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Michael Gove won't save the north - by Robert Colls for UnHerd - 11.07.22

‘Levelling up’ is as much about people as it is about systems and money, argues Robert Colls in an article for UnHerd.

If the government’s long-awaited, key-note policy is ever to bear fruit, an emphasis on home-grown, organic ingenuity is more important than state-funded, top-down assistance from Whitehall.

In a fascinating article on the history of Tyneside, Professor Colls illustrates the importance of local initiative and invention in propelling the north-east to prominence as one of the leading industrial regions of the world.

“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 AC Reyrolle’s electrical switchgear employed 12,000. Lads wanted to work there because the apprenticeships were famous and the sports facilities unrivalled.”

At the heart of the story lie individuals who played a key role as active entrepreneurs and civic leaders at the very heart of their communities: men such as 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).”

Another local magnate was Sir Arthur Monroe Sutherland (1867-1953)

“…an 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.”

What today’s policy makers should bear in mind is that

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

And furthermore

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.”

The full article can be read below with a link to the original here.

Article for Unherd by Robert Colls - Michael Gove won't save the north - 11.07.22
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