Paul Benneworth: The gulf between Lord Heseltine and today's Tory headbangers in attitudes to the North

North East born academic Paul Benneworth sees fundamental differences between Tory attitudes to the North since Lord Heseltine's day

Lord Michael Heseltine
Lord Michael Heseltine

I was in Manchester earlier this week and went to see Lord Heseltine as part of a University of Manchester popular politics week.

Earlier in the day, George Osborne had announced a plan for an elected mayor for Greater Manchester, finally solving a problem his heroine Thatcher created three decades earlier.

Heseltine’s original title was ‘The Forgotten People’ based upon his 2010 report on opportunities for English devolution. And hearing him speak, I wondered if he felt that Osborne had stolen his thunder.

He was right to feel slightly aggrieved. He was one of the very few Conservative politicians campaigning for a better deal for Liverpool in the 1980s, sparked by his first-hand experiences of the city’s parlous state in the wake of inner city riots under his watch.

As a ‘One Nation’ Tory, he even spent 18 months reflecting on how the Conservative government could improve people’s lives on eternally-Labour voting Merseyside.

He was beaming with pride on Monday with what he’d achieved, and rightly so. To me, as a North Shields lad, I see today’s regeneration of our town follows the trajectory he set off with two of his brainchildren, the Urban Development Corporations, and City Challenge.

You could sense in his soaring voice that he was proud of helping local government of all political hues to find new ways of working together.

There was even a twinkle in his eye when he told of his pride in local authorities in ‘his’ Liverpool being the first to sign ‘city agreements’ with the Coalition government.

But what struck me as even strange in the speech was that there were whole sections that just didn’t seem to fit. He seemed confused whether 19th century slum clearance and sanitation was a waste of entrepreneurs’ money or a price worth paying for a liveable, dynamic city.

Every time he talked about tax policy, the twinkling stopped and his eyes glazed over as he stumblingly read out turgid nonsense. I sensed that someone was forcing him to read their words, and although I’ve been away for a few years now, I felt Conservative Central Office pulling hisstrings.

And there’s a fundamental conflict between the way a classic ‘One Nation’ Tory like Heseltine sees the North, and today’s Tory HQ headbangers. Whilst Heseltine wanted to at least give us a chance to take opportunities, Tories anno 2014 want to make today’s North Easterners pay endlessly for our historically-rooted problems and past political mistakes.

To Tory apparatchiks, every pound spent on relieving poverty is a pound they can’t funnel into the troughs of their spiv paymasters. A private company failing to run a decent school, prison or hospital needs bailing out with ladlefuls of public dosh, and efficient public authorities should be starved to keep ‘em lean and mean.

The Government underlined this recently publishing a graphic of how public tax revenues, and the biggest category on the chart is labelled ‘welfare’.

Most people understand welfare as benefits for the poor, but the Government couldn’t stomach the reality that social security spending is rather low. So they had to add state and public pensioner benefits to arrive at this inflated figure.

All part of a crusade to portray welfare as out of control and them as heroically protecting the public purse. “Cuts must be made!”, particularly by the local authorities that provide so many vital services for vulnerable communities.

And behind the diagram is modern Tory English devolution in a nutshell, a million miles from Heseltine’s benign ‘ladders of opportunity’. No, to Osborne and his cronies, we can have any policy we want, as long as it’s savage austerity.

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