Sunday, 12 April 2015

Nationalism and geography

If you don't fancy a long read, get this: we live on one group of obviously associated offshore European islands. In our long history we have generally shared one language which is not the Continent's (although they all learn it now). This accident of geography colours most of my political thinking. Ergo I am a Unionist, end of story.

The longer version.

Not many months past we went through, yes all of us, a divisive referendum, at the end of which, there was a clear result and we were all told, that was it for a generation. In the immediate aftermath the SNP saw a growth in membership which for any modern day British political party was astronomical. That has continued, for all of which the SNP only account for a proportion of Scottish voters.

However nine months later and we have a general election. Here according to Andrew Marr this morning, the SNP look set to gain 4/5th or thereabouts of the Scottish seats at Westminster. The Labour party assert there will never be SNP members in their administration. Some form of coalition appears likely. The SNP further assert that if they can exercise power they will remove Trident from Scotland. They will then campaign for a similar result at the Scottish MSP elections in May 2016. If they can repeat the performance twice, they are now saying on that mandate they will swiftly move to a second referendum.

So why should this upset me and my life in Northumberland. To be fair there is a certain gut feeling. I was always brought up (in Norfolk) as my wife was (in Glasgow) to acknowledge I was British first and then something after that. Being British in my family always trumped being English. If I hear someone from Scotland saying their only allegiance is to Scotland it makes me wince. Do you not first and foremost belong to this one group of islands? Geography was always my strong subject. Having to choose about abandoning being British and just being English goes against every grain in my body. About the one thing I am not is Welsh (or even Cornish). Otherwise I could travel from Hampshire, through Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, Shropshire, Airedale, Durham, Northumberland, the Eden Valley, Balsporran Cottages on the A9, Kingussie Churchyard, Slochd Summit, Elgin, Galloway, Ayrshire, Carrickfergus, Ballynure and Dublin, and in all these places say "I belong, it is my family right to belong".

Nor if you know me well, you might laugh and say you spent too long moving around Britain and anyway you only spent four years living in Ayrshire. Two things (of several) happened to me today. I spent a church lunch chatting to a Welsh gospel singer who lives in Northumberland, and sings with an Ulster accent. We were of one mind, we were not for this Nationalist stuff. Not because we are raving Anglophiles but because we are children of these islands. In our book what unifies is much more than what divides and for both our families, the common Ulster threads means we utterly understand about division.

The second thing about today is that my wife came back from lunch with some friends amongst whom there is a very gracious and talented couple. Some time ago the lady there said she wished to prepare a family history to give to our daughter Clare. Today was delivery day, four large hessian bags of immaculate research, CDs, typescript telling me almost everything I might want to know about our past since King William of Orange. What do you know, follow the paternal line and it takes you ultimately to a named, recognisable today, farm by Loch Ryan and back beyond that into Ayrshire.

The point being for innumerable people in Britain (think Corby), to divide our country into multiple states will be to wrench our personal identity apart. The Scots don't live in Scotland and the English in England. We are a multiplicity of ethnicity in a shared physical environment. That does not mean Scotland is not its own country. Our Union has been a very clever Union of four countries. One is self evidently the richest and is the gatekeeper to Europe and other trading partners. It has been in everyone's interest to balance the disparity. For the richer group to share its resources with the other. And that is what has happened. England does support the others. Who had to ride to the rescue when Ireland virtually went bankrupt less than 10 years ago?

This morning Andrew Marr interviewed a leading Scottish lady campaigner for the nationalists. She said she was not an economist, figures did not come into her calculation. This was an emotional decision for better or for worse, to shake off the imperial shackles. I just shake my head, I recognise none of this. England in 1707 did not take over Scotland in an Imperial action. The two countries agreed to a Union as it was in their financial and political best interests, but in many respects (e.g. in law and religion, each remained a distinct state). The actions that had brought this about (Darien) were largely the responsibility of Scots. But even if Darien was not a factor, the increasing economic pace of interaction would have brought Union. Through the rest of the 18th century, the Scottish enlightenment flourished. It was based on reason, it produced economic thinkers who are still read. The idea that Scotland in the 21st century should become independent on emotional rather than rational grounds makes me shudder. In the debate of the week the fiscal hole of independence has been raised by an impartial think tank. "Smear" the Nationalists shout when Miliband mentioned it. It struck me as cold reason and no smear.

