Leicester is a winner – and not just on the football pitch

Published by the ipaper (2nd May, 2016)

When I started out in journalism three decades ago, I spent time on two work placements at regional newspapers. The first was an enjoyable month in Newcastle, an exciting city throbbing with energy despite the difficulties of economic downturn. The second could not have been more different: three dull weeks in lethargic Leicester, where life was so humdrum my fellow journalists put down notebooks each day to take time out for a collective tea break.

The late Sir Terry Wogan used to call it ‘the lost city’, little known beyond the odd mention in traffic reports. How different today. Now the name of this Midlands city reverberates around the world. Its football team has taken another step towards pulling off among the most astonishing achievements in modern sport. Even when I was in Albania recently, almost the first question everyone asked in cafes and shops was about ‘Liechester City’. Such is the global reach of the Premier League, rebranding this unflamboyant place in the most emphatic style possible.

Acres of newsprint have already been expended analysing the amazing exploits of Claudio Ranieri’s raiders. Books and films must surely follow if they win the title, telling the tale of how a motley group of upstarts, cheap imports and rejects from glamorous rivals seized the crown. Yet as so often in sport, the team reflects the place. So we can celebrate also a city offering wider lessons to the nation, lessons that feel especially pertinent in this age of insularity and pessimism. For success is found not just at its football stadium but on its streets.

Leicester could not now be more different from that place in which I once spent boring evenings in a dreary bedsit. It has become a model for modernisation and tolerance. This is most obvious in its vibrant multiculturalism – it is the most diverse city outside the capital in Britain. Nationally, eight in 10 citizens describe themselves as white British; in Leicester, it is barely half that figure, the proportion doing so falling more than 13 per cent between the first two censuses of this century.

This is evident in interviews with ebullient fans. One road in Leicester was found recently to have shopkeepers from 23 different countries and four continents, making it the nation’s most diverse high street. A London School of Economics researcher described it as ‘the world in microcosm…different cultures, living cheek by jowl, working with each other and living in harmony’. Other streets host churches, gurdwaras, mosques, synagogues and temples. Yet this mix of faiths and heritage is seen as source of civic pride, not cause for conflict.

In typically British style, none of this was planned. Indeed, it was resisted at first by fearful inhabitants. In 1972, little more than a decade before I turned up, the city council warned potential immigrants they were putting ‘the entire fabric of our city’ at risk, even taking out an advertisement in a Ugandan newspaper to tell Asians being expelled by a brutal dictator to stay away. Housing, schools and social services were ‘full to bursting’ and ‘stretched to the limit’, they warned. How familiar such things sound again today.

The Asian population quadrupled in a decade, joining those already there from the Caribbean. They were followed by Africans, with 15,000 Somalis alone, then Turks, eastern Europeans and now some Syrians. Far from shattering Leicester as feared, these successive waves of new arrivals actually saved Britain’s 13th-biggest city. When big textile manufacturers and struggling family garment firms closed down in the 1970s and 1980s after dominating business life for decades, their place was taken by immigrant entrepreneurs. Now even the fish and chip shop boss is from Hong Kong.

The legacy of these new arrivals, determined to make their mark, is a place recently found to have the fastest business growth rates outside the capital. Other studies revealed Leicester to be one of the best places to start a new business, one of the best to open a shop, even the most affordable town in Britain for first-year students. So much for claims the city could not cope with big influxes. Instead, it demonstrates the economic force of immigration, just as with London’s transformation, while showing a positive side of multiculturalism that we hear about so rarely. Headlines tend to be driven by hate and tensions, not quiet respect.

Despite the arrival of a dead Shakespearean king last year and ambitious plans for a National Space Park, Leicester is an admirably modest place. Typical was the response after a pay panel proposed the mayor should be awarded a huge rise taking him to a six-figure salary. The incumbent Sir Peter Soulsby rejected this suggestion amid protests, saying £65,000 a year seemed reasonable since it matched an MP’s pay. If only other prominent figures showed similar respect for wider society.

Perhaps we should not draw too many conclusions from a bunch of grown men kicking a ball around a park. But it is hard not to ponder the symbolism of Birmingham, our second city, failing to have a team in the top league, let alone the over-representation of London and the South-east or struggles seen in the North-east. The story of Leicester City is a lovely one, filled with rare hope and uplifting positivity. So let us lay aside divisions to cheer them on to deserved victory – and appreciate the positive lessons a nervous nation can draw from this city’s spectacular success.

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