Manchester’s International Ambitions in a Time of Change

On 1st March 2019, the BFPG hosted ‘Manchester’s International Ambitions in a Time of Change’ at HOME Manchester. The event was hosted in partnership with Manchester City Council, Manchester Metropolitan University and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. In the last few decades, Manchester has established itself as a globally fluent city. The event reflected on the history of Manchester’s international profile and ways for the whole region to utilise this in the future.

Keynote speech – Sir Richard Leese Leader Manchester City Council

Sir Richard Leese gave the keynote speech, offering a historical perspective on Manchester’s place in the UK’s international profile. Sir Richard described the economic decline of the region in the 1980s after the steep decline in manufacturing jobs left the city’s future uncertain. He then detailed the subsequent ascent of the region in recent decades, citing cultural successes such as hosting the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the biennial Manchester International Festival which began in 2007. This trajectory has culminated into an outward looking, international city with an important trust in its local leadership.

Sir Richard’s keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion with:

Councillor Sue Murphy  Deputy Leader & International Lead, Manchester City Council

Lewis Neal  Director of Economic Diplomacy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 

Professor Abigail Gregory  Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor Arts & Humanities, Manchester Metropolitan University 

Sir Howard Bernstein  Strategic Advisor, Deloitte, former Chief Executive of Manchester City Council

David Adam  BFPG report co-author, Founder of GlobalCities


Engaging All of Greater Manchester Internationally

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership aims to develop consensus among business leaders, local leadership and civil society to bolster a stronger voice for Northern business interests within UK policy making. However, a theme that emerged from the audience participation was that the entire surrounding region still does not share Manchester’s international profile. For example, while the city of Manchester has global recognition, this is not necessarily shared by surrounding towns and cities. An audience member from the University of Salford used an example; Silicon Valley in California has much better brand recognition as a region than the individual cities like San Jose or Palo Alto; whereas Manchester is more recognisable as a city internationally than as a region alongside Salford, Oldham or Bolton.

Therefore, the dilemma is if Manchester is to effectively engage with the international community, how can it do this in a way that carries the entire region, rather than just the city of Manchester? A concerted effort from the Manchester city leadership to give credit to surrounding towns and boroughs could help this. Additionally, the panel agreed that investment in transport and infrastructure would be key for allowing the North to be more connected as a region, and internationally.  David Adam, who specialises in consultancy for international cities, argued that If Manchester can engage as a ‘global city-region’ it could challenge great American and Chinese cities.


Manchester an Alternative UK Engine of Growth

Sir Howard Bernstein articulated a common theme of the panel event; the need for the North to distinguish itself and challenge the London-centric international profile of the UK. While describing himself as a passionate advocate for London’s global role, he argued that there is a pressing need for the UK to have more than one engine of global growth. Councillor Sue Murphy agreed; Manchester’s goal shouldn’t be to just compete with London internally in the UK but rather engage and compete with cities and regions all around the globe.

Lewis Neal, Director of Economic Diplomacy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pointed out that the economic and demographic balance of the world is changing, and subsequently so is the nature of international relations. Outward-looking cities should communicate directly on an international level, rather than only being represented at the state level e.g. by the UK at the UN. The panel agreed that Manchester is beginning to do this well, highlighting the Manchester China Forum and the Manchester India Partnerships as examples of this, both which had representatives in the audience at the event. The Manchester India Partnership and the Manchester China Forum are both public-private partnerships which aim to promote trade, tourism, academic opportunities and commercial connectivity.

Harnessing Cultural Assets

The panel noted that Manchester and the region have significant cultural assets that, if utilised effectively in the coming years, can help to bolster its international profile. Professor Abigail Gregory highlighted The School of Digital Arts which is set to open in 2021 as an example, which will support the talent pipeline in the region for key creative industries in coming years. The School of Digital Arts is a £35 million investment that will be part of Manchester Metropolitan University. Professor Gregory also pointed to the soft power of Salford Quays as being the home of BBC North, a brand with global recognition and influence. Additionally, in 2017 was successful in its bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature, which is awarded for dedication in pursuing excellence in local literature. Professor Gregory argued that the city and region of Manchester have the key cultural assets, but these must be effectively harnessed by the city’s leadership in order to project Manchester globally.

 ‘Manchester: Soft Power Entrepreneur’

The event accompanied the launch of the most recent BFPG Report, Manchester: Soft Power Entrepreneur. The report was written by economic development, soft power and international relations specialist David Adam, with a foreword written by Sir Howard Bernstein. The report considers Manchester’s role throughout history, outlining how it has become a globally fluent city, following its economic decline in the late 20th century. The report makes suggestions about how Manchester can engage with the surrounding region to increase its international profile going forward.

The report is available online here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Sofia Cogliano

Sofia Cogliano is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Sofia graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a joint honours degree in International Relations & Law. While at Edinburgh, she was also a BFPG Student Ambassador. She is currently working toward a Masters in Global Political Economy at Stockholm University.