Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Nick Robinson: Live From Downing Street

I’ve just finished Live From Downing Streeta political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.

What to make of it?

In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys  is born out of his legacy.

Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”

However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.

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The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.

Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.

Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.

What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.

Mafia State?

From periodically peering into Russian affairs through the British press one could be forgiven for understanding Putin’s Russia as a ‘police state’.

That’s inaccurate, says Luke Harding in Mafia State. It’s a crime state. 

Luke Harding is The Guardian‘s senior international correspondent. He’s recently been hopping in and out of Assad’s anarchic Syria, but made his name as its Russia correspondent between 2007 and 2011. Famously, after peeving the Kremlin a bit too much he became the first Western correspondent since the Cold War to be expelled from Russia. Frustrated, irritated and exacerbated he did the only thing he could do – tell everyone about it.

Harding gives the FSB – the Russian Federation’s successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – a tough rap. It is a law unto itself. Its agents – some 200,000 strong by Harding’s reckoning – are immune from any sort of prosecution. They are the clients of multiple powerful interests, of which the Kremlin is just one. Scary stuff.

Earlier last month Harding visited Oxford to talk to the Oxford Media Society, which I help out with. A few of us were lucky enough to have dinner with him beforehand. (Disclosure: Luke insisted on paying for all our meals at Quod – so I was already a big fan of the guy) He then gave a humorous and spirited talk that was nonetheless intensely serious in character.

Some of the FSB stunts Harding fell victim to do seem “fairly innocuous”, he explained. But really they’re not. A pornographic sex manual was left on the bedside table in the marital bedroom; a page on achieving orgasm had been bookmarked. Hilarious, if spooky.

Less funny: Harding returned to his 10th floor flat one day to find a large window, that had been double-locked when he left, swung wide open above the courtyard far below. That window was by his young son’s bed – the unambiguous message: an accident might just happen. Similarly, having since moved to a suburban dacha, the family returned home one winter’s day to find their boiler had been inexplicably disconnected. In -20 degrees Celsius, that is no laughing matter.

Mafia State is less than 300 pages. But in that space it successfully marries a chilling – if charming – personal account with an angry inditement of the monolithic kleptocracy that Putin has fashioned.

I enjoyed the book for three reasons. First, it’s a good book: as the New Statesman and LRB attest. Second, I liked the author. The passion with which the book has been written was conveyed all the more forcefully to me having learnt what Harding was about. And third, I’m overwhelmingly sympathetic to his conclusions. I’ve heard a lot from professional Russia-watchers who, whilst knowing their subject much better than I do, seem to quick too equivocate and explain, even justify, the Russian system. ‘Russia has never known democracy’ they say, ‘autocracy is in its DNA’.

[It’s a fair point. Russia’s brief flirtation with democratic institutions and an open economy in the 1990s ended in disaster. Putin brought stability and a degree of shared prosperity to the country; his clique of KGB strongmen seemingly delivered what democracy could not. If there’s one important omission in Harding’s book then this is it: how does he answer the claim that Putin’s authority derives from the recovery from those turbulent years?]

But Harding doesn’t equivocate, he doesn’t empathise and he doesn’t attribute any noble purpose to the Russian regime. Putin and his clan are in it, chiefly, for their own profit. The WikiLeaks cables indicate that Putin has personally accumulated billions in assets; the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Russian state has similarly enriched itself. Putin has established authority through channeling oil&gas revenues into social projects, all the while creaming off most of the profit for the plethora of powerful interests that keeps the whole show on the road.

And in any case Harding reckons that that authority is crumbling. The condescension with which Putin treated the Russian people in the casual May job-switch with Medvedev, returning to the Kremlin after 4 years basically running it from the White House, was obvious for all to see. It has sparked the first set of mass anti-Putin protests since 2000. Increasingly the smart money is on Putin being ejected from the Kremlin in some way before his two-terms expire in 2024. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Fair Observer: The PCC Elections and the re-birth of localism

Fair Observer  in my understanding models itself on ‘The Economist’, certainly in terms of tone and content. It’s a pretty low profile web outfit, but I was attracted to writing for it for three reasons: (1) Atul, its Editor and a former Oxford PPE-ist, was kind enough to contact me during the PoshGirls scandal, not to goad, but to offer some words of support. I appreciated that. (2) the content was generally very high quality, the sort of stuff I’d aspire to write and (3) its claim to have global nous seems genuine; Fair Observer has contributors from 5 continents and in all walks of life. I was attracted by the project Atul is attempting to pioneer, even if I think he’ll have a tough time establishing a market niche.

Reproduced from Fair Observer

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With the creation of new Police and Crime Commissioners last year, along with recent inaugural elections, the British government’s attempt to politicise the post of the Chief of Police appears to have come at a wrong time.

The PCC Elections are emblematic of the Coalition’s attempt to push power and democracy downwards and outwards. But will democratising the police refresh the flabby institution, making it more accountable and responsive to the community it serves, or will it turn the police into a political football, having a corrosive effect on the quality of the service?

Defenders of PCCs say that policing is already a political issue. How could it not be? If politics is about how we best live together, the importance of both individual and collective security will form a central part of public discourse. Political parties have disagreed about policing ever since Robert Peel established the world’s first professionalised force in 1829. The function of the new PCCs, the government argues, is not to ‘politicise policing’ as their Labour critic claim, but to push the politics down from a national to municipal level.

And if this exercise in decentralising one function of Britain’s leviathanic state can be shown to work, it may prove to be simply a harbinger of further devolution from London to the localities.

Why Westminster Rules

Among the club of liberal democratic states Britain remains its most centralised member. The legacy bequeathed by earlier generations was born of noble intentions. During the Second World War the country unified – and centralised – to kill Germans. So why couldn’t it do the same to lift people out of poverty and squalor? These pressures, manifested in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory, led to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state – its proudest achievement: the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health who pioneered the NHS, famously ordered that should a bedpan pall in some provincial hospital ward, its echo would reverberate around Whitehall. The Atlee government believed first in social justice, but they were quintessential centralisers, asserting not just the primacy of public over private but of national over local. Both features would become central to British national life.

The Thatcher government challenged the first of these with its programme of liberalisation and denationalisation. It left the second untouched however, leaving swathes of the public sector unreformed, inefficient and out of date. The Labour government of Tony Blair began to force change through the public sector, introducing market incentives into healthcare and freeing schools from the deadpan hand of the education authorities. It bowed to nationalist sentiment and devolved power from Parliament to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed, to Greater London, now the fiefdom of Boris Johnson. For the first time the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the haughty principle that what is decreed in Westminster shall be – was formally repudiated. But as the conflict in Iraq escalated, Blair’s authority evaporated and his reforming allies were marginalised. The ascendancy of Gordon Brown to the Premiership in 2007 ended further attempts at reform, a victory for the vested interests in the public sector that had supported Brown’s rise.

Giving people a say

Whilst David Cameron’s government has been less than successful in reviving Britain’s fledgling economy, it has breathed new life into the public sector. Of special noteworthiness, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made thousands of state schools ‘independent’ within the public sector, giving them powers to emulate their outstanding rivals in the private sector. More radically he has permitted local parent groups to set up hundreds of ‘free schools’, allowed to teach to their own curriculum. Projects like Toby Young’s ‘West London Free School’ in Ealing, which emphasises a ‘classical curriculum’, promise to shake-up the British class system in a way not attempted since the advent of comprehensive (non-selective) education five decades ago, ironically pioneered by Toby’s father, the late Lord Young.

‘Giving people a say’ is the mantra of this government. And in education at least they have been faithful in executing it. But what happens when the people don’t really fancy a ‘say’ in how their services are run?

The government intended the PCC elections to capture the interest of local people, and to attract candidates prominent in their local area. That plainly hasn’t happened. Few serious and successful local figures have been willing to take the plunge into what remains an ill-defined role, the powers of which are wholly ambiguous. Moreover the public has been largely unwilling to invest time into learning about the non-party candidates. The information conferred by a ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’ or ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate has therefore been all that the public are willing or able to take in, strongly prejudicing their choice against candidates they might otherwise warm to.

More politics = better politics?

The tension, ultimately, is between the general public’s two conflicting instincts: (1) for a greater say in how they are governed and (2) an unprecedented loathing of the political class. The second of these feelings is currently the strongest. In light of the scandal over British MP’s expenses claims, as well as crises in journalism and finance, the whole British Establishment has been thrown into disrepute.

This cynicism has already undermined for a generation attempts to empower urban towns and cities. In May eleven of England’s largest cities were granted referenda on whether they wanted directly-elected mayors. With the exception of Bristol and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, they refused. So it is unsurprising that turnout in the PCC elections was next to abysmal: 18% nationally with many of those spoiling their ballots. The message, it seems, is unambiguous: the public simply does not want more politicians.

That is why Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who has spent the autumn in Britain, has provoked derision at his call for more politics, not less. Despite its scepticism the public should listen to his argument. Sandel describes healthy societies as those in which people of different incomes and cultures rub along together, in which they share a similar understanding of what their welfare consists in. In Britain communities are divided between regions as well as within them. It means that a banker living in Chelsea, West London, has more in common with, say, a landlord in Edinburgh – not to mention his kinship with another banker in Hong Kong – than he does with his near-neighbour. This is no way to cultivate a sense of place and local identity. Yet far from encouraging that, the British state as constituted governs its citizens in such a way that alienates groups from one another.

If the effect of Police and Crime Commissioners is merely to add a new layer to the political class then another nail in the coffin of localism will have been struck. If, on the other hand, people see policing as a means to put right what is wrong in the community, then the PCCs could, in time, become a vital catalyst in rebuilding what has been lost since 1945: an identification with, and pride in, local bodies. Ultimately, the dubious mandate of the newly-elected PCCs will be forgotten if they make a success of it. It only takes a small number of charismatic, reforming characters to imbue the role with the significance it surely merits. When a previous Labour government introduced a mayoralty to London in 2000, it took a couple of election cycles and two sparring candidates – Ken and Boris – to embed the mayoralty firmly in the public consciousness. The government could not have picked a worst time to expand the political class, but having done so the public will eventually come to thank them for it.

Book Review: ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ by Richard Aldous

The book has been out a few years now, but I read it fairly leisurely over the summer and thought it would lend itself to a novice-like review. I’m keen to get a knack for book reviewing but this is my first ever proper attempt.Image

‘It is surprising that there has been no earlier attempt to write a book on their relationship’, opens Richard Aldous in his biographical account of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Liberal and Conservatives giants who carved up a fat chunk of the nineteenth century between them. He’s totally correct. Westminster politics is nothing if it isn’t bitterly antagonistic. Aldous tells a story about the two men that makes the Blair-Brown rivalry seem like a childish fall-out in the sandpit.

The Lion and the Unicorn is more historical drama than political biography. It stresses, above all, their mutual loathing. Later in life Disraeli would call Gladstone the ‘A.V. [Arch Villain]’, Gladstone affectionately termed Disraeli the ‘Grand Corrupter’. They shared all of the characteristics that made them adversaries, and none that made them allies: a celebrity status, an eloquence rivalled only by the other and an attitude to principles coined best by Groucho Marx – ‘if you don’t like them, I have others!’

Aldous maintains a vivid and energetic narrative style. Each passage, 3 to 4 pages each, is episodic and the passages together are loosely chronological. It’s a style that works with the tone, pace and attention-grabbing situ-dramas that unfold from page to page (this can get irritating, but only if the book is read in one or two sittings without interlude). Even a nineteenth-century novice will have their imagination caught by Aldous’ powerful and witty account. The message of the book is imprinted firmly on the reader’s consciousness: politics is personal, and ugly, and thrilling.

This is not at the expense of scholarship however. It is difficult, though not impossible, to find assertions not adequately substantiated. Aldous has immersed himself in diaries, speeches and contemporary journals. Famously Disraeli was an accomplished novelist; the apocryphal line ‘When I want to read a good book, I write one’ is often attributed to him. It turns out that Gladstone, dismissive of Disraeli’s literary ‘dalliances’ had read every one of his works. “The first quarter clever, the rest trash” is how Gladstone judged Vivian Grey, Disraeli’s first novel. Yet it didn’t stop him reading the others.

Occasionally one feels that Aldous has not scratched far below the service. Concluding a chapter on Disraeli’s first yearin Parliament, he writes scathingly: ‘Disraeli had lived his whole life under the influence of [Lord] Byron. Now…he was dismissed by society as a sensationalist without either temperament or prospects. He was, at best, an amusement, or, at worst, an ostentatious Jewish upstart’. This rough and ready torpedoing of Disraeli’s nascent political character is probably unfair; Aldous’ characterisation seems just a little too close to that of the eponymous hero in Vivian Grey. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor probably better suited to Disraeli’s generation than his own, had always been derided as similarly louche – until he became the country’s favourite Tory.

