Commentary on a minister’s suggestion for how the nation can heal.
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Amid this grave constitutional crisis in which the whole country is tearing itself and its economy apart, one member of the government – one familiar to councils – has offered hope of the nation coming together.
Yes! I did just use the H word! Remember hope? The word that appeared on that Barack Obama poster! And, yes, I am using it on the day Theresa May’s latest attempt to get her Brexit deal through Parliament again fell far short, seemingly plunging us even further into the mire.
So after that teasing LGC briefing intro – is he being sarcastic, or is there really hope? – I will supply some context before I reveal the source of this hope. Like a dehydrated wanderer in the desert you, my reader, have no choice but to read this briefing to head towards that distant pool of hope, even though you’re fairly certain it’s a mirage…
Brexit is happening because people in so many areas have left behind. They voted to “take back control” because they wanted a greater say over their lives amid falling living standards, diminished opportunity and reduced job security.
While London voted remain, the Midlands and, in particular, the north voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU. This regional division reflects the sense that our London-based political and financial system has neglected the north. Skilled professions have died out, transport systems allowed to deteriorate and the impact of austerity on public services has disproportionately impacted on places in which government, whether local or national, is the biggest employer.
In fairness, even before Brexit, the government had woken up to these feelings of alienation. George Osborne was the driving force behind the Northern Powerhouse, a policy programme to boost economic growth in the north. Combined authority mayors were elected to serve as figureheads to drive investment and coordinate efforts to improve transport, housing and skills. And, nationally, there would be a Northern Powerhouse minister to bring a governmental focus to the drive to reduce regional inequality.
Thankfully, the current holder of the Northern Powerhouse ministerial brief Jake Berry has stepped forward today with a means of overcoming this division.
“The rebuilding of the Royal Yacht Britannia is not government policy. However, my personal view about it is in a post-Brexit environment it could play a real role in driving international trade,” he told House magazine.
“Things like that can provide new symbols of unity that we could potentially use to bring our country back together, something we could be proud of, something we could unite behind.”
Mr Berry’s interview was published in a week it was revealed female life expectancy is falling in the most deprived areas. It comes after Nissan announced that it was not going to build a new model in Sunderland, raising fears that the UK’s largest car factory faces closure. It comes as the government still has not begun a consultation due before Christmas on replacing EU regional economic growth funding. And it comes amid criticism that funding for new housing is heavily skewed towards the south and little funding is available for Northern Powerhouse Rail. This latter factor leaves key routes dependent on 35-year-old Pacer trains which are literally the body of a British Leyland bus plonked on the chassis of a train.
In fairness to the minister, his enthusiasm for the Royal Yacht comprised only one small part of his interview, which was primarily about his desire to be ”refocusing the Northern Powerhouse”. He named clean energy, high tech manufacturing, engineering, the automotive industry and the arts as strong post-Brexit possibilities for the north. But on this day of hysteria and dismay, please forgive us as we focus the potential of a new Royal Yacht Britannia to heal our divisions and save the nation. How might it do this?
We’ll leave it to Mike Emmerich, head of the Metrodynamics consultancy, to explain how.
“You could arrange for a few Pacer trains to be strapped together and floated then at least it might have some useful benefit to the north,” he tweeted.
What better metaphor could there be for national healing than the Queen using a converted Pacer train has her Royal Yacht? We really would all be in it together! You see, I wasn’t been sarcastic.
Nick Golding, editor