I have always believed in vigorously responding to unwarranted slurs, regardless of their origin. I was, therefore, taken by a recent spat over a reported comment made by Michael White, a senior figure at the ‘Guardian’ newspaper. I must declare an interest – I have known Michael White for about thirty years. I have always thought of him as a fair-minded individual – something of a rarity amongst members of the press lobby.
However, I suppose that we can all fall from grace; and he stood accused of doing so. What I found intriguing were the comments and charges on social media, that scourge of the politically incorrect. Specifically, I wonder how we on Merseyside continue to be seen by outside observers. I am well aware of the bigotry of, say, a Kelvin McKenzie, or a Boris Johnson. But a Michael White?
My interpretation of his comment is that he was raising a question asked by many, including large numbers of people here in our own backyard. That is, where does responsibility lie for the many – and repeated – obstacles which we face year after year? Within an increasing national blame culture, how much responsibility can we pin on government (generally, but not always, the Tories), and do we ignore our own role in our troubles?
I recall well, the Geoffrey Howe option to Thatcher of the “managed decline” of Merseyside; but we must remember that our region declined rapidly during the 70s (before Thatcher). Trade shifted from the west coast to booming east coast ports like Harwich and Felixstowe, as local industry began a spectacular collapse. Other areas were also hit, and were then further decimated in the 80s by harsh Thatcherite policies. Just look at the coal mining communities. We were not alone in our pain.
Yet, too often, self-appointed spokespersons for our area react as if we were the only people in the country to have suffered. We did experience the agonies of Heysel and Hillsborough, as other parts of the country went through their own agonies – think of the Bradford fire, the Marchioness tragedy, or the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. We were not unique. What was unique for me as a politician was the terrible misjudgement of Liverpool Council in the 80s, believing that they had the clout to defeat the Tory government of the day. That was never a viable proposition, and Liverpool paid dearly for that idiocy.
At that time, along the M62, Manchester Council was equally opposed to Thatcherism: but its leaders had the good sense to develop an alternative strategy to confrontation. Recent history has shown how that worked, with capable leadership and consistent, prosperous and progressive development.
Their city-region embraces ten local authorities with roots in three traditional counties – Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. Very different communities over a wide geographical area, cooperate to their mutual benefit. They do not, as far as I know, suffer from the fractiousness which sometimes divides our communities. I am mindful, for example, of campaigns for Southport to secede from Sefton, or for a Chester postcode rather than a Liverpool one on the Wirral. These suggested disunity rather than unity. Most of all, we seem to have a disproportionate number of whingers and whiners, moaning much but doing little.
The key to a progressive city-region is in the hands of its people and its communities. Yes – we expect our MPs to do their bit (like lobbying intensively for toll-free bridges and tunnels?); and our councils must modernise to deliver the most efficient services. Yet surely the first and most important step is to look closely at ourselves and our own failings, before seeking whipping boys outside. In the biblical sense, we must learn to cast the beam from our own eyes.