To the extent that the two have a popular reputation today, it is Disraeli as the eccentric and Gladstone as the statesman. By delving into the personal Aldous turns that on its head completely. He spends a lot of time – too much, you think at first, until you to realise the full extent and persistence of the problem – talking about Gladstone’s sex life. His diaries recount “vigorous” masturbation, “which returns upon me again & again like a flood”. Later he became infatuated with prostitutes, visiting ’80 to 90’ of them between 1849 and 1852 under the guise of ‘rescue work’. Without any bite of his own, Aldous presented Gladstone as a rank hypocrite, preaching stern Christian virtue by day and prowling Soho by night.

Disraeli by contrast, though famed in his youth for affairs with older women, had found true love. The reader takes great pleasure in their relationship. After the first reading of the 1867 Reform Bill, Disraeli had routed Gladstone in the Commons debate. Already late in the evening, he declined the deluge of invitations from Tory grandees in favour of returning home to Mary Ann, the widow he’d married three decades previously. By now over 70, she waited up into the early hours for ‘Dizzy’ with a bottle of champagne and a Fortnum and Mason’s pie. “Well my dear” Disraeli remarked, “you are more like a mistress than a wife”.  Aldous is good for those anecdotal nuggets. They embellish his tale, rooting political history’s great happenings in genuine humanity.

Aldous is not obviously sympathetic toward to the one or the other, but in this work I noticed that Gladstone was flattered by one big omission: his 1862 Newcastle speech for instance, in which the then-Liberal Chancellor endorsed the Confederate States of America.

The book has much to recommend it, if you’re the right reader. To those interested in the art of politics, be aware: it is more entertaining than instructive. To those looking for another angle on Victorian Britain, it’s probably best to head elsewhere – Aldous either dispenses with the relevant details or tries to interpret too much through Gladstone and Disraeli’s battles. With those qualifications any student and advocate of Conservatism will have a thoroughly pleasant weekend leafing through The Lion and the Unicorn; no comparable study currently on the market is so crackling with political drama.

Is London leaving the country behind?

This is a piece I wrote for Isis, the termly glossy published by OSPL – the same student-run company that owns Cherwell. It didn’t make the final cut, and I can see why. The North-South divide makes me think a lot, but I found it difficult to organise those thoughts around a distinct theme, and to make it fit with the material I was obliged to use – namely the interview with John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. I spent some considerable time on it however; so the final result is a good piece, an interesting one, but nothing spectacular.

‘All roads lead to London’ is not yet a quotation from Boris Johnson, a Classical Scholar, but it may as well be.

Few cities can claim to be global centres of finance, business, art, politics and media. Despite intense competition from BRIC economies, London remains a leading global city – and its lead is growing. The city’s advantages – its language, timezone, legal system, and diverse cultural life – have propelled it to becoming the “capital of the world” suggests Christopher Meyer, a former British diplomat. Deals involving euros or dollars are made as often in the British capital as in Frankfurt or New York.

“Every country in the world would kill to have a London,” says John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. He is surely right. Even taking into account recent dollops of public investment – CrossRail and the Olympic Games most recently – London is a national cash cow, contributing more in taxation to to national tax revenue than it withdraws. Oxford Economics estimates that the annual subsidy from London to the rest of the UK is £15-20 billion. Recognising this, the London Mayor is clamouring for greater fiscal autonomy:  according to the LSE’s Tony Travers, Johnson is, Salmond-style, attempting “devo-max for the capital”.

As things stand, London is institutionally embedded in the rest of the country, despite sharing ever less in common with it. Parliament and Whitehall have facilitated Scottish devolution, but it is difficult to imagine them doing the same for the capital. The problem is that institutions – seemingly fixed and implacable – cannot keep pace with the force of globalisation.Seismic economic change has made London less reliant on other parts of the UK; its interests lie in foreign markets rather than domestic ones. Consequently, financiers in Canary Wharf are more likely to visit Beijing than Birmingham. If they travel to Manchester, it is only to observe Chelsea play Manchester United from the safe confines of an executive box.

