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Michael Gove won’t save the North An abundance of local pride is being ignored

Neither Tyneside nor Teesside (Andrew Parsons Pool/Getty Images)

Neither Tyneside nor Teesside (Andrew Parsons Pool/Getty Images)


July 1, 2022   7 mins

Recently, the Prime Minister found himself on Tyneside but thought he was on Teesside. So what’s the problem, other than straightforward stupidity? The problem is that the British road to power rarely leads north, and at a time of much talk on whether the Government’s “levelling-up” strategy can work, it might be worth reflecting for a moment on a period when the north levelled-up for itself.

Take Tyneside in the early 20th century for example. You could write a history of the North East as a tale of integrated industrial elites, families tied together by business and in some cases marriage. Armstrong dredged the Tyne into a world-class river. Stephenson (father and son) built the world’s first railway nation. Joseph Swan invented the electric lightbulb. C A Parsons built the first steam turbine vessel. Charles Merz built the first interconnected electricity supply. John Wigham Richardson (his uncle) persuaded fellow shipbuilders to use it.

When Yevgeni Zamyatin went to oversee the building of Russian ice-breakers on Tyneside in 1916, he saw shipyards so advanced he based his dystopian novel We on them. In 1906, Wigham Richardson and Swan Hunter launched the four-funnelled RMS Mauretania, the largest, the fastest, and the most beautiful coal-powered steam-turbine ship in the world. And just in case you think strong trade unions and great companies don’t go together, Sidney and Beatrice Webb viewed the North East as one of the best union organised regions in the country, and Tyneside shipyard platers the best paid.

Indeed, as late as the Sixties, Parsons’s steam turbines employed 6,000 skilled draughtsmen and engineers, while A C Reyrolle’s electrical switchgear employed 12,000. Lads wanted to work there because the apprenticeships were famous and the sports facilities unrivalled.

Two Tyneside shipbuilders consult a plan, 21st October 1950. (Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Peter Chapman’s Tyneside Heritage (2021) is exactly the kind of work we need to understand how ‘levelling up’ happened on the ground. Not only is it the first history of South Shields for a very long time, it is also the narrative of the Chapman family and their rise from early 19th century shipwrights, to mid-century drapers, to late-century chartered accountants and significant civic leaders.

At the heart of the story stands Lt Col Sir Robert Chapman (1880-1963), who joined his father’s firm and who, with his wife Lady Helene, became Tory celebrities in a rock-solid Labour town. How could this be? The Chapmans could have lived anywhere they chose (nice Northumbrian rectory perhaps, or dappled Durham farm house) but they chose to live in Westoe village, a mile from the one of the highest death-rate boroughs in the land, a place caught in the teeth of the Great Depression. 

That’s the dignified part of their tale. The efficient part concerns Chapman’s role in developing commercial enterprises, as you’d expect perhaps from a chartered accountant with fingers in a lot of pies, but also in social housing, clean water, Harton Hospital, the Shields Gazette, the Boys’ High School, and almost every aspect of public life, from member of parliament for nearby Houghton-le-Spring to lord mayor of South Shields, from magistrates’ bench to colonel in the Northumbrian 74th Regiment (with a full chest of family medals, including a VC).

When in 1938 Chapman fell out with the Labour council over re-armament (they were against, in spite of new shipbuilding orders), he resigned and he and Lady Helene marched off to don their masks as the town’s first Air Raid Wardens. Whether ladling soup in downtown Zion Hall, or hosting charity fetes up at Undercliff, their baronial sub-suburban pile, or leading the floor at fundraisers, when we talk about levelling-up, we need to bear in mind those who didn’t leave it to others.

If Sir Robert was a local hero, Sir Arthur Munro Sutherland (1867-1953) was a industrial titan when the North East was the most heavily industrialised region in the world. He owned shipping lines, coal mines and shipyards. He ran an extensive Baltic trade in coke and timber.

Like many other great northern industrialists, Sutherland believed in an ancient Northumbrian homeland that had preceded England, that had brought Christianity and Industrialisation, that had special qualities of skill and character. Marx thought the time would come when advanced societies would have no need for homeland or religion. He was wrong. Not only did Sutherland have a penchant for old Northumbrian castles (he bought one), and New Northumbrian myths (he was one), he was also a committed Methodist.

 His wife’s family, the Hood Haggies of Willington were the biggest makers of steel hawsers in the world. They were also active Methodists. Newcastle department store pioneers the Bainbridges and the Fenwicks were Methodists too, along with the great ship-owning Shields Runcimans, close family friends of the Chapmans.

Tyne Dock, South Shields, South Tyneside, 1927. Artist Aerofilms. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A picture emerges, then, of an integrated business elite knowing each other and working together in the markets and in the chapels, in the suburbs and civil society, and in the two great hubs of Newcastle business, the Commercial Exchange down on the Quayside, and the Union Club up by Central Station. Sutherland’s head office was in walking distance of both. Of course, networking can mean cronyism too, and Sutherland was up in court for it in 1943. But it can also take you out of yourself. Chapman enjoyed his middle-class coteries it is true, but he also served with distinction in a war where men like him saw not only how the other half lived, but how it died as well.

