with Europe

Liverpool fans at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to watch their team play in the 1977 European Cup final. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

As Liverpool FC attempt to write another chapter in their storied history in this weekend’s Champions League final, ANTHONY CLAVANE recounts the extraordinarily intimate relationship between Europe and the city itself.

Liverpool has a powerful sense of its own cultural identity, one that few other British cities can match; a distinctive sense of style which has always rejected established – and establishment – narratives. One such narrative seeks to persuade us that Brexit was, more than anything else, a northern uprising against Westminster. But almost 60% of the city, which has for 150 years revelled in an unbridled opposition to the arrogant pretensions of the capital, voted to remain in the European Union.

In the dark days of Thatcherism, remembers Scouser Alexei Sayle – whose mother was of Lithuanian Jewish descent – ‘as trains entered the tunnels that led into Lime Street station, a legend scrawled in paint on the wall by the side of the track greeted every traveller coming from the south. It read in big, black, letters: ‘F**k Off All Cockneys.”

This less-than-welcoming salutation to southern visitors was more to do with standing up to an elitist, London-centric political class – in particular to the idea of being a test bed for the ruinous ideological experiment of neo-liberalism – than chippy isolationism, expressing, as the comedian explained, how it felt ‘besieged and persecuted by the metropolitan power located in the south. Or perhaps it was just aimed at visiting Chelsea supporters’.

For, despite the fluctuating fortunes of their city, its seaport and other industries, Liverpudlians have always been internationalist. Europeanness is part of the city’s DNA. Scousers are, in essence, a tolerant bunch.

Being a port city it has always had an outward-looking gaze. At various times in its illustrious history it has looked out towards Ireland – with an estimated three quarters of its population having some Irish roots – to America – whose West Coast pop and R&B influenced The World’s Greatest Ever Band – and, to the continent, EU money being a big factor in its post-industrial regeneration.

‘If you stand in the beating heart of Liverpool and look west,’ wrote Sayle, ‘you can almost see Dublin, and beyond that New York, hunkering just over the horizon. To me, Liverpudlians have broader horizons and the characters in the city are formed by what the city does. In a place like Birmingham people have spent the past 300 years taking apart and putting together tiny little machines; if you stand in the centre and look west from Birmingham you can almost see Wolverhampton.’

Today Liverpool is a proud anti-racist city – epitomised by its honouring of Toxteth campaigner Dorothy Kuya, one of the country’s leading figures in combating inequality – but it was its shameful role in the slave trade which ensured it became home to one of the country’s first multicultural populations. It boasts the UK’s oldest and longest established black community, a large part of which descends from seafarers.

In his 1934 state-of-the-nation classic English Journey, JB Priestley’s visit to a Merseyside school gave him ‘a glimpse of the world’ of the future. ‘The various root races may have largely intermarried and interbred,’ the novelist noted approvingly, adding that ‘all the faces of mankind were there, wonderfully mixed.’

The slave trade, the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, the rich maritime heritage and the various Irish immigrations all ensured that, by the time the city celebrated its 700th birthday, in 1907, it was a leading global trading port. During the 19th century, 40% of all world trade passed through its docks, described by American novelist Herman Melville as one of the man-made wonders of the world.

They had become Britain’s gateway to the Atlantic, with millions of migrants passing through on their way from eastern Europe to New York. ‘Today all seas lead to Liverpool,’ concluded a 1911 socio-economic study. ‘If not as a terminus, at least as an exchange, or a clearing house for world wide international transport. There is no part of the globe, however remote, whose natives may not be met on the Liverpool landing stage, and there is no territory so distant whose products do not pass from time to time through the docks and warehouses of Liverpool and Birkenhead.’

The physical manifestation of its stupendous growth and global wealth are the buildings and spaces which, today, still bear witness to the glories of its internationalism. Alongside Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef, it is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The protected area includes significant portions of its downtown district, including the Pier Head and Albert Dock.

Following the huge post-Irish famine influx – after a series of potato crop failures in the 1840s it was estimated that around 35,000 inhabitants migrated from the Emerald Isle – its waterfront became something of a Celtic enclave. Liverpool became widely known as the ‘real capital of Ireland’ and even, several decades later, opted to elect some Irish nationalist MPs.

After the Second World War the port took the brunt of Britain’s post-imperial decline. But the city managed to find a new role which, for a couple of decades at least, offset the suffering. First the hole was filled by the arrival of Ford and British Leyland. And then came the golden age. The 1950s and 1960s were the most buoyant period in Liverpool’s history since the 19th century. By 1965, it had become, according to American counter-cultural icon Allen Ginsberg ‘the centre of consciousness of the human universe’.

The Beatles, of course, were the primary begetters of this seismic shift, exporting a sound – and, as some have rightly argued, a sensibility – which changed music, indeed popular culture, forever. One of its MPs, Harold Wilson, was the Labour prime minister who ushered in a new age of white-heat technology. And poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, along with a long line of, often anarchic surrealist, comedians – from Ken Dodd, via George Melly, to Sayle himself – and cutting-edge television hits like Z Cars, reinforced Merseyside’s place at the centre of things. Alongside its poets, its Playhouse and its Philharmonic, The Fabs re-established the city’s reputation for internationalism.

More than 50 years on, The Beatles’ world-wide cultural impact cannot be underestimated. They remain the most significant act of the rock era. At the height of their fame, John Lennon declared them to be ‘more popular than Jesus’. This might have been a tad hyperbolic but they are certainly the best-selling band in history and were included in Time magazine’s list of the 20th century’s most influential people.

At the same time as Beatlemania was taking hold, and John, Paul, George and Ringo were re-imagining the world’s cultural landscape, one of the beautiful game’s most influential people – Bill Shankly – was building the first of a series of extraordinary football teams. In the same way that the Beatles blew America away, Shanks’ Liverpool FC sides – and the even more successful ones that followed in his wake – took Europe by storm, spawning the club’s global legend.

Between 1963 and 1990, the Reds won 13 league championships, six European trophies and eight domestic cups. A European Cup sits permanently in the Anfield trophy cabinet as a result of winning the coveted trophy five times.

The irony is that the brutal 1980s was an era of Scouse dominance. Both Liverpool and the city’s other famous side, Everton, repeatedly picked up trophies: whilst the Reds were hoovering up six league titles, two European Cups, two FA Cups and four League Cups, the Blues were enjoying the most successful spell in their history, twice winning the league under the guidance of Howard Kendall. And yet this Mersey monopoly of football coincided with an economic pounding that left most northern cities and towns, and their teams, gasping for air.

During the most troubled decade in its history, bookended by the Toxteth riots and the Hillsborough tragedy, Liverpool’s shipbuilding industry further contracted, the Thatcher administration shut down many of its remaining factories and a destructive civil-war ensued between its Trotskyist council and a callous government, leaving it in a political no-man’s land.

Manufacturing industry had already begun to decline in the 1970s – between 1971 and 1985 employment fell by 33% – and the Iron Lady was advised by her Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to abandon the city to ‘managed decline’. Any other strategy, he argued, would be like ‘trying to make water flow uphill’.

Enter Michael Heseltine, the environment secretary and self-appointed Minister for Merseyside, the one Tory who is still able to hold his head up high in the Mecca of socialism. According to official papers held at the National Archives, Hezza, dismayed by job losses, social deprivation and the riots, challenged the heartless Howe – who had urged Thatcher not to waste money on the ‘stony ground’ of Merseyside – and managed to secure £100 million in government money to regenerate the area. ‘I simply wouldn’t countenance that you could say that one of England’s great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline,’ he later explained.

Heseltine’s legacy has been hotly disputed. The 1984 International Garden Festival was a success in that it attracted more than three million tourists but, three decades on, its grounds had become derelict. The renovation of the Albert Dock, however, was more durable. In 1988 it became home to Tate Liverpool, which immediately came to symbolise the city’s post-Toxteth riots rebirth.

By 1994, the city’s qualification for Objective One funding – which brought in £700 million from Brussels – confirmed its status as one of Europe’s poorest regions. Four years earlier it had tried, and failed, to become the first-ever UK Capital of Culture. Heseltine’s brainchild, the Merseyside Development Corporation – created when he was brought back into government by Thatcher’s successor John Major – kick-started a cultural regeneration, laying the groundwork for a remarkable renaissance that culminated in Liverpool being awarded European Capital of Culture for 2008.

Since the opening of the Tate, its famous cosmopolitanism has made an exciting comeback. Some have argued it had never gone away. For during the dark years of hooliganism, Thatcherism and embarrassing perms, football had been the pollinator of a Europeanisation expressed through an unlikely subculture. Casuals were young men who dressed in foreign sportswear brands plundered from their travels following Liverpool around Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Wearing these upmarket designer labels, particularly Sergio Tacchini gear, and matching them with the old-fashioned clothes of their parents, created a distinctive Euro-influenced style which was not just about looking good: it also spoke to the aspirational identity of a previous age.

As Dave Hewitson, the owner of clothing label 80s Casuals put it: ‘In the midst of a recession, wearing the colour of the continent and its expensive clothing on the street back home not only challenged fashion convention, but it provided some self-esteem. It also made casual a style that wasn’t led by magazines, the fashion industry or bands, but by supporters.’

In the past couple of decades, while not quite returning to its role as ‘the centre of consciousness of the human universe’, there has been an eruption of culture to rival the golden age.

Ginsberg might not have been all that impressed by its docks being turned into hotels, its warehouses into restaurants and its factories into bars, but the city has metamorphosised into a global entity once more, expressed, this time, through its visual arts rather than its music. Whether it is French-Armenian Melik Ohanian’s film of a deserted dock, American snapper Alec Soth’s portraits of Adelphi Hotel guests or Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra’s painting of uninhibited clubbers at The Buzz Club, Liverpool has again managed to reinvent its cosmopolitanism for a new generation.

As Matt Kelly, The New European’s editor, recently wrote in British GQ: ‘The city that was, just 20 years ago, on the bones of its arse (to coin a wonderful Scouse phrase) is today reconstituted – alive and beautiful – visibly enjoying itself after generations of neglect and decrepitude. Not just tarted up, but rebuilt from the inside out. It’s far from perfect – there are still many swathes of deprivation. But it is a city on the up.’

