Global Manchester: A new era of city leadership in foreign policy

By Katarina Kosmala-Dahlbeck

The new catchphrase, and driving policy idea, in Boris Johnson’s majority government, is ‘levelling up the regions.’ 

Whilst this will be easier said than done from London-centric Whitehall departments, Johnson is lucky in that regional governments have already, in large part, taken redefining their international engagement into their own hands. 

Manchester is a telling example: the ‘success story’ of the so-called Northern Powerhouse project, its economy saw 42% of growth between 2002 and 2012, and it is now the 12th most popular destination for foreign direct investment globally. Due to exceptional city leadership and an international vision, Manchester has in many ways successfully taken control of its narrative to become one of the best placed cities in the UK to prosper after Brexit.

As narrowing regional inequalities become a key driver of the new government’s agenda, Whitehall has begun to increasingly focus its attention on cities like Manchester – and integrate local leadership into previously-centralised foreign policy decisions. And with a new wave of Conservative MPs in regional seats that have historically voted Labour, there is more commitment among politicians who are unlikely to allow the Prime Minister’s pledges on ‘levelling up’ to fade away as mere campaign slogans.

This has translated into a newfound interest in asking cities and regions around the country how they can become economic and cultural powerhouses – true global cities – in their own right, with well-allocated support from the government. From Dundee to Liverpool and Cardiff to Birmingham, the distinct cultures and assets of many British cities provide an ideal platform from which they can continue to grow.

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It is clear from our work at the British Foreign Policy Group that the cities, regions and nations of the UK increasingly have their own organic links with international actors that have rarely, if ever, been considered at the national level. Tom Cargill, Executive Chair of the BFPG, cites examples from Manchester’s growing links with cities in India and China, to Plymouth’s initiative with Dutch and US counterparts to celebrate 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower to illustrate the growing fragmentation of international links and the policy decisions that arise from them.

The business links and foreign policy priorities of the UK’s regions certainly address some of the key issues facing the government today, contributing to increasing collaboration between Whitehall and local governments. Cities have consistently been on the front lines of climate policy in the UK, for example, and South Wales has grown to become a global hub for the cyber-security industry as cyber becomes a central aspect of the UK’s national security agenda.

The slow devolution of national power over the last few decades – notably with the establishment of metro Mayors in Manchester, Teeside, the West Midlands and more, has given cities and regions a license to accelerate their own international relationships and develop initiatives distinct from the plans of central government. This freedom has permitted local councils to develop their own visions for international engagement based on the priorities and strengths of their constituencies. 

This is not an isolated phenomenon. As links grow between cities around the world and national governments become less fit for purpose in determining local foreign policy priorities, trends toward grassroots foreign policy have taken hold in democratic and more authoritarian states alike. Alberta, Canada, is a great example, with provincial offices in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Gothenburg and Lodz – with Liverpool being a strong British example – send their own official representatives to the European Union in Brussels rather than simply relying on national government.

In many areas, grassroots foreign policy – or paradiplomacy – is hugely sophisticated and comprehensive. There are around 125 multilateral arrangements of subnational governments, and notable examples include the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

The challenge for the United Kingdom is enabling our growing cities to keep up with the increasing complexity of the UK’s international links – as our relationship with Europe changes, and new relationships begin to be forged across the world.

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