Long before “levelling-up”, therefore, the northern regions were able to foment indigenous growth where self-belief and belonging were part of an economics of agglomeration.

In 1945 Tyneside to Teesside was still one of the world’s great techno-industrial regions. In ruined Germany, by contrast, Bavaria was nichts. Now the positions are nearly reversed. Bavaria is one of the world’s great techno-industrial regions and the North East, if not nowt, is certainly not what it was.

Why so? First, after the war, Bavarian small to medium-sized firms surged while North East England remained dominated by three heavy industries, one of which (the National Coal Board) actively campaigned against the introduction of new industries. By the Eighties, public sector employment in the region stood at 63%, and the age of the entrepreneurial elite was all but over.

Today Bavaria has a cluster of technical universities, colleges and linked apprenticeships, and manages to retain its graduates. The North East hasn’t, and doesn’t. In small to medium high-tech businesses there is much talk of “brain capital” and “spin out”. That the top British spinners are Oxford and Cambridge comes as no surprise because the economics of cultural agglomeration doesn’t just happen in the business hubs. It happens, it especially happens, in ancient colleges as well.

The North East may lack some or all these Bavarian features, but one thing it has in abundance is positivity. In spite of years of decline, and declinism (a North East trope), the people remain upbeat, friendly, and drawn to their own regional myths. Love of the craic is one of the first things visitors notice and although everybody talks about it, nobody sees it as an economic quality. 

Positivity is a form of entrepreneurial activity. How people feel about who they are and where they live can be transformative. This is easy to see in the hospitality industry, say, or in teaching, or sales and marketing, but how it relates to more technical fields, or R&D, or business start-ups, is harder to explain even though all these activities demand positive relationships whether in matters of trust, or problem solving, or training, or site location. Not everything is down to money.

All market activity is as much social as economic, and all contracts, as Durkheim reminded us in a brilliant insight, depend on non-contractual obligations. In what he called the “Protestant Ethic” Max Weber recognised what he called the “Spirit of Capitalism” and “Ethic”, in this sense, meant a power within. And ‘power within is what is missing from the government’s levelling-up strategy.

Their white paper is a remarkable document nevertheless, promising to “unleash” and “empower” “every part of England that wants it” with generous and sustained funding settlements, six kinds of “capital”, five kinds of policy (“pillars”), 12 kinds of target (“missions”), hundreds of promises, application forms and god knows how many acronyms holding untold pots of money. The basic idea is that although the South won’t get less, the North will get more. Orwell would have loved this, but the real question is does Michael Gove mean it?

For sure, his white paper is a huge statement of belief in the regions, but unfortunately not in the people. It invokes the Industrial Revolution, but there’s not much business history. It calls for new forms of capital, but there’s little on accumulation. It talks about culture, but only as galleries and museums up from London, not inside the north’s own traditions and certainly not as something you might find on the street. If motorway service stations are anything to go by, business has not exactly shown us the way. Go to Costa at Woolley Edge, for example, and look for Yorkshire. Indeed, look for anywhere. We have come a long way from the days when Parsons’s steam turbines stood for the north.

My question is how does a regional business elite grow and to what end? I realise that another way of describing the Chapmans and the Sutherlands is in terms of a capitalist class. In the past, I have made my own modest contribution to this way of looking. This essay, however, is about something different. Given that not everything can, or should, come from the state, levelling-up has no other choice than to think in terms of regional pride and purpose.

The North East continues to make things — Nissan cars, for instance — and some very good companies are locally owned. Barbours of South Shields for instance is listed in the region’s top 50. Founded in 1894 to make hard-wearing clothes for seafarers then motorcyclists, Barbour showed its drive and adaptability by re-inventing itself for the third time as a world-leading fashion brand.

If you want to see how Geordie pride and purpose matters in manufacturing go and see the woman who leads it and the 600 women who work there. Michael Gove is a clever man and his civil servants mean well, but if they are serious about levelling-up, they need to start with the people, stupid, before all else. 


Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester.


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Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

One of my great grandfathers was a self-made coal-mining, ship-owning and quarry-owning industrialist from Sunderland who married the daughter of the shipbuilder who built most of his ships. The shipbuilder, Short brothers was the first to demonstrate that reducing the working day increased productivity.

They were men who started as respectively a shipwright and a clerk. Unfortunately, of course, their descendants lost that desire to build businesses and usually moved away from the area. The new men who might build similar business successes in the North East face more impediments to enterprise than their forebears but they still exist.

