The Problem With
Scouse Exceptionalism

A city is a rich mixture of thousands of stories and lives coming together. So why does Liverpool seem so keen to develop its own narrative aside from that? The term “scousers” seems increasingly used as a homogenous mass. Young, spikey, cool. They think a certain way, talk in an accent exceedingly rare and seem obsessed with taking millions of pictures of the waterfront. That narrative is key and seems always destined to be at the forefront. Scouse Exceptionalism: Liverpool is great, special, different. All singing from the same hymn-sheet, regardless of what is true. What does this narrative mean for the city – and is it damaging?

The TV clip was George’s Story from Boys from the Blackstuff, a seminal TV series by Alan Bleasdale depicting the effect of a 1980s Tory government on a city, a city that happens to be Liverpool. “I can’t believe there’s no hope” rings in your ears as the camera pans out to a dock and waterside left to rot and decay, much like the people who live beside it.

“Where is this?” a Twitter follower asked. “It’s the Albert Dock”, I replied. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I can’t believe it ever looked like that. Those bloody Tories. Thank God Liverpool has always been Labour”.

Pricking someone’s balloon of belief is bittersweet but I duly directed him to the history of Liverpool’s political setup, which up until 12 years ago saw a Liberal Democrat-led Council.

A few months later, amidst a fundraiser for a new music venue near Smithdown Road, a group on the same social platform mused as to why Liverpool ever even needed a Conservative Council. “It’s not like Liverpool has ever had any Tories”. Well, admittedly not in their lifetime, but 1972, the last time Liverpool Council was Tory led, is in plenty of people’s living memory. Earlier this year there was even a piece in the Liverpool Echo (“Did you know TORIES once ran Liverpool?”)

History is not always in one’s privilege to cherry pick. For some communities and cultures, understanding every facet of your past, and how you got to where you are, is not merely something you are taught, it is something you live with daily.

As narrators none of us are entirely reliable. But there is a danger that comes with myth-making, when you begin to believe the myth and pass it on as gospel. Not believing that Liverpool has ever been anything other than fiercely red-blooded Labour is fine, unless you’re adamant it’s the truth.

It is not merely Liverpool’s political identity that is rooted in its exceptionalism. Indeed, its very culture has its foundations in the idea that Liverpool is special and different. Two friends I asked about Scouse Exceptionalism both referred to Paul Du Noyer. His idea is that the city is a “defiantly non-provincial” place that steers its own course in comparison to the rest of Britain, the “capital of itself” and a kind of “sunless Marseille”. George Melly describes it as a place “very aware of its own myth, and keen to project it”.

Liverpool has fought for the privilege to be able to define itself outside of external influence. This is not a bad thing, and let us not read it as criticism. But, Liverpool’s defiance needs to be self-aware and it needs to be rooted in authenticity. Exceptionalism only works if you know what makes you special, and it actually sets you apart. And, crucially, that you keep investing in it.

There is passion and there is real creativity, if you can be bothered to look for it. It is relatively easy to set up shop and get yourself started. Liverpool isn’t an expensive city and that gives you freedom. It isn’t big (the population is just shy of half a million) and yes, you can bump into a lot of people you know. The old joke goes there are 12 people in Liverpool and the rest is mirrors. There’s a village feel. Pete Wylie once made a film with tenantspin at FACT for 2008 talking about how you always bump into people you know on Bold Street.

And let’s not forget, there’s a lot that Liverpool can use to position itself as exceptional. Sorry, kids, but yeah, it is the home of The Beatles. Its football teams are really successful, it was the second city of the empire. It’s a beautiful city.

It’s not as though Liverpool’s exceptionalism hasn’t long been used to sell it. Back in the sixties, the city’s strapline was “a city of change and challenge”. Punk, DIY, not afraid of a shift, embracing it even. In a period of new towns and rebuild Liverpool positioned itself as the place that was always rebuilding, always regenerating, this was just another phase. Similarly, the ‘World in One City’ tagline in the build up to 2008 emphasised Liverpool’s diversity. Liverpool FC, arguably the biggest commercial venture in the city itself, has the slogan “It Means More”, feeding into this narrative. Liverpool cares more, Liverpool is more passionate. Liverpool is more.

For those who stand on the left (which is the majority in the city in 2019) the sense of exceptionalism is tied in with a struggle and a fight to be heard. It is unifying and it is comforting. The problem is, Liverpool can take the notion of exceptionalism as a point of departure above all else. If your primary characteristic is simply being different, you risk merging into something that is purely reactionary, bland and with no central thread. Even worse, it allows politicians to argue that things that may work well elsewhere cannot possibly work in Liverpool, because Liverpool is a unique case.

Dr Paddy Hoey is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics at Edge Hill University. He’s also a former journalist and writer.

“Two generations of young musicians have venerated oddball American weirdos like Captain Beefheart and attached themselves psychedelically to the bits of Pink Floyd that the squares ignore,” he says.

“One of the city’s theatres peddles a fine line in highly-profitable homegrown comedy plays that are little more than a series of local in-jokes and social stereotypes that mean absolutely nothing to anyone outside the city.

“This defiant obstreperousness escalated with Thatcher and Hillsborough, where the Tories illustrated just how little they cared. By walking to its own tune, Liverpool, at this time, was making a virtue out of a neoliberal necessity.”

Mythmaking and storytelling of exceptionalism has been a vital ingredient for Liverpool’s unity. The city’s history, of glorious maritime capital, post-war decline, lack of investment, 70s decline further, 80s militancy, 90s regeneration, 00s cultural renaissance, is a story of regulatory ups and downs.

It ignores several different factors but it is a story that had incredible power, especially in the 80s. This story united Liverpool against a common enemy – Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. It made perfect sense when you exist outside of society in a hinterland. Yet exceptionalism can be dangerous. It is biased and can be as reckless as a mother telling her uncoordinated child he is a natural athlete, only for him to be continually outrun by his peers. Is it possible you do serious damage when you believe the story of exceptionalism at the expense of any reality? Could Liverpool’s sense of exceptionalism hold it back?

Back in May last year, the New York Times published a piece about Prescot and austerity. There has been a strong political and societal narrative on Merseyside (or Liverpool city region) about the impact of austerity. It has been driven (quite rightly one could easily argue) by the Labour politicians at every layer of government, from any number of Mayors and MPs. Yet the principal criticism levelled at the New York Times writer, Peter S. Goodman was that he wasn’t from Prescot and so, the argument goes, had no authority to talk about it.

“Thank you to everyone who sent me *that* New York Times article yesterday. In Prescot we’ve felt the effects of austerity, no doubt. But the NYT told only half the story. Here’s why Prescot’s present and future are looking bright:” Tweeted Prescot Online and linked to a blog listing reasons why Prescot was on the up.

This gets to the heart of identity, and yes I am in a way conflating Prescot and Scouse and can, quite easily, be dismissed for talking about “wools” but actually it is illustrative of an interesting relationship with “the outside” that goes to the heart of what we’re reflecting on.

“When Liverpool is described as being on a global bucket list of places to visit it is rightly being recognised for its exceptionalism. When it is not positive the refrain is “what do they know?”

Let’s talk mediatisation. National coverage and international coverage is something towns and cities care about a lot. A vast amount of criticism is levelled at national newspapers for not talking enough about what happens at a local level. When they do, they can be criticised for not understanding the issue. Why? Does all coverage need to be positive? Does this come from a desire for recognition but on one’s own terms?

Much (most) of the national and international media that covers the UK is based in London. It is the cultural, political and societal power of the country. Yet towns and cities outside of London are often the childhood homes of many of those same writers who left as soon as they could, believing they would not lead the life they wanted to live there. This, as much as they want to believe it doesn’t, skews perspective. If you, individually, believe you have left a place behind, it would take a personality of incredible grace not to have a feeling that the people who are still living there made the “wrong” decision in staying. It is not a level playing field.

Yet with a caveat, do we argue that no one can write about a place, no matter their experience perspective and expertise unless they live there? Does every piece of coverage get the same criticism levelled at it? Well no, of course it doesn’t. When Liverpool is described as being on a global bucket list of places to visit, of being home to the coolest postcode, or having one of the most beautiful waterfronts, it is rightly being recognised for its exceptionalism. When it is not positive the refrain is “what do they know?” This romanticism can be at best unsettling and at worst ostracising.

Otherness is vital to Liverpool’s identity. “A sense of apartness has always been crucial to Liverpool’s identity” writes John Belchem in ‘Merseypride’. But Liverpool has been on a journey, as we like to say. Is it still an outsider? The Daily Mirror wrote in the 80s that Liverpool had paid the price for its self-defeating ‘otherness’. The reality was that Liverpool was playing the long game. Now the same newspapers and media outlets that pushed scousers as tight-permed thieves, see the city as a place for a city break, one of the coolest postcode in the country, its suburbs one of the best places to live.

The shift in Liverpool’s fortunes in the decade from 1998 to the financial crash of 2008 was volte face. Liverpool’s regeneration relied heavily on European investment. In 1994, the EU allocated £700m to Liverpool under its Objective One regional development programme. Another £928m followed in 2000; another £700m shared across the north west in 2007. Between 2014 and 2020, another £450m was allocated to Liverpool.

