The Civic Gospel: How Birmingham’s Radical Past Can Inspire Us Today

Cameron Beavan-King discusses how Labour should learn from Birmingham's 'Civic Gospel'.

The challenges we face today are unprecedented as the pandemic hits hard; a decade of austerity has seen local government dangerously underfunded; state capacity hollowed out, and wealth, power, and opportunity hoarded in London. These problems were not inevitable, they are the result of political decisions. After Coronavirus, Britain will need to be rebuilt and reformed. In thinking about this, we should remember the Civic Gospel of Birmingham preacher George Dawson, a creed of civic duty and activist local government, and the radical Mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain who was inspired by it.

In the 1840s, Dawson established the Church of the Savior in Birmingham. From a platform rather than a pulpit, he preached the Civic Gospel. Dawson is a forgotten figure, there are no statues or squares named after him. He is though one of the most significant figures of the Victorian era in how he crafted a moral and philosophical foundation for radical municipal government.

Victorian Birmingham was a hub of liberal nonconformism from the National Education League of George Dixon and Joseph Chamberlain, which campaigned for non-denominational local authority education to the good works of Quakers, such as George Cadbury, who founded the William Morris-esque model village of Bournville around his Birmingham chocolate factory with good homes for an affordable rent, green space, and local services. It is in this radical environment that Dawson and other nonconformist preachers, such as Robert Dale instilled in their congregations, the importance of civic duty, the practical application of their Christian values to the service of their community and the elimination of societal ills. These lessons were taken to heart by many of Birmingham’s prominent nonconformist business-owners who would become patrons of great civic institutions, such as Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery.

The Civic Gospel took ideas of patriotism and what it meant to be a citizen of a great country, and asked what it meant to be a citizen of a great city. Dawson believed that civic beauty and social welfare were intrinsically linked. At the opening of the Birmingham Reference Library, Dawson proclaimed ‘that a great town is a solemn organism through which should flow, all the highest, loftiest, and truest ends of man's intellectual and moral nature’. He believed that local government and civic society must serve higher ideals.

Dawson was a founder of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Memorial Library, the first public library of Shakespeare in the world. This was a true testament to another of Dawson's sayings ‘The time has come to give everything to everybody’. This is the heart of the Civic Gospel, it is about creating a city where people are active in their community, where great buildings are erected, people are housed, and education is for everybody. It’s not unlike Attlee building a New Jerusalem from the ashes of the Second World War.

Much of the practical implementation of the Civic Gospel would start in 1873 with the elevation of Joseph Chamberlain to Mayor of Birmingham under the idea that local government should be like a ‘joint-stock or co-operative enterprise, where every citizen is a stakeholder’. The municipal revolution, in which Chamberlain promised that the town would be changed beyond recognition, started with the expansion of the Council’s revenue streams. This was very much in line with Dawson's contemporary, the preacher Robert Dale, who tongue-in-cheek proclaimed the 11th commandment to be ‘Thou shall always keep a balance sheet’.

The first major step in Chamberlain’s revolution was the municipalisation of the gas works followed by water. Chamberlain believed that the municipalisation of gas concerned the profits of the town whilst the purchase of the waterworks concerned the health of the town, but both were of absolute public necessity. Chamberlain’s mayoralty can be defined by this astute mix of good financial management and civic action to solve societal ills. Gas and water socialism quickly expanded the Council’s revenue and reduced its reliance on the rates to create a foundation from which to invest in social goods, the arts, and the Birmingham Improvement Scheme. The second year of Chamberlain’s mayoralty would see him lay the foundation stone of Birmingham’s grand seat of governance, the Council House.

Profits from gas would fund a museum and art gallery above the gas offices. The museum’s entrance is engraved with the words ‘By the gains of industry, we promote art’. Efficient municipal government-funded art and culture for every citizen of Birmingham. Chamberlain would transform the city with the Birmingham Improvement Scheme creating grand buildings and new Parisian boulevards. Birmingham architects led the country in classical and gothic revivalism mirroring the great cities of Italy. His legacy was a city transformed, a royal charter granted in 1889, and campaigning from Chamberlain and Birmingham’s prominent nonconformists led to the foundation of the University of Birmingham in 1900.

The Civic Gospel was a radical creed of practical change. Dawson inspired people to become civic leaders, to promote the arts, and opportunity for all. Chamberlain channelled that to transform Birmingham beyond recognition. He challenged vested interests and took unaccountable monopolies and oligopolies into council ownership. The American journalist Julian Ralph would call Chamberlain's Birmingham ‘the best-governed city in the world’. Like many Victorians, Chamberlain's national career is tainted today by the British Empire and I think it is only right to note his leading role in starting the Boar War as Colonial Secretary and his opposition to Irish Home Rule. He was though one of the most significant civic leaders in the development of modern local government in Britain and one of the first truly modern politicians. He galvanised Birmingham across classes to create a political campaign machine, unlike any that came before it. Churchill called him 'the man who makes the weather'. We still have a lot to learn from Chamberlain as a social reformer, civic leader, and politician.

We find the spirit of the Civic Gospel in councils across the country, who have embraced new municipalism and community wealth-building. Labour should learn from the Civic Gospel to forge a new politics that is more co-operative, communitarian, and local; one that recognises the importance of place and community. The next Labour Government needs to restore and empower local government once again with an unprecedented transfer of wealth, power, and opportunity alongside a national government that lives up to Dawson’s rallying cry of ‘everything for everybody’. Only then can we ensure Britain is the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in.

Cameron Beavan-King is the Co-Chair of the Young Fabians Devolution & Local Government Network & Vice-Chair of the West Midlands Young Fabians.

He tweets @CamBeavanKing.

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