“The rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful,” says Micklethwait, due to an emotional disconnect between London and the rest of the country. “The danger comes [when] you… have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.”  Despite the near-death experience of the financial crisis, the City continues to fill the Exchequer with gold. In 2010 the City contributed £50 billion to the government’s revenue, some 10% of the total. It is difficult to imagine the country doing better in the absence of London’s subsidy: “Yes, you get steeper inequality,” says Mickelthwaite, but “Overall it’s an incredible bonus.”

Is the burgeoning inequity between London and the rest a price the UK should willingly pay? Back in 2006, when the Conservative opposition promised to “share the proceeds of growth”, David Cameron was fond of an analogy from Polly Toynbee’s book: Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain. She asked, if society is a caravan moving through the desert, even if all the members are moving forward, how far away do the ones at the back – the allegorical English regions – have to fall before there are two caravans, not one?

Toynbee argues that it is far from evident that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. During the last boom, although the South-East grew faster than the North, the frothy bubble of consumer credit and public spending gave the impression that debt-fuelled prosperity was a national, not London-based, phenomenon. Property in particular was a lucrative market for northern investors: city-centres across the North were  redevelopmed and gentrified.

But in reality, London’s size  has made it difficult for regional businesses to grow. Budding companies from outside London are in a permanent Catch-22. If they succeed then re-locating to London is a necessary step to further expansion abroad. If they struggle, then larger firms or private equity outfits from the capital are likely to swallow them up. When the FTSE 100 began in 1984, only half of its listed companies were based within Greater London; today the figure is over 70%. This means that professional services – accountancy, consultancy, law – are also concentrated in the capital.

When times are good, these changes go unnoticed. Jobs remain plentiful, even if the more lucrative ones are no longer available at home. But in bad times, educated graduates escape the regions to head for London – and when growth resumes, they do not go back. In 2012 over half of graduate jobs were in the South-East; the result is a slow brain drain down the M6.

Is there a solution? The Coalition Government is committed to building a high-speed rail service (HS2) extending to Manchester by 2033; this mammoth expenditure represents the centrepiece of its regional growth strategy. HS2 is designed to channel investment up the county, shrinking the distance between North and South, but who is to say that investment won’t go the other way? Manchester itself might hold the answer. Since the early 90s, the city has created a distinct identity and an integrated economic strategy. The University of Manchester has doubled in size in less than a decade – two of its scientists last year won the Nobel Prize for Physics. New developments such as MediaCity[VB4] , now home to several divisions of the BBC and ITN, promise to create the clusters of high-value activity that London currently monopolises. The city has taken stock of its major assets and sought to build on them: the area around Manchester Airport, the third busiest airport in the UK, has been designated an enterprise zone. The MetroLink – a hitherto inadequate tram system – has been extended to connect Salford Quays, the new home of the BBC and Granada Television, to an increasingly vibrant city centre.

But it won’t be enough. Government austerity has seen the number of public-private partnerships – of the sort that helped regenerate central Manchester after the 1996 IRA bomb – plummet. Private sector retrenchment has curtailed new development and investments.

“One of the curiosities of British politics… is how little the dominance of London shapes the politics of the English regions,” says Douglas Fraser, the BBC’s Scotland editor. It may yet do so. Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, with Joseph Chamberlain as Mayor, famously embarked on a heroic program of town planning and great public works. Similarly a walk along the neoclassical terraces of Grey Street in Newcastle, or an evening with the Halle Orchestra – the world’s oldest – in Manchester should remind us that municipal pride and endeavor weren’t always unique to our flourishing capital. For these peripheries to reassert themselves they must embrace charismatic characters that personify this pride.

However, attempts to introduce elected mayors in England’s major cities were overwhelmingly voted down in May. This should cause great remorse. Big personality mayors would have electrified a Northern political consciousness that has for too long been stagnant. When Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, speaks up for Edinburgh and Boris Johnson boisterously fights London’s corner, the North suffers. There is no name synonymous with the great cities of Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle. The North’s clout in the media is meagre. Strong regional titles such as the Manchester Evening News, the Guardian and the Daily Herald used to keep a finger on the northern political pulse; all are now defunct, emasculated or based in London.

For the time being, the English regions – lacking a distinct competitive advantage or identity, will continue to serve as the hinterland of Britain’s global city.

Graham Brady: Fighting for the Tory Right

My interview with Graham Brady from CherwellNot one of my best, having not got much original material out of him – a common difficulty when you find yourself in agreement with so much of it.

Standing from his corner office in Portcullis House, Graham Brady recalls watching the Diamond Jubilee procession from our viewpoint two weeks earlier. With a vista that takes in Westminster Palace, Parliament Square and the imperial marble of Whitehall, they’re certainly worse places to hold down a job. Not that it’s just any old job. As Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Brady is probably the most influential Tory outside the Cabinet, and in practice exercises far more power than a few of those in it. He has Cameron on speed-dial and the Tory leader would be unwise to screen his call.

If Number Ten is the brains of the Conservative Party, the ’22 is its heart and soul. It represents a spectrum of backbench opinion with an eighteen member executive changing periodically. Only government ministers are excluded.The most recent ballot saw the inclusion of prominent backbenchers into the executive including Priti Patel, the fiery right-winger. Brady himself understands it as ‘the plumbing that connects the leader of the party with the backbench membership’, and though his chairmanship is barely older than the Coalition itself, he sees his role as ‘more important when the party is in government, and more important than ever now that there is a Coalition’.

To those who know him, Brady is seen as friendly, principled and not obviously ambitious. It is certainly easy to warm to his avuncular manner. When I make a bad joke – a reoccurring issue in my interviews – he laughs generously. After the interview he takes 5 minutes to let me out of Parliament personally, whereas most MPs would delegate the job to an intern. Not that there was any special chemistry between us by the way, I’m sure it’s run of the mill stuff for him. But his easy-going charm is one of the explanations for Brady’s success from unremarkable beginnings.

Born in Trafford to an accountant father and a secretary mother, Brady is defined by his education. In August he told the New Statesman that ‘I owe my career to grammar school’. From our conversation it was evident that he is spending that career repaying the favour. An alumnus of the small Altrincham Grammar School in Greater Manchester, Brady talks of ‘a great loyalty to my old school’. His maiden speech in Parliament opposed the abolition of the Assisted Places scheme, one of New Labour’s first directives that crippled England’s grammar schools. In Westminster Brady’s name remains synonymous with the grammar schools debate. He was serving as shadow Europe Minister when David Cameron unequivocally came out against grammar schools in 2007. ‘There are times when something is sufficiently important that it is imperative to take a stand’ Brady muses; walking out of the shadow cabinet was his first break with a leadership not in tune with his distinct flavour of conservatism.

He is enthusiastic about Michael Gove’s Education Department however, which since 2010 has approved thousands of new ‘Academy’ schools – ones autonomous from Local Authority Control – and hundreds of radical ‘Free Schools’. Yet as a firm supporter of selective education he is clear that it isn’t enough. Toby Young, who Cherwell interviewed in May, told me his aim in setting up the West London Free School was to ‘create a grammar school ethos’. Brady describes Toby and the efforts of other educational reformers such as Katherine Birbalsingh as ‘fantastic’. However ‘what they won’t do is create a grammar school education’; that requires selection, pure and simple.

Whilst ostensibly remaining against new grammar schools, the Coalition- at the behest of local parents and government – has given the green light to new grammar schools via the back door. Kent County Council has approved a new ‘satellite school’ in Sevenoaks, Kent, officially tied to an existing school 10 miles away in Tonbridge but to all intents and purposes a new school – the first in 50 years. I ask Brady if this stealthy method is the way forward. Thus ensues the longest pause for thought of our interview (still only a paltry few seconds). Carefully he described the move as a ‘small but significant way forward’. The effect will be marginal, but the idea, articulated by Brady is that ‘demand [for new grammars] and pressure in other areas’ will increase. Though the government remains officially wedded to the comprehensive ideal – something the Lib Dems won’t let them stray far from – grammar school campaigners are increasingly pushing on an open door, presenting a ‘very important challenge’ to the pre-New Labour educational orthodoxy.

The other weeping wound of the Conservative Party lies in European policy; here Brady has also dipped his hands in blood – my phrase, not his, of course. When 79 Tory MPs defied a 3 line whip last autumn to vote in favour of an EU in-out referendum, Brady was one of them. Bizarrely he refuses to acknowledge a conflict at all – ‘what you call a rebellion, I call members of parliament acting independently’. ‘Same difference?’ I counter but he isn’t having any of it. An allusion to Churchill is illuminating however. Quoting the sainted Conservative he describes loyalty as owed ‘first to country, then constituency and then party’. It’s a neat way out of explaining lapses of party loyalty: appeal to patriotism, voters and Churchill. Except I can’t help thinking there’s something to it. He just doesn’t come across as at all tribal – the sort of guy who would otherwise support Manchester City providing they weren’t playing the more local Manchester United.

Explaining the relationship between the ’22 and the Executive Brady is clear: ‘we work best when we work privately’. All of his conversations with Cameron are confidential, ‘frank’ and ‘leak proof’. Poisoned by disloyalty his words have no power. so doing Brady avoids the headlines but retains the Prime Minister’s ear. As chair of the ’22 his job is nudge, wink and cajole Cameron on behalf of backbenchers. But he can’t practice this to destruction; after all, a Coalition full of ‘wets’ remains better than one rendered impotent by rebellion. So the relationship goes both ways; instead of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the Tory Right he tells them when it’s to swallow the bitter pill of Coalition consensus. This is Brady’s essence. He understands his role as keeping the show on the road, rather than stealing it for himself or some swivel-eyed right-wing cause. As such he’s perhaps the Coalition’s greatest asset, though he’d be loath to admit it.

Is the North pulling away from the UK?

After an extraordinary 3 weeks inter-railing I’m hastily scrambling together a first draft for next term’s Isis, the glossy termly publication of OSPL, on the North-South divide.

The notion of a rich South and a destitute North is beaten about so much as to be caricatured. I remember playing off the lazy stereotype for most of Michaelmas term. Still, as the academic Danny Dorling is quoted in this Economist article, there is an understanding – more or less reflected in the facts – that in the North ‘there are islands of affluence in a sea of poverty’ whereas in the South the sea is of affluence.

I was keen to speak to John Micklethwait, the Editor of The Economist, the world’s most globalised publication. Last month I did. When I challenged him that London’s runaway success had promoted it into the league of prosperous metropolises at the expense of the rest of the UK, he was civilly boisterous in a fashion so characteristic of the magazine he edits. ‘The problem for London’ he told me is that ‘the rest of Britain doesn’t realise how lucky it is.’ He is surely accurate in describing the capital as ‘an engine which keeps pumping more and more money back into the system.’

Even with CrossRail, the Olympics and a generously maintained public transport system London remains a net contributor to the Exchequer whilst the Northern regions fail to return all the money to the Westminster Piggy Bank that they spend. Despite this, ‘the rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful about it and the danger comes that you may at some time have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.’ For Micklethwait the capital is to be cherished, not maligned: ‘every other country in the world would love to have a London’. And whilst ‘yes, you get steeper inequality [in relation to the rest of the country]….overall it’s an incredible bonus’.

Micklethwait notes that, unlike competitor cities such as Mayor Bloomberg’s fiefdom of New York, ‘London is totally embedded into the rest of the country’. Institutionally this is true but institutions alone cannot suppress powerful and unhealthy economic trends. Back in 2006 when the next Conservative government would ‘share the proceeds of growth’ rather than striving desperately simply to find some of it, David Cameron was very fond of an analogy described by Polly Toynbee in her book, Hard Work: Life in Low Pay BritainIf society is a caravan moving through the desert then how far do the members at the back – the allegorical poor – have to fall before we are left with two caravans, not one?

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hall, previously the stock market of the Industrial Age – now a hotbed of Northern theatre

Personally I prefer the melted cheese analogy, which I’ve ripped off from someone somewhere, about two slices of pizza pulled further and further apart – admittedly it gets low marks for poetic flair.

In Manchester at least, times are a-changin’. One of my favourite comedy-drama shows is Cold FeetSky’s helpful cataloguing of all five series on Anytime robbed a significant portion of my productive summer. Starring James Nesbitt the show was set on location in and around the city, taking in the regenerated and gentrified districts of central Manchester and Salford – now home to MediaCity – as well as the suburbs around Didsbury and Trafford. Now over a decade old, the show’s characters personified the city Manchester has become in the wake of deindustrilaisation: cosmopolitan, educated and fun.

Living here, walking around town, I get one impression of what is going on in Manchester – and by a more tenuous extrapolation, the North. But the statistics, as well as the evident global, not national, character of Greater London, suggests to me that Northern England is becomes slowly disconnected from the rest of the UK: from Scotland and Wales by political devolution, and from the South-East by economic disaffiliation.

I would really welcome any thoughts in aid of my piece…