Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: March, 2013

This was a question of courage and the Prime Minister and his government have flunked it

A parting of the ways is often  a small and silent step  after years of falling out. It can happen over something that appears so trivial that your friends will be baffled unless they understand the path you have already trodden. But nevertheless the bags are packed and nothing will be the same again.

I have come to a parting of the ways with the Coalition government on the apparently small decision not to adopt a minimum price of alcohol. Those of you who know me may be surprised  that I ever had any sympathy with this administration, but I hope I have given given the lads from the Burlingham Club a fair crack of the whip.

On the great matter of the day, I accept that austerity has been required.  I have disliked some of the ways that the government has tackled deficit reduction. But neither the Labour Party not the Liberal  party has a radically different  way of mending the economy.  There is a lamentable  paralysis of economic thinking among our politicians  and we may have to accept a bitter pill.  Like my gout tablets, it is probably a lifetime prescription.

I disagree with the Prime Minister’s decision to arm the rebels in Syria  because I do not believe we should interfere in the business of other countries. But the last Labour government did just the same. I reach with resignation  for my Bob Dylan CD and play again his willowing rendition of “when will they ever learn?”

I have been dismayed that the Prime Minister has not accepted the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry despite having pledged to do so.  He has been dragged reluctantly into accepting a royal charter after some undignified late night dealing. Where will he ever find a high court judge willing to chair an inquiry again?

I am not  enamoured with David Cameron’s style. There is too much of a Friday afternoon feeling about  the way policies are  announced and decisions made. But that is a matter of taste. You do not come to a parting of the ways because your partner leaves the top off the toothpaste tube.

In all these respects, the government has acted just as you would expect the Conservatives to do, when tempered by their Liberal partners. But there has until now been a strand in the Cameron make up, which some may call  reckless, prepared to take a bold and liberal stand. He has championed gay marriage and has supported Teresa May’s attempts to reform the police.

 Cameron  had seemed determined to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse. Only last year he pledged in the foreword to the Government’s alcohol strategy to introduce a minimum unit price. “ I know this won’t be universally popular “ he wrote “ but the responsibility of being in government isn’t always doing the popular thing.”

 George Osborne  was however doing the popular thing when he cancelled the 3p  increase on beer and scrapped the mechanism by which these increases are calculated. He even took a penny off beer to prop up the pub trade and show his empathy with the pasty eaters. To be fair, in his budget speech the Chancellor told us that the ministers “were still looking at plans to stop the biggest discounts of cheap alcohol at retailers”. But no one denies there has been a u turn.

In the meantime, on holiday in the Lake District, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I picked up  a pack eights bottles of the excellent Jennings bitter for £8 at an upmarket supermarket.

 So why has Dave chickened out? There are supposed to be problems  about falling revenue and dubious legality but it is much more likely that our man has been got at by the powerful lobby of drinks producers and retailers who have always been close to the heart of a Conservative government.  They  have been aided and abetted by the libertarian elements in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, including some powerful ministers,  who believe that we should be allowed to drink ourselves to death if we wish to do so. No nanny state in any circumstances.

Professor Steven Field, newly appointed deputy head of the NHS, estimates  that a  minimum price of 50p a unit will save 1000 premature deaths a year. Police chiefs in the North East  claim that half of all violent crime and more than a third of domestic abuse is linked to alcohol and have asked the Home Secretary to think again. Local authority leaders, in another demonstration of their new friendship, have written too, as the North East suffers some of the highest levels of alcohol harm.                 

Why does this announcement, sneaked out from Downing Street and then confirmed in parliament at the beginning of a busy week, bring me to a  heart sinking  realisation that I cannot support this government?

I was once a crusader in this cause and am in no doubt that pricing is the major contributor to alcohol consumption and that higher levels of drinking lead to more alcohol related illness and crime. It is still a cause close to my heart though the careful reader will surmise from  the references above  to beer and gout that I enjoy the stuff myself.

That’s the trouble. Unlike cigarette smoking, alcohol is not an outright evil  but its effect on our society  is the great challenge of this era, comparable to opium in the 19th century.

Politicians are often remembered for the small initiatives they took outside of their party policies. As time goes by, Harold Wilson is better remembered for setting up the Open University  than for, in his famous catchphrase,  “harnessing the white heat of technology”.

One of most influential decisions of the last Labour government was to ban smoking in public places.  There was no political kudos for introducing the legislation which was controversial at the time but is taken for granted these days.

I hope David Cameron listened to Justin Welby’s sermon at his inauguration in Canterbury on Thursday, in a service that embraced the world and challenged us all. Have faith in your convictions, the Archbishop told us; the courage to walk on the water will banish fear.

But  after the U turn on alcohol pricing, Ed Miliband can ask whether David Cameron could organise anything in a brewery. If the Prime Minister has lost his courage, then it is time for a parting of the ways.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene

The lift doors close and I have ten floors to give my message to Lord Adonis.