Of course, the Victorian industrialist didn’t seek government help for their enterprises and government help often distorts incentives to the detriment of long term success.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Mine were Yorkshire shipping and woollen trade, much the same story. Now its all farming or move to London to the professions.
This is a superb article, and hits the spot completely. Government ministers as a general rule have no idea how to encourage enterprise – which is largely let it exist! Nor have they any feel for local culture, pride, drive, humour, any of those things which make people love their region and their city, and their neighbours. There have been a couple – Nick Ridley loved the north east, Michael Heseltine came to admire Liverpool and Mersey (never though I would find myself with anything good to say about Heseltine).
But the Tories are almost entirely southern focused and Labour remain anti-enterprise. What hope can there be?
The answer sometimes seems to be a move towards a proper federal system giving the north east true self government. It ought to give hope of local revival, but then you look at the broken shambles that is SNP Scotland and the way in which Westminster will always try to retain power, or claw it back, and weep.
We need a really radical visionary freedom focused party and cabinet. With a slogan. How about “Take Back Control”? That would sound good in a Geordie accent

JR Stoker
JS
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Jeremy, sorry, I hijacked your comment, but there is no general comment box appearing below the article

Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Only too happy to have it hijacked as you put it. Nicholas Ridley was a northern grandee, his eldest brother being the 4th Viscount Ridley of Blagdon Hall in Northumberland and while the family’s origins were Northumberland gentry the family wealth was derived from 18th and 19th century coal, brewing and glass enterprises a very typical enterprising North Eastern family that did well. Although he was a free trade capitalist he had the good sense to advise Margaret Thatcher against privatising British Rail as it merely replaced a national monopoly with a number of privatised local one’s.
My great grandfather was a Liberal but it is true that the Tory party would benefit by having more practical northern industrialists involved in its direction.
We were asked by Prescott whether we wanted a devolved assembly for the North and it was very sensibly rejected by the voters who didn’t want another layer of posturing politicians.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
1 year ago

If this Government is serious about levelling up, it could do no better than to start by putting it’s own house in order. Figures published by the House of Commons library in 2019 show the disproportionate level of per capita public expenditure in London and the South East. If the Government addressed this issue they would transfer employment, wealth and investment to the Regions using their own means and resources rather than trying to influence the behaviour of others.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Carr

Through a lot of the naughties/teens London and the South East received more infrastructure spending than the rest of the UK combined. You then look at how other regions in the UK receive less funding than the NE/NW. I’m baffled why most of the levelling up is focused on the north.

Albireo Double
AD
Albireo Double
1 year ago

” …Michael Gove is a clever man and his civil servants mean well…”
Although a Conservative voter, and one-time party member, I see absolutely no evidence to support either of these assertions. To the contrary, much of Mr Gove’s activity, policy, and output appears to be really quite unintelligent – bearing out that academic qualifications are absolutely no indicator of any significant ability or common sense.
As for his “well meaning civil servants”, I’m sorry, but today this statement seems quite ludicrous, and will grate jarringly with many readers. Most of our civil servants and others in the public sector who we pay so well, have spent the last few years demonstrating exactly how “well-intentioned” they are (not). Their lack of care and concern for the population at large has been painfully and conspicuously apparent as many have fled homewards and have remained embedded there, verruca-like – quite impossible to dislodge back to their work-places.
Levelling up is another complete nonsense. There will of course, be some good ideas that can be used. But the “levelling up” of a region can really only come from within – people already know that business creates jobs and prosperity. But they need to accept it into their souls, and make it happen. I believe that this is the wish that drove much of the Red Wall Tory vote. If so, I should imagine that those voters may be disappointed when what is on offer is merely more condescending hand-outs, and yet more interference from politicians and civil servants – who want only to feather their own nests, either financially or in PR terms.
Government doesn’t need to “help”. It needs to get out of the bloody way, stop interfering, and let people make their own fortunes according to their own wit and will to do so.

Last edited 1 year ago by Albireo Double
Adrian Matthews
AM
Adrian Matthews
1 year ago

I visited Tyneside a few times in the 1980s and I never encountered the positivity mentioned. On the contrary there appeared to be a regional inferiority complex. Older people thought that the North East was finished. The Geordie friendliness’s was overrated too. Many were unemployed but managed from pint to pint by doing odd jobs. Employment such as fishing was limited by licence. Not a good place to live.

Maureen Finucane
MF
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

The Labour Party needs a Northern leader if it wants to get those votes back from the North.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago

The author demeans himself by using the epithet “stupid” (twice). Whatever one’s politics, there’s got to be a better way to critique government policy.
He also, in referring to the Chapmans, writes “they chose to live in Westoe village, a mile from the dirtiest, most overcrowded, highest death-rate borough in the land.” This, in the context of suggesting that the industrialists of the early 20th century were somehow ‘levelling up’ the North-East. It should come as a surprise that the author failed to see the flaw in that particular point, but it doesn’t. Given my earlier admonition, i’m loathe to use the same epithet he uses!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray