As Sir Alan Beith bows out as Berwick MP, his thoughts on the years ahead

Journal columnist Kate Thick talks to retiring Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith on justice, the EU and who really deserves the credit for A1 dualling

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith

There was I thinking this whole election business was pretty tedious when I lit on the idea of going to see Sir Alan Beith and giving him a hug as he has hung up his MP’s hat after 42 years in office.

I visited Alan, a man for whom I hold oodles of affection and respect, in his Alnwick office on the first day of his retirement. I wanted to hear his thoughts after four decades in government. Retired is probably the wrong word, reassessing may be more accurate. It would be a sad loss if such a seasoned, hard-working, principled and committed politician withdrew from the boxing ring completely.

Alan said a weight has been lifted but he still has lots to do, especially in supporting Julie Pörksen, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Berwick. Alan is also determined to bring further education to the region and is helping Northumberland College secure premises in Berwick.

I asked Alan what he considers to be the major issues facing the North East. The response was spoken calmly but I could hear the depth of feeling behind the words. Alan said: “It would be madness for the UK to leave the EU - we would be shutting the door for our trade and our exports and telling investors like Nissan that they would be better off investing in EU member countries instead of investing in the North of England.

“If we tried to negotiate trade access as non members we would end up, at best, having to accept all the EU rules without any say in making the rules. We should be taking the lead in working with like-minded member countries to make European institutions more focussed and effective, concentrating on things that promote jobs and protect the environment.”

On the local level, but linked to prospects for EU funding, Alan is positive about devolution. He feels London is too dominant and wants serious power to be given to the North East. He said the current plan is more realistic than previous proposals but he is concerned a combined authority will be urban dominated and minority parties will have no say in its leadership. He feels the process should be subject to a referendum.

With uncertainty over the outcome of this election, I asked Alan what he thought offered the most stability in government. He said that over the years he had seen every possible format and he firmly believes a coalition is best for the country. Alan said that given the tenacity of the Lib Dems, even though they are predicted to lose seats, it is quite possible they will again be the party who put the ideology of liberalism and fairness into any new partnership.

The presence of the Lib Dems in government ensured the raising of the personal tax allowance, in spite of austerity. Alan said the pupil premium and an increase in apprenticeships are equally important to the coalition’s record. Further, the reform of welfare would have been much more radical without Clegg’s intervention.

With a wry smile, Alan added that others want to take the credit but real progress with plans to improve the A1 took off when Danny Alexander became Treasury chief secretary.

The publicly funded legal system has suffered swingeing cuts. There is no sign of this abating and judges are deeply worried about the effect on access to justice. An all-party Justice Select Committee concluded the principle of individual justice is being sacrificed on the altar of public debt. Ever the voice of reason, Alan, committee chairman, said: “Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research.”

For all his achievements, Alan should be thanked most for his accessibility which he says is core to Lib Dem values. He is rightly proud he introduced a pattern of regular surgeries which Julie would continue in her own way. Central to Julie’s bid for election is a belief in equal opportunity, in everyone being able to develop their potential.

Ignoring the plight of the young won’t just mean a generation struggling to get by; it will undermine long-term economic growth and stoke social resentment.

A party that is far-sighted and generous enough not to sell out the next generation is the one that will get my vote.

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