The steady decline in the city’s population was halted, John Lennon Airport became one of the fastest growing in Europe. In 2004, the city was awarded its UNESCO Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City World Heritage Site status. Liverpool was cool. Its cultural renaissance powered it towards 2008, a year when the crown would be rested on a cultural throne. The Impacts 08 report reflected the success of the regeneration through cultural tourism, although the “£8 for every £ invested” often can fail to recognise the investment in a tourism infrastructure that did not appear beforehand.

Liverpool positions itself as a cultural powerhouse (although it could be argued what it has done is pivot its cultural strategy to facilitate the tourism industry it has built). Culture brings people to stay in the hotels, restaurants and bars built in the city to maximise its ‘Liverpoolcool-ness’.

Being cool, though, is much better than being a whinger. The perception with Scousers from the outside is wearing. Having a Scouse accent 20 and 30 years ago wasn’t much fun. As Belchem writes in Merseypride, the city’s “suicidal industrial militancy, and ‘toy town’ political extremism were symptoms of cultural collapse as decent honest scouse was transmogrified into whingeing scouser”. He says, “even the accent lost its appeal, becoming more associated with ‘more with militant shop-stewards on television than comedians of old’”.

And that feels great, right? That flip from chip on the shoulder to triumphalism? We won!

This is at the heart of Liverpool’s modern exceptionalism. The city is used as a brand, whether it’s by Sky Sports desperate to ensure the red and blue sides of the city maintain their current subscription packages, or whether its Tatler, spreading a full 16-page feature on ‘Livercool’, the place where tradition meets something new’. Media outlets closer to home construct a narrative of the city being one homogenous blob or reactions, attitudes, feelings, beliefs: “Scousers can’t believe” “Scousers are livid”. The exceptionalism has become a herd mentality, and it’s still being painted in broad brushes to cover everyone.

Any PR will tell you, you run the risk of believing what people say about you because it means you believe the image you project rather than the reality. Whereas the image problem used to be on the outside, now it sits within. Liverpool is painted as a place that is colourful, punk and brave. That image ignores that, economically, Liverpool still has significant challenges, socially, economically, culturally.

Scouse exceptionalism isn’t about believing Liverpool is a city with challenges, nor is it believing Liverpool is perfect with no problems at all. It’s about both and neither. Instead it is about painting a picture, because a portrait can be difficult to challenge. That means that this particular portrait can be increasingly overblown. Liverpool is great, Liverpool is the best city in the world. You won’t believe how big Scousers’ hearts are.

So, we return to narrative and storytelling. Liverpool sees its ability to improve its economy as being about telling a story, and that story is currently Exceptionalism. The reality of any city, litter, potholes, shops shuttered, high streets struggling, deprivation, is not mirrored online – where a new, Instagramable, identity can be crafted. Here, Scouse Exceptionalism thrives in a wave of sunset pictures and gin mixes. This is probably why it is so jarring when alternative viewpoints are posted.

Liverpool developed its sense of exceptionalism because it didn’t want to be defined by the story being written for it. Liverpool defined its own status and position by creating its own narrative. Now that the story has flipped, it risks doing the opposite, using the exceptionalism that is parroted back to it, and perhaps risks not focusing on the issues it needs to.

And in truth nothing changes. Liverpool remains the same. And at that point you must rely on your own experience. I have found that most of the people I have met are creative, zany and punk. There’s also plenty of falsity, fakery and construction. But there is a DIY determination, that makes people lug crates from skips and turn them into cinemas and to build club nights to give their friends safe spaces. In this city that I love and work, eat every meal I make, meet every friend I adore, see my husband everyday and my mother not as often as I’d like, I live a happy life. So what does the exceptionalism matter? Because to our own selves we must be true. There is nothing wrong with the glitz and the glamour of the Saturday night, but we shouldn’t think that’s all we are, come Monday morning.

Written by Laura Brown. Image credits: 1, 2, 3

14 thoughts on “The Problem With
Scouse Exceptionalism

  1. The reference to Blackstuff is interesting. I personally think Bleasdale added to the negative image. Yozzer Hughes begat Enfield’s Scousers and (irony of ironies) a Tory – Heseltine – and the EU started the momentum that saved us not Hatton.
    It is commerce that made us and commerce that will save us. The media attention and regeneration of entrepreneurship is because we have become a tourist town and a film set. Brilliant though it is, it was never self-sustaining. As Colin Vearncombe said in the depths of 80s despair “All we need is the money”.

  2. Love it. Having worked in the arts for years- here and beyond- I’ve faced the stereotyping and the opinions about being from Liverpool all of my career. “You don’t look like a scouser” etc etc etc…
    I’ve realised much of my own ‘exceptionalism’ towards the city is more of an opinion about my own family, and less about the rest of Liverpool. When describing the characters I know, they are related to me, and it was their exceptionalism I was defending and highlighting. This maybe true for most other people too, and because we all apparently know each other, it appears we’re talking about a generic Scouse mass.
    I believe having come from a quite exceptional familiy (as many of us believe), who faced exceptionally tough times, it’s that resilience people want to celebrate, and fight the narrative we have been given, that the city moans and kicks up fuss.
    There’s much to ‘moan’ about when many of those same characters and their families I just mentioned, who were denied important opportunities at big moments of their life, deserved to have more chances than the ones they were given- and that is true for most working class people in the country. Liverpool just shouts loudest, or is given the microphone first by a media who created that role for us all those years ago. Great piece.

  3. Fascinating insight into Liverpool’s redevelopment and modern self image! As a human relic of the city I was glad to wipe its dust off my feet in 1984 when I left it but over the years fleeting visits were not encouraging! However the recent developments have presented a changing view and I hope the City emerging continues to play a positive role in the National scenario!

  4. Not sure what to make of that, to be honest.
    I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it a third time.
    Firstly we’re not all young, spikey and cool. Some of us are old, cynical & very uncool. Ploughing a lonely furrow, you see. In a time-honoured scouse way.
    The piece is too expansive to comment on here, in detail. Suffice to say there’s no mention of Celts, Anglo Saxons, Mercia, North umbria or the Mersey as the dividing line.
    Best article I’ve ever read that touches on this is ‘The mourning after Hillsborough’ :an academic paper. Can’t remember the authors name. To live through that period taught me more about what it is to be a scouser than any number of articles.
    Good luck with it though. Always good to see the next generation reflecting on what it is to be different.
    I’m off down the Asda now.

  5. Liverpool is far from unique as a city that was once great and then fell into decline.

    It is, unfortunately, more often the case than not, that the victory disease manifests in a hardening of attitudes, a relcacitrant obstreperousness borne of of the early stages of grief and an unwillingness to change.

    Many cities in both Spain and the USA bear testament – Ozymandias-like – to the dim, distant echoes of greatness to which the long beninghted metropolis can never cease making reference.

    We let the narrative at home be shaped by other British people, so much so , that the negative connotations that are so well known for LIverpool in the UK, simply do not exist (at least to the same extent) anywhere else.

    I experienced this firsthand in China, the USA, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Most recently travelling with the Mayor’s Office in China in 2016.

    Liverpool is on the up, but we need to do so much more. We need diversity of political opinions and a influx or fresh blood and ideas.

    We need more of “What are we going to be” than “What we were”.

    As a city, by playing to our strenghts, we can grow. But true growth comes from an engaged and growing population.

  6. Having moved to Liverpool from London (reverse flight!) in 2003 to be involved in the city’s physical regeneration, what struck me most about the city, after the generosity and kindness of Liverpolitans, was the sense of loss. There were ‘ollers all over the city where buildings once stood, plaques and memories where businesses had once traded, and an angry yearning for lost opportunities and talent.
    Liverpool is a deeply philosophical city, and has a right to be proud of its many unique achievements, but no one likes to be reminded of a failed philosophy of lost hope. Bleasdale captures this in his “Boys from the Blackstuff”, but the irony of “George’s Story” is not to be found in the desolation of the Albert Dock (now revived) but the film bearing last witness to the then Brunswick Dock (now demolished) and the demolition in the very last scene of the fantastic Tate and Lyle Building on the Dock Road.
    Just like the scene in the film “Titanic” when the mighty ship sinks beneath the waves and the last thing visible on the stern is “Liverpool”, these images became metaphors for things gone wrong. This is not about exceptionalism (which the city has in bucketfuls – and rightly so) but of economic tragedy, much of which stemmed from our own Town Hall under all three mainstream parties in the post war years.
    There was a feeling in this period that in excoriating Liverpool’s past we might have a better tomorrow. Well it didn’t quite happen like that, as so many other places had the same plan, China, Russia, The Gulf, London, to name a few, but those places are still growing, and we’re not.
    Things are better now, for sure, but you can’t build a city on retailing, tourism, student accomodation, “iconic buildings” (whatever they are) copy-catting, and “lipstick regeneration”. Cities need more. They need new jobs, good infrastructure, inspiring housing, great public realm, a vibrant small business culture, multi-culturalism, inspired leaders, a green economy and most importantly of all. local social engagement.
    All of this needs to be consistent with quality, and not hamstrung by the cold visible hand of the public sector and its ugly sister “grant dependent culture” .
    I look forward to a time when we rid ourselves of external consultants and trust ourselves to create our city in our own eyes. A DIY City where the civic and non-civic correlate possibilities. We need to stop holding mummies hand, take off the stabilizers and find internal hinterlands based on a local economic culture, which we then export. We should export “The Liverpool Effect”, rather than import the “Bilbao Effect” or “Barcelona Effect”. And whist it is good to make media news, this should be a secondary purpose. Media is a veneer to place and not a strategic structure.
    I could write more , as I have done in urban and cultural publications, but as one final thought I’d suggest that Liverpool’s problem is not exceptionalism. It’s conventionalism and its faith in strategic orthodoxy. We keep doing what we think we should be doing, rather than doing what we know we should be doing.

    1. Best reply and from a non native, which I suppose is the point here.
      I’ve maintained for a long time the ‘attitude’ of the Liverpool people is its greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness. There also seems to be quite some amount of revisionism going on in the city regarding culture.
      Take the Lambanna for instance, it’s become a signature of Scouseness, an city landmark beloved by all. It was created by a Japanese artist and spent its formative years (about ten) being vadalised and moved around to places such as St Helens and Widnes, due to nobody within Liverpool actually wanting it. It is and will always be a grotesque stereotype. And meaningless. But now faux adored. Bizarre.

      Anyway, great response, especially regarding the financial side of regeneration and the manner of the mix required.

    1. Liverpolitan was a term I first heard used by Liam Fogarty in his 2012 Mayoral Campaign; a campaign I was involved in. It is a portmanteau, and as far as I know it was created by Liam. I think of it as complimenting Liverpudlian or Scouser and adding to the cultural mix , just like Liverpool having mutiple cathedrals, football teams, and universites. In my regen days I regularly hosted ) visitors from places with no nicknames, no cathedrals, and no (decent) football teams and can report that the cosmopolitan impact the city had on them was not insignificant.
      As Laura suggests, the exceeding rareness of Liverpool means it never never does anything in halves (or ones) , but it does do things in quarters, especially urban quarters. I’ve lost count of our quarters these days, but its certainly more than four. As such it’s good to see the city pushing the concepts of geometry as well as exceptionalism and intelligent debate.

      1. With respect.

        ‘Liverpolitan’, along with ‘Liverpoolian’, ‘Liverpudian’ and a couple of others such as the bizarre ‘Liverpooltonian’ can be traced back to the late 1700’s.

        ‘Liverpudlian’ although used fittingly for decades was hijacked by media and supporters of Liverpool FC. Fair play. They had to be called something 😉

        Fact here is? it doesn’t really matter WHAT word is used to described people native to Liverpool…it will be taken (by both sides) as a term of self-affirmation on their already pre-conceived idea. Like the accent.

        At this point in my life, (55 years old) and having lived through every descriptor from ‘Militant’ to ‘theif’ and those inbetween? I honestly don’t find the need.

        ‘Where are you from’ – Liverpool.

        The rest, the lables, judgement and all that goes with it? Is up to the person asking the question.

        I’m not into this whole ‘Scouse Republic’ thing….simply because, as a city? I lived through a time when it could say such a thing…and live up to it.

        If I have learned one thing in life? It is that just because somebody is proud of their heritage…I’m going to be wary if they come across as being defined by it…without, in the main, any substance. Much the same as the criticism…based on ‘what you are’.

        STUFF + DIVISION + FEAR = A Liverpool that is just rolling along, hand to mouth, no longer keeping up with the jones’ to the extent ‘The Jones’ are one jealous phone call away from being grassed up….for…daring to smile when they have nothing?

        I have never been less bothered about the city’s ‘identity’…I’m too busy lamenting it’s loss of unity, fairness and it’s overall apathy.


  7. This really rambles around and never focuses on anything. Fascinating topic which I’ve written about myself but this is full of wooly generalisations and rarely gets to grips with specifics.

  8. Thanx Frank.
    I credited the saying to Liam, but only in so far that I had not heard it used before. He certainly wouldn’t have claimed it for himself. It was me who erred in its credit, and I happily stand corrected.
    Beyond this you make some interesting points. The city has a strong congregation. It always has, and as you say, how others see it, is up to them. Visitors seem to love it.
    Those who haven’t been here, and see the city through the lens of media, often seem to like it less.
    Those who were born here, had family here (me) moved here (me), or departed for elsewhere, have their views too.
    I always though that the latter is what the “Liverpool Civic” have failed to capture and engage with (over several decades) when they made/make their big plans.

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