June 7, 2011
In the centre of Newcastle, atop a gritstone pillar, stands a statue of Charles Grey, the architect of the Reform Act of 1832. A native son of Alnwick, Grey was Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834. The Reform Act abolished rotten boroughs and extended the franchise from 400,000 to 650,000 people. The 2nd Earl Grey also gave his name to the tea of the same name, after receiving a gift of tea flavoured with bergamot oil from a foreign official.
Grey is a North Easterner of whom I can be proud, and there are many others – from George Stephenson, the inventor of the first practical steam engine, to Admiral Collingwood, who led the second line of ships at Trafalgar. But in recent years, this proud heritage has taken a back seat to economic decline, as identified in this astonishingly good (for the Guardian) article.
The reasons for this are varied, but can be traced back to the nationalisation of key industries in the aftermath of the Second World War. Control over the coal mines which gave rise to the phrase ‘Taking coal to Newcastle’ passed to a centralised Coal Board, ostensibly in the name of democratic sovereignty. Early on, this won improved conditions and wages for the pit workers and their families, but left the economy of the North East vulnerable to the whims of the rest of the population. The gradual sell-off of the mines under a series of governments, culminating in the Thatcher Government’s closure of many of the remaining pits, left a deep hole at the heart of the North East’s economy, one from which it has never really recovered.
Nationalisation – giving a central Government de facto control over your economy – cost the North East dear in the 1980s. The agenda of the Blair Government with regard to the North East was regeneration by increased public spending, to the point where by 2009 25% of the working population were employed in the public sector, which accounted for 56% of Gross Value Added.
This had a strong impact upon the private sector in the region, not least because national pay rates for public sector work meant that pay in the public sector in the NE was often higher than the equivalent job in the private sector. I know from the experiences of my friends and family that if you’re half-way capable in the North East you’re much more likely to work in the public sector – why not, when you’re likely to be paid more for the same skills?
Increasing the cost of employing the best people has had an impact on the development of private enterprise, as that 56% figure demonstrates. At the same time, having such a big chunk of the economy in the hands of central Government means that when that Government changes, so do the prospects for the economy. The cuts will, once again, cause misery in the North East. However, protesting against them is pointless, because even if they were rolled back it would only serve to begin the cycle of economic deprivation again.
We need control of our own economy, to prevent the electoral vagaries of the rest of the country screwing us over in the same way they’ve done for the last sixty years. We need a regional assembly with powers at least approaching those of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland has a similar percentage of its population employed in the public sector – but only 47% of its GVA comes from it. Since the foundation of the Parliament in 1998, average Scottish incomes have increased by 60%, while increasing in the North East by 50%. This is despite the fact that more public money is spent per head in the North East than in Scotland. More spending by the UK Government is not the answer.
I voted against a regional assembly in 2004, because the proposal was for a toothless talking shop. It’s time to re-examine that choice, to cut our economy free of the damaging influence of central control.