I think rationality has left the debate. Something must explain why the Nationalists appeal? I cannot deny they do.  The best answer I have is three fold: Thatcher, Social Media and God. It is clear that the years of Thatcher became the years of the divide. If indeed Britain divides (virtually down the geographical middle, you do realise this, two maps one of population, one of acreage would produce astoundingly different shapes), I will not simply blame the SNP. Mrs Thatcher will shoulder a huge percentage of the blame. She broke the consensus politics, she destroyed her own party during her Prime Ministership north of the Border. She said it was fine for London and the South East to flourish without a care for the central belt of Scotland (and the North of England). I grew up in Tory Norfolk, I went rather reluctantly to private school (it did not seem to me fair or healthy even as a teenager). I found myself working in West Yorkshire through the Miner's strike in 1984. I saw the lines of police minibuses. Two years later and I was clearing out shut collieries.

In short order I moved to Scotland: Ayrshire and Clydeside 1986-1990. I saw the hopelessness of men on street corners with no work, men I actually knew. I remembered reading L T C Rolt describing Stoke on Trent after the Kerr Stuart closure in 1930. I remembered too Auden's description of Dumbarton "The flotsam at which Dumbarton Gapes and Hungers" (May 1932). I met my wife in the shipyard he knew and in 1987, it still felt bad.

Many will read this and say, there is your answer. This abandonment of the North has gone on since the 1930s and it simply cannot be endured any more. But unless a Nationalist party has real economic plans which stack up, emotionalism will not bring happiness. The lady Marr interviewed this morning seemed to be saying independence will always be more worthwhile than what we have? Why? It seems to me a major player is revenge. Westminster has "f**cked us up", well now it is payback. Behave like this and a whole island will venture into chaos.

But what fuels revenge? Can it be the abandonment of faith? All the nations of the islands pursued different faith routes since the reformation which has not been without pain itself. But on balance the faith, the mutual understanding of purpose was Christian. That is no longer the case and I wonder whether that is feeding this?

Does that mean I think Great Britain is a God given concept? I don't but I think it was a God fearing creation. Its leaders of various centuries felt they would answer to God for their stewardship. Outstanding of those is our present monarch. Take Israel. Do I think God gives land to people and says you now have the right to persecute and expel the inhabitans? No way. Jesus gave the answer. The purpose of the people of God is to show the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, it is to be exemplars. Jesus warned of what would happen to Israel if it could not see this in 30AD and his warnings were shortly fulfilled. The Romans annihilated Israel (fact). For a second time round since 1948 Israel has had the opportunity to show how to be a model nation. One for whom its treatment of all its citizens and neighbours could showcase the performance of faith. How has it got along?

I should contrast that with a tale of optimism. A tale of the shared values of the special relationship. It comes from Boston, USA and perhaps it might even be able to make me accept the bitter pill of divorce. Have you heard of the Hoyts? Good to learn about them  and . Are they Christians? Does that matter? I don't know and it does not. But get this, what was intended to be their final race was interupted by the bombing of the Boston marathon. Whatever else you think, one of the immense achievements of Western Liberal, Christian based thinking is that it is utterly wrong to bomb the innocent. It was wrong for the IRA to do this, it is wrong for Muslims to do it, and it was wrong for the USA to do it in South East Asia. However the future goes, we must keep the peace in Great Britain. We did not in the past, I live in reiver country.

A salutary tale. Does this perhaps make me more sanguine about the breakup of Great Britain. Not exactly. I do think Great Britain may breakup. NATO and the USA would be fair amazed. This would delight some others. Some could see it as a judgement of God on a nation's faithlessness. In that it would be unfair to heap all the blame on the SNP. The behaviour of corporates in London business districts does alarm many. Something terrible went wrong in banking in the early years of the 20th century, it had probably been decades in the making since The Big Bang Boys. But what went wrong in London went wrong in Edinburgh too. RBoS is a dirty word. London in England, in Britain has proven able to pick itself up. Had RBoS purely been an Edinburgh institution it would have carried off a nation with it. Vote for an anti union party on May 7th and logic and history suggests you only have to wait.

How might I end this? I think as my father did. A Christian burial in a church in a coffin draped in the Union flag. Two hymns:  one from our wedding: "Be Thou my vision...................... " Old Irish. Celtic spirit. One from his funeral: "I vow to thee my Country........",_My_Country . Now you might think this turns me into some flag waver. Anyone who really knows me, knows I am nothing like that. My country is not the country of the English establishment, it is my Britain. Don't take it from me.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Penrith and the Borders was on Radio 4

Yesterday we went to Maryport, West Cumbria. The drives passes through Rory Stewart's Penrith & Borders constituency. This morning's R4 spot before 0821 (to trace it) it was the constituency being profiled. All that can honestly be said is that not one interviewee felt their views made a blind bit of difference. The CLA rep struggling to get mobile signal, the redundant shop worker who lost their job when the bus went. Rural buses, broadband, just the same issues as in the Hexham neighbour. Guy Opperman has certainly worked on both those issues but another round of local bus cuts is immediately imminent. I largely blame having a council based in Ashington for that, but any campaign for a West Northumberland unitary does not have traction in the current election. The overwhelming feeling I guess for many people across this whole vast spread of land is year after year of muddling through with less central support. Meanwhile events north of the Border are unsettling to say the least and for a historian the feeling of Deja Vu (think 410, think16th century) is hard to shrug off.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The election is a looming and I would like to know what Labour offers Prudhoe

An open letter sent directly to my county councillor

Dear Eileen

You are my county councillor. About 70 days hence is the election. I googled “Councillor Eileen Burt” and this is the result. . Going forward the Labour party has the opportunity to persuade folk to vote. I am interested in knowing your vision of what Prudhoe might expect to gain from a Labour party win and if this was repeated, what policies there are say over a 12 year period to change the town. Specifically will the Labour party be supporting the creation of a Neighbourhood Plan as other communities in Tynedale now have? What is the Labour party policy towards the electrification of the Tyne Valley Railway line and will this be the means to remove the Pacer trains?  As a local councillor what further improvements are visualised at our railway station and with our road network? I believe the expansion of Prudhoe calls for a new B road from Ebchester in the Derwent Valley to the Horsley interchange on the A69 with a new bridge crossing of the Tyne starting from the east end of Princess Way. This will not happen quickly but unless it features in policy it will never happen. The railway station this year missed out on better waiting shelter replacements (instead like for like). Just as the Northern refranchise cannot be another stand still franchise, it would have been far more effective if the Labour party had campaigned for the real improvements needed locally. In the event it was left to people like Peter Nevin and myself and Network Rail have run rings around us. The lack of a Town Council Transport Working Group shows this up (and quite humanly there are real limits to what I can do voluntarily).  Many more issues are down there, the expansion of car parking (although I believe this is in hand from the county?). The better shelters for an expanding town are a necessity, so is a new footbridge. Proper integration with bus services and fares is another.

I would welcome both a new town centre and the redevelopment of Prudhoe hospital. But in each instance I want to know how electing a Labour government will ensure these become “excellent” projects, not will do. By this I mean for instance the thought that is given into community structures and employment opportunities at the hospital site and how some of the buildings there can be reused. To simply flatten and build nigh on 500 homes with no new transport infrastructure and employment provision to me stacks up problems. At the Town Centre I have long argued that the site demands the best solution, a Hanging Gardens of Prudhoe development with car parking hidden in the hillside. A result that meant the site’s many neighbours were wowed and not antagonised. Much of this is about planning. I am aware of many pressures in regard to the Green Belt. Prudhoe is within the Land of Oak and Iron heritage landscape project. The reason people will want to live in Prudhoe in part is because of its high quality landscape surround. How will electing a Labour government ensure that Prudhoe’s woodlands remain a gem? And how will Prudhoe benefit from the Land of Oak and Iron?

Over a whole range of issues, to my experience including transport spend, arts spend, heritage lottery spend the comparison per head between the North East Region and London is grossly disproportionate. If the Labour party form the next government I want to form an idea as to how a change in that policy will change Prudhoe for the better.

For my interests, these are the sorts of matters that I think need debate and I will be very keen that you locally as a leading Labour politician set out the stall. In that spirit I regard this as an open letter and any reply should be in a similar vein.

Yours Sincerely

Robert Forsythe
I am grateful for a reply to this letter received from Liam Carr, prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Labour party in the Hexham Constituency.

Dear Robert,

Your raises a few issues, I will address each theme.

Rail Services.

Privatisation was a disaster for the railways. The whole franchising system has been a failure and passengers are paying more for a worse service, the Pacer trains are going but they will be replaced by cast off underground trains from London that may not be suited the Northumberland weather.

The next Labour government will allow the public sector to compete with private companies for rail franchises when they expire, this will result in public sector running sections of our rail network as soon as possible, in the same sort of way as East Coast did. 

We aren't saying we want to go back to some sort of 1980s British Rail, but we have to acknowledge that privatisation was a mistake and its one that we must rectify.

The next Labour Government will be different from the one elected in 1997, it is OK to say that some things like Health, Education and Transport, are too important to be left to market forces.

With profits coming back to the treasury, this will allow investment in the Tyne Valley line.

Roads and other infrastructure.

Labour will devolve power away from Whitehall, so instead of having to beg for real investment in the and ending up with a feasibility study, decisions will be made closer to home.

Labour has a strong track record of devolving power.  We passed the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act and we are now committed to an English Devolution Act, which will reverse the centralisation which has occurred under successive governments in the recent (and not so recent) past.

We will transfer £30 billion of funding over five years, passing on power and resource not only for transport, which you mention, but also skills, employment support, housing and business support.

What difference will a Labour Government make in Prudhoe?

I have listened to many residents in Prudhoe who have been hit by the bedroom tax, this is an unfair tax particularly so in Prudhoe, where there are very few one bedroom properties to move into. Labour will repeal the bedroom tax.

We will also reverse the privatisation of our NHS by repealing the Heath and Social care act, the effects of which are being felt locally services at Hexham hospital are under threat. I want to be your next MP so I can defend our NHS.

There is still some concern about Education in our High school, Much of the discussion we hear is about structures; politicians on all sides have been guilty of arguing about if schools should be free schools, high schools, supported by the LEA or be an academy. However, when listening to concerns from parents, I hear that they are less concerned about structures  - most simply want a great local school, staffed by committed, well-qualified teachers, which provides good outcomes for all young people. If elected I will refocus the debate away from structures and back on what matters most; the students.

In this election we have a choice to make, about the kind of society we want to live in. I believe in a fair  society with a recovery that benefits the working people and not just the very wealthy and an economy that works for all and not just a few at the top.

I hope this reply is helpful, if you have any other policy queries please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Liam Carr

Liam (like Guy Opperman) has a blog which is at  

Monday, 26 January 2015

Prudhoe Hospital redevelopment planning application

My blog over the years has chronicled the poor quality of planning in Prudhoe (although I will remark that this year past has shown a marked effort to address one of the regular concerns in respect of drainage). After a long time in gestation, the Prudhoe Hospital planning application from the developer Gentoo and the owner The Homes and Communities Agency (remember the c word) is now made. It is here.

Paul Revill the previous Baptist minister of Stocksfield and himself a Prudhoe resident asked me "What do think Robert?". And remarked that flatting Prudhoe Hall might be a lost opportunity. This is what I said on Facebook.

"At one level Prudