ABHI Membership

The Friday Blog: Small Society, Big State

It has been another glorious week for the Cabinet Office communications team. But, tempted as I am, I really dare not open with a gag about “How many Chief Constables does it take to explain lockdown restrictions?” No, I am not going to do it. No way. You will not persuade me to have a bash.

I spent last weekend closely monitoring seismic, global geopolitical events. After ferocious conflicts, the natural, rightful, world-order has been restored, and we should all be sleeping more soundly as a result. The South West of England now boasts not just one, but two European champion Rugby teams. Whilst that is all well and good, it will, mark my words, spark controversy. The politics of envy that cause estate agents to call parts of Kilburn, West, West Hampstead, will have others claiming geographic allegiance to the Peninsula. I swear that my mate Mike, a born and bred, dyed in the wool, more hardcore Brummie than Glyn Purnell, greeted me with “Right on, boy!” when we met early on Sunday morning to walk the Rotties around Whitecrest field.

It reminds me of a visit to the sports pages a few years ago when I read, with utter incredulity, a preview of the “upcoming West Country derby between Worcester Warriors and the Cornish Pirates.” I could only conclude that that particular correspondent had neither ever visited Penzance, nor had any concept of where Worcester actually was. And it was in a broadsheet. I blame The Archers.

Mind you, and speaking of controversy, I have never been convinced by Bristol’s credentials. Yes, really. I know if I polled you all now, asking you to tell me where you considered the city to be, I would get a close to 100% response of the West Country. And if I asked you to do a typical West Country accent, you would probably sound like you had just emerged from the woods of Clevedon. But, and here is the thing, when I am having a pint in my local pub in Newlyn, granted it has been a while, I am as close to Exeter as Bristol is to London, and Bristol is only about 80 miles from Birmingham. I do realise that if I started a campaign to have Bristol reclassified as being in the South West, West Midlands, or wherever it actually is, it would not get very far, but, the point however being, is that your world view will depend on your perspective. The perspective of those in West Penwith will be different to that of those in West Bridgford. Your perspective may also be quite different from that of your near neighbours and friends.

If, for example, you are a Conservative MP from the leafy shires, you will have a different perspective from your Honourable friends who, with a significant assist from JC (not that one), somehow found themselves representing constituencies in Greater Manchester. We know that for certain, because the latter got seriously ticked off at the former, after the former wrote to the latter’s city Mayor telling him to wind his neck in and do what he was told by Downing Street. But Andy Burnham was not for just rolling over, and has been grappling with Robert Jenrick et al all week. I do not think that it is simply because Burnham recognises the absolute impossibility of persuading people in Manchester, that what is good for the city of Liverpool is good for them. It is not, of course, just in the North West that such neighbourly antipathy exists, although nowhere is it writ larger than between the citizens of Leigh and the pie eaters of Wigan. But if the county of my youth is a foreign country to you, think Portsmouth v Southampton or Camborne v Redruth or Glasgow v Edinburgh or Minneapolis v St. Paul or Wellington v Auckland or Keardiff v the rest of Wales.

No, Burnham argued that there was little evidence to move his city into the top (or is that bottom?) Tier of restrictions, and pointed out that Greater Manchester is significantly bigger than the Liverpool City region, and businesses being forced to close would need to be appropriately recompensed. There is also an issue of how our country, or possibly soon to be countries, will be governed in the future. Manchester famously did a devolution deal with central government, which included the health and care system being removed from the control of NHS England. I have been trying to follow that for you, but am not really sure how it is going, or if it is realising the outcomes envisioned by Sir Howard Bernstein. Bernstein articulated, better than anyone I have ever heard, why health is wealth, and why the quality of health and care is inextricably linked to the economic competitiveness of a region. The whole devolution thing fascinates me. Some of you will remember when we had an Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, a Mandelsonian construct to keep old school Labour bruiser, John Prescott, out of trouble. Not that the move was entirely successful, although in defence of JP, I would say 1. I was in Bournemouth and it was very windy. 2. I would have punched that bloke myself, and 3. People wearing badges with the slogan “John Prescott, Sex God,” did so as a conference stunt with no concept that it might actually be true.

Anyway, I digress, but New Labour’s big idea back in the day was devolution, and Prescott held a series of referendums to test the appetite for US-style city Mayors. There was none, or at least very little. Roll forward to 2010 and the arrival of proud Northerner, young Gideon, and his vison for the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and whatever else was going through the minds of the coalition government at the time. And so, despite that people said they did not want them, we now have a number of US-style city Mayors. Or do we? You would have thought that the pandemic was exactly why you needed strong, regional government. An authority in tune with its local population and knowing exactly how to respond to get the best out of it. It would, of course, need to be adequately resourced, which has been part of the issue this week. The politics are also upside down. Devolution 2010 style, was the Conservative vison for the post-bureaucratic State, what became known, for the purposes of electioneering, as a Big Society. Big Society means small State, but on Wednesday, Andy Burnham, as he was facing the nation’s media, was shown a text informing him that Tier Three was being imposed on Manchester by diktat from Downing Street. Small society, big State. Presumably the PM and the elected Mayor of one of our great cities had stopped talking to each other by that point, which explains the text thing. Amongst the many questions that will need to be answered about how we dealt with the pandemic, will be the scale on which we tried to manage it. The way our children are governed in the future, may be very different from our own experiences.

Bubbling under, and this may sound extremely cynical, is the fact that Burnham is one of a number of people, not currently in national politics, who look like they might be part of a Labour Cabinet in waiting. Think Dan Jarvis, Tristram Hunt and David Miliband amongst others. The profile Burnham is having, whilst he continues to come across well at least, will do him no harm. And just imagine it is Home Secretary Burnham, riding the wave of a great victory for the regions. You can do the rest yourselves.

Speaking of near neighbours, when I am having a pint in my local pub in Newlyn, London is closer to Brussels than it is to me. I think it is fair to say that different perspectives exist between the two. You did hear it first here last week, within hours of Boris saying Brexit talks were off, that it was just posturing, a nudge to the EU. And so it was. There have been more conciliatory tones coming out this week, and formal negotiations commenced again yesterday. Michael Gove was a little cautious, saying the UK would happily walk away and be fine as a result thank you very much. But the CDL is nothing if not on message, and that is what he was told to say. And if somebody forgets to tell him to say something else, he will probably keep saying it until well after the ink is dry on a super deal, and the rest are languishing in sunny uplands. For now though, the differences remain the differences, and I am running out of ways to keep describing them to you. What I will say is that I joined an event run by the wonderful Institute for Government the other day. It used the technology that allows you to type questions in a chat box and other delegates can, quite literally, give you the thumbs up if they think it is worth answering. My question got more thumbs ups than anyone else’s, but the moderator, and the panelists who could also see it, chose not to address it. It was simply “what does a deal on fisheries look like?” Answers on a postcard to Frosty and Barney, Just Outside a Tunnel, Somewhere between London and Brussels.

Speaking of tricky negotiations, if you have been holding your breath over the passage of the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, stop. The Bill has now reached Grand Committee stage in the House of Lords, and, despite being drafted not to be amended, their Lordships are considering some 146 of the things. They made a start on Monday and managed to get through seven. The two that were accepted had been tabled, shock, horror, by the Minister taking the Bill through. There are an allocated four days remaining to deliberate the rest. It is not going to happen, as confirmed to me by one Peer I spoke to this week, who sees debates running a long way into November. That causes issues with a busy parliamentary timetable, because this in one of the so called “Brexit Bills” that need to have received Royal Assent before the end of the year. Watch this space.

Speaking of tricky negotiations, parenting types reading this will be bracing themselves for half term amid newly darkened skies, and restrictions putting the kibosh on pumpkin carving, spooky walks, trick-or-treating and the other festivities that usually help pass the time. I suppose if you are medium, high or very high will determine if your chances of getting through the week unscathed are virtually impossible, impossible or just pretending you do not actually have kids.

I am having a rest from it all, long walks and long lunches beckon. In this seat next week will be ParliamentToday’s Julian Robinson, talking, perhaps not unsurprisingly, about all matters policy.