What would I say to Lord Adonis in an elevator pitch as he completes his economic review?

You know the game. You unexpectedly meet a famous person in a lift and have to get your message across before you get to the tenth floor. At a philanthropy conference, the challenge is always to tell Bill Gates how to spend his money in ten seconds.

Andrew Adonis and his colleagues, commissioned by North East Local Enterprise Partnership  to produce an independent review of the North East economy, have a Microsoft  aura  about them as they come up with their conclusions in the Spring.

As the lift door closes, I take a deep breath.  “ Did your consultation with business leaders at the Baltic go well? “, I ask. “I thought the  expert papers and literature reviews were very impressive.” ( “They must leave you with a lot to distil into a few policy recommendations. ” His Lordship smiles.

We pass the first floor. I am obliged to mention my own vested interests. “ I hope you will take account of the way that  cultural investment pays dividends.  The revival of the Ouseburn Valley is in no small part due to the success of Seven Stories  which has just been designated as is the national collection of childrens books and I hope you will visit.”

“ It is good that you recognise that the economy stretches further than manufacturing and professional services. You can spend too long crystal gazing as to which far eastern industry will come here next.  Sometimes growth comes from unexpected quarters, like the  ground breaking research on ageing and vitality. “

Second floor: Be positive. “It is so important that the North East is repositioned as a vibrant and attractive place to work and live. We don’t make enough of our natural advantages or quality of life. Look at the effect of Alnwick Garden, Durham Cathedral  or Kielder Forest on economic development for example. Sing the praises of our beaches, the quality of the water and the quick travel to work times.”

I have just finished reading  the economist Tim Harford’s cynical view of how economies work. The industrial revolution, he says, was not due to flashes of creative genius as much as the right combination of raw materials and cheap labour in the right place at the right time. We can alter the equation in the North East  simply  by speeding up the broadband in rural areas  and, with more difficulty, by providing a more  highly skilled workforce.

Third floor: “ I  think the CBI has an good point when it argues for the skills agenda. Too many people are settling for low skill jobs. We cannot attract high value industries because we do not have the work force.  Somehow we have got to instil young people with aspirations – and goodness knows we have tried”

Time and tact forbid me mentioning Ed Cox’s lecture in Gateshead last week when the Director of ippr north questioned the overdependence on Nissan and its supply chain in the regional economy though secretly I admire his courage in challenging the conventional wisdom.

But as we pass the fourth floor, it is time to take a risk. “ I know our export performance is good but on most other economic indices the North East is towards the bottom of the league when compared to other regions.  Don’t let that worry you. We will never beat the South East and should not  give ourselves too hard a time about it. I would much rather be benchmarked against other comparable  border regions in Europe ( Northern Denmark say ) and learn from them.”

One of the great dangers of this region is that we blow our own trumpet too hard. All the columnists in the Journal ever  tell  you ( this one excepted)  is that the North East economy is doing really well, when the evidence points to the contrary. “Be honest and realistic” I urge.

It is the same with the football team. Everyone unrealistically expects Newcastle to win silverware every year and then is disappointed. If our ambition was for a solid mid table position, we would occasionally be pleasantly surprised.

“How are you getting on with the political leaders? ” I ask with an eye on the lift dial as another floor speeds by.  “I know you would  like to see a single city region authority  but is it ever likely to happen? Be pragmatic and settle for improved joint working between the seven authorities.” But I wonder if Adonis has just the right political credentials to broker a more far reaching deal?

Floor six: “But I hope you  will make the case to Whitehall that the North East needs a fairer settlement of public subsidy. There is nothing wrong in being a “moaning Minnie” if that’s what is needed.”

Londoners get  100 times more per person spent on traffic schemes and we get in the North East. But they do have a lot more traffic! I have a sense of injustice that HS2 will not come to Newcastle but I suspect it would be a “two way street” that would take people and business more swiftly to London. “

Floor seven:” Lets accept that connectivity will not work wonders; that Leeds is always going to outperform us as a regional capital by virtue of being nearer to London. Make a virtue out of a necessity.  Build the convention centre, restore the marketing budgets to the tourist agencies and sell Newcastle – Gateshead as a great destination. Classical concerts, obscure medical conferences, stag parties, cycling holidays and all. “

Floor eight: “And remember that jobs and wealth are not everything. Happiness  and equality are important too. We know that communities that are more equal and better connected have higher rates of employment. The Christian heritage of the region is worth remembering too.”

I head for the lift door, with one floor still to go and so get the last word:  “Thank you for taking this on, Andrew. ( I feel I know the man by now) And if you are looking for a quiet and comfortable venue for your final deliberations, bring your team out to Shepherds Dene for a few days.”

“This is where I get off. I look forward to reading your report. Good bye.”


George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene