City without a Thousand Trades - what makes Brummies and what happened to Birmingham?

In my preceding post I noted the City Council's pertinent question of What makes us Brummies? The new Labour City Council has sought to answer how the city should be regarded in the 21st century; the city was once known as the city of a thousand trades before being defined as the city of the motor car and then the birthplace of heavy metal but now is a city of an estimated 150 different ethnic, faith, social and cultural groups,

A look at the current opinion of voters on the quick vote on the Birmingham Mail website today, Monday 16 July, however shows more people think there isn't a 'typical Brummie'.

Quick Vote   Is there such a thing as a "typical Brummie"?
Yes - 45.0%
No - 55.0%

Birmingham is the most diverse city outside of London as noted in the Guardian newspapers report on Britain: the world in one country,,,1690291,00.html , and the question of identity is also one of the values of this diverse community, A Birmingham multicultural welcome to the UK.

Councillor Waseem Zaffar, Chairman of the 'Social Cohesion and Community Safety' Scrutiny Committee notes the large settled communities in Birmingham, particularly West Indians, Pakistanis, Irish, Indians and now Somalians, Nigerians and Tamils for example,  As the Councillor notes, it's stopped being a question of us and them and is now the city of 'we' and the question of 'who are we'.

But is there a Brummie identity based on this rich mix of people?  I'd like to think there is a Brummie identity that might be comparable to northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle but riots in Birmingham last year, the high rate of unemployment and the young population might be masking a real question of identity and a collective city conscious that rarely seems to materialise when compared to the outpouring of collective city wide consciousness seen in other cities.

Perhaps Birmingham needs to collectively take a lead from Chief Rabbi Oliver Sacks' 'The Dignity of Difference' book.  We should see the diversity of Birmingham not as a need to create a false idea of homogenised diversity but as a series of distinct communities that we celebrate as existing independently of each other and helping to create tolerance through a collective identity as being Birmingham but in dialogue with each other.  Sacks challenges that instead of putting differences aside and searching for commonalities to be all-inclusive we question whether this dialogue is any good and that rather we should embrace our differences.  In his book, which explores this question through his Jewish faith he suggests that monotheism doesn't mean there's only one way to God, rather the belief that the unity of God creates diversity.  Sacks also notes that communities are very good at talking to their own members but not to other communities.  Perhaps Birmingham should be bold and encourage communities to speak to each other more but respect their differences and not feel a need to be an artificial homogenised group avoiding differences for the sake of commonalities.

For me it is the rich mix of people and the constant influx of people through immigration and asylum that has led to the success of the city and region in it's history of a can-do city and it is the collective whole of these communities which creates Birmingham and it's can-do and will-do attitude but it is also the shared experience and history of the city that has helped create an identity.

The Centre for Cities report, Cities Outlook 1901, challenges us to look to the past as a means to look to future policy and particularly how Birmingham's motoring engineering heritage has had an effect on it's industrial development.  Perhaps it's these significant historical and social changes that are a key component of the questioning of identity as Brummies - how we moved from skilled workforce to decline in industry and how we changed from a focus on automotive industry to a future with growth dependent on a now threatened public sector but seeking to change it's workforce and future.

On the Centre for Cities blog Naomi Clayton asks, What happened to the 'City of a Thousand Trades?' Birmingham from 1901 to today.  In 1901 Birmingham was a City of a Thousand Trades attracting highly skilled people with levels of enterprise high and unemployment low and only 12 per cent employed in the city in vehicle manufacture.  The 1930s and the availability of credit and a cheap pound allowed expansion in manufacturing and particularly automotives so that by 1951 72% of manufacturing workforce was employed in the industry but the effect of the1945 Distribution of Industry Act making it difficult for new industry to locate in the city.

The 1970s recession and collapse of the automotive industry saw Birmingham suffer significantly compared to other manufacturing centres as it was so heavily dependent on automotives; from 1901 and high unemployment and high wages the city moved to high unemployment and deprivation with only recent growth being created from the public sector. 


Anonymous said…
Really enjoyed reading this post on Birmingham; there's a lot of talent and skill in our young people, just a shortage of jobs. Perhaps it's time to revive some of the manufacturing tasks given over to machinery and make more goods by hand? I feel people do appreciate hand-made goods much more these days and talking to a human at the end of the line rather than a recorded message. Humans were built to work, it gives us a sense of purpose and a means to survive. Are we automating everything for the sake of it? I use technology as much as anyone else but I question whether it really is more efficient and does it improve our lives, as much as we're led to believe?

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