Of course, this reinvention was triggered by the social, economic and cultural impact of the European Capital of Culture year – which lured 9.7 million visitors into the city, generated £754 million for the local economy and left a rich legacy in venues like the Echo Arena and tourism facilities. The latter includes not just the obligatory museums, shops, Beatles tours and exhibitions but the stunning Pier Head, home to the iconic Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.

The Echo Arena – like John Lennon Airport and the revitalised waterfront arena, a symbol of this reversal in fortunes – is one aspect of a huge range of infrastructure which has been funded by Brussels. Almost a quarter of a century ago the EU allocated £700 million to Liverpool under its Objective One regional development programme. It then followed that up with another £928 million in 2000, and the sharing of £700 million across the north west in 2007. Between 2014 and 2020, a further £450 million was allocated to the city. No wonder 118,453 Liverpudlians voted to stay in the European Union.

This transformation has also featured the remaking of the city as both a retail centre – the Liverpool ONE development is the largest open air shopping centre in the country – and a cruise destination; since the £19m Cruise Terminal began operations in 2007 traffic has grown exponentially, with 47 vessels and 54,595 passengers docking at Pier Head in 2014.

And the growth of its student population – there are four universities in Liverpool – has had a knock-on effect on cafes, accommodation and nightlife, all of which have helped accelerate the city’s growth.

But it is the return of those lung-bursting European nights at Anfield, evoking precious of memories of epic contests in the footballing cathedrals of Madrid, Barcelona and Milan, which have been the quintessential expression of its revitalised internationalism.

It is not only Brexiteers who bang on about turning the clock back. The current Liverpool team want a return to the European glories of the past. To their triumphs in Paris, Rome and Istanbul. Who can forget the miracle of 2005, at the Ataturk Stadium, their first European Cup final for two decades, one of the greatest ever comebacks in sporting history? 3-0 down to AC Milan at the half-way stage, goals from Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso forced extra-time. After an astonishing penalty shoot-out triumph, football writer Brian Reade remarked that ‘players and supporters dug deep, remembered their lineage and took the European Cup home for good’.

Reade, a huge fan, fully understands the importance of that lineage. ‘By recognising the city as a centre of excellence in mankind’s most popular pursuit,’ he points out, ‘European football has kept a swagger in the Scouse soul.’

That swagger has also been preserved by its music, architecture and never-ending production line of creative minds. It boasts more museums and galleries than any UK city outside London. Last Friday the art festival Light Night returned to the city. The theme was ‘Transformation’. The Liverpool Echo explained that the event should be interpreted as the latest sign of ‘significant change in both people and place. Transformation is happening all around us; visible and invisible, turbulent and political, personal and emotional’.

Liverpool has never recognised the false dichotomy between sport and culture. At the moment, it is thriving – once again – in both areas. But, even in its darkest days, ravaged by fallout from industrial recession, political turmoil and ideological victimisation, it was always a place of civic pride, of ambition, of style, wit and ingenuity. It has always been international in its outlook and punched above its weight in popular culture. Even when cast out into the economic wilderness it provided the inspiration for, arguably, television’s finest ever drama: Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 classic Boys from the Blackstuff.

And it has always been a place associated with immigration and emigration. A city which has welcomed outsiders, especially those who lack airs and graces. A city defined by its love affair with Europe, its past European glories woven, through football, into its European present. It has always aspired to being a world city. To adapt the most anthemic title from the Kopites’ songbook: it has never walked alone.

Liverpool FC’s manager Jurgen Klopp has always understood this and the heritage of the club – and the city – was one of the factors that drew him from Borussia Dortmund. It came as no surprise when, last month, he spoke so eloquently against Brexit. ‘The EU is not perfect,’ the charismatic manager admitted in a fascinating interview in the Guardian. ‘But it was the best idea we had. History has always shown that when we stay together we can sort out problems. When we split then we start fighting. There was not one time in history where division creates success. So, for me, Brexit still makes no sense.’

All season, throughout an enthralling, cavalier, rollercoaster run to the final in Kiev this weekend, Liverpool fans have been serenading their united team with the latest offering from their songbook: Allez, Allez, Allez. A banner in the Kop proclaims: ‘Liverpool FC – European Royalty’ – an allusion to the club’s footballing heritage but also a symbol of an exhilarating revival under their urbane, liberal, passionate and most cosmopolitan of coaches.

The German Anglophile and the once-again-mighty Merseyside outfit are a great fit. ‘If in the worst-case scenario Britain starts ejecting EU nationals,’ he half-joked, ‘it would be funny if they started with the football managers.’ Such a dystopian scenario would undoubtedly be met with fierce resistance from a ‘rebel city’ that, back in the 1980s, defiantly informed Margaret Thatcher where she could stick her monetarism.

Indeed, if Klopp’s high-speed, hard-pressing heroes beat Real Madrid and claim a sixth European crown on Saturday, expect the red half of the city-state’s population to immediately declare an independent people’s republic. Followed by an application for EU membership, with Klopp as president of the independent republic of Liverpool. The 28th member state of the European Union.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.