Lifestyle, Manchester, Review

Humanities in Public: Has Manchester Betrayed its Radical Traditions?

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By Pierangelly Del Rio Martinez


A discussion about Manchester’s history and its radical past recently took place at Number 70 Oxford Street. Part of Manchester Met’s 2017 Humanities in Public Festival, ‘Has Manchester Betrayed its Radical Traditions?’ explored the main topic of this year’s festival, ‘Greater Manchester and Northern Identity’, through a provocative and illustrative talk and Q&A session.

The discussion opened with an overview of Manchester’s history, going back to the times of the English Civil War and the changes that the conflict caused. Manchester tour guide, public speaker and writer Jonathan Schofield was the main speaker. Having published several books about the North West and having participated in interviews about the area’s identity, architecture and politics, Jonathan’s expertise and knowledge were evident as he travelled back in time, recounting the meaningful events that gave Manchester its reputation of being radical and a place of revolution. Key issues in Manchester’s history include chartism, Free Trade, the Suffragettes, protests about unemployment, the Great Depression and the North West’s prominent historical figures include Friedrich Engels, Elizabeth Gaskell and Lydia Becker among others.

The presentation included meaningful images and extracts from articles that depicted the Manchester of the past. These served as relevant artifacts of history that supported the talk as Jonathan informed the public how they connected with the key historical events of the city’s radical past. The public was also deeply involved, as the speaker kept asking questions and opened the talk asking: “Have we all betrayed our radical past? Do you think we have a radical past? Do you think we have a radical future? Are you doing anything for our radical future?”

To provide an answer to these questions, Jonathan began to discuss the true meaning of the word ‘radical’, which, lately, has been associated with religion and is often regarded with negative connotations in the wake of the recent attacks across the country. “I always associate the word radical, from a Manchester point of view, with left and progressive. It has to be that way,” Schofield said. “I looked to the origin of the word, radical, and it’s to go back to the roots. So, therefore, a progressive radicalism would go back to the roots of what it is aiming for. In the case of Manchester, it should be equality and social justice. The real form of radicalism is to return to an ideal of humanity, which is a kind of humanity which cares for each other.”

Inevitably, the discussion led to the question: What now? Where are we at the moment? In contrast to the movements and manifestations of the past, as explored during this event, the current Manchester seems to have distanced itself from its radical roots. Part of this change was suggested as being  to do with the digital era and the atomization of the digital world into global groups rather than local and regional communities. Social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, which seem to work as platforms for people to express their opinions and socio-political views, end up, ironically, distancing people from engaging with their communities. To this, Jonathan asked: “Can we be left and progressive and be on Facebook? I think this is the problem at the moment; we are now lost in this. Time is a really rare, scarce resource.”

Closer to the end, however, the discussion ended on a lighter note as Jonathan commented: “I think there’s a new radicalism which we need to fight for. And it is very hard to fight for; it’s a little bit shapeless. But we need to look at the things we have fought to achieve: equality between men and women, social justice and freedom of expression. Whenever those virtues are threatened, we fight back; we can’t tolerate intolerance.”

By the end of the presentation, the high level of engagement and the interest about the subject was evident as several members of the audience asked questions and were eager to demonstrate their opinion.

One of the attendees, Vicky, said of the event: “I really enjoyed it. I thought it was really insightful, and it was a great opportunity to discuss the state of the city and also learn people’s opinions about the future of the city.”

Upcoming events in the 2017 Humanities in Public festival include Manchester Voices Launch Night on the 22nd June and Manchester Modernists GM 10 Part 2 on the 24th June.

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Pierangelly Del Rio

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