As a typically cynical son of Blackpool, I'm often one of the first to stick the boot in when the town hits the headlines. And who can blame me? In a top trumps of misery and woe, the seaside resort is declared the victor time and again. Once dubbed the 'most unhealthy place in England', life expectancy languishes at the foot of any table.
Three years ago, a government poverty report found the town was home to the most deprived ward in England out of a total of 32,844. Unemployment? It runs at just 6 per cent — not bad. Though, as The Spectator has previously reported, another 26 per cent are out of work and not even looking for a job so don't count towards the unemployment figure — again, the worst in the country. The town’s collection of rundown, cheap seafront hotels are the modern image of a distant heyday, the domestic tourism boom in the middle of the 20th century.
Yet, when it comes to people knocking Blackpool, it all depends on who's saying it and how they say it. Earlier this month, Heather Wheeler, the Government's Cabinet Office minister, blustered that she was ‘just at a conference in Blackpool or Birmingham or somewhere godawful’. In fact, she had been at the Conservatives’ spring conference in Blackpool — a coastal resort somewhat removed, both in miles and style, from land-locked Birmingham. The remark sparked a not-unexpected-furore, especially as it came just days after the Prime Minister offered up his housing relaunch from the town. The minister who hails from the nondescript London borough of Wandsworth was quickly forced to apologise.
We also have to suffer the Financial Times's seemingly annual trip to Blackpool, sending a journalist on a train from London to interview bemused locals and get them to say it’s terrible where they live, again and again, over 3,000 words of the pink one's pages. It was deemed so novel the FT had bothered to send a journalist to the resort one year that its report was honoured by a panel of journalism awards judges.
As a kid I often used to tell people I was from Manchester (tangentially by virtue of my mum and dad briefly running a pub there when I was a toddler) because I thought it was a bit cooler with its football team (then it was United) and rock bands. Now? Give me Blackpool every time. We’ve got the revitalised Tangerine Army at Bloomfield Road and one half of the Pet Shop Boys, currently on their world tour, who knock Oasis into a cocked hat.
My 66-year-old mum still drives a taxi at night in the resort, swerving around the brawling punters and bodies in the street. ‘It’s like the Wild West out there’, she often says whenever I ask how the night’s cabbing has fared. But even the Wild West had its charm. And it was never short of a story or two. My mum, Blackpool born and bred, always has a selection of heart-warming tales about the passengers she's taken in the back of her black cab or the flare-ups outside the pubs and bars. Millions of people from all over the country come to visit Blackpool each year and even the Covid pandemic (when not in lockdown) was a boon for the town. Families don't have to worry about an airline cancelling their flight — just get in the car or hop on a train and you're there, basking in the lukewarm sunshine.
Many come for the seaside, its sandy beach, the piers, rollercoasters, the historic tower, the resort's comedy and theatre shows, or the world-famous ballroom (see Strictly Come Dancing), its illuminated light display and even, on occasion, a political party conference. Discounting the ‘godawful’ Conservatives’ spring conference this year, Blackpool has been the scene of several historic political gatherings. In 1994 Tony Blair stunned the Labour Party at the resort's Winter Gardens venue with his revelation that Clause IV, the party's commitment to common ownership of production, would be ditched. Then there was Iain Duncan Smith’s calamitous 'quiet man turning up the volume speech' in 2003, which spelt the end of his Tory leadership. And in 2005, David Cameron's bravura, noteless performance saw him overtake leadership favourite David Davis and win the party nomination. Granted, the Tory MPs and party officials needed to keep their wits about them when out and about. Conference has occasionally coincided with 'Glasgow weekend', in which a considerable number of Glaswegians descend on Blackpool for their holidays and a booze-up. The result? Delegates were warned to remove their conference badges when outside the main venue for fear of reprisals. A valuable life lesson for them all.
Many of those Glaswegians have stayed on in the town, for a new life, the sea air and a bit of fun. They follow a long line of immigrants to Blackpool including the considerable Irish-heritage contingent which gives the place, a towering jewel looking out over the Irish Sea, an almost unique feel of the Celtic, English and British all in one.
It has its well-documented troubles, but also its charms. And almost everyone I speak to has a story about a trip to Blackpool, or a longing to visit. While most people, Cabinet Office minister excepting, could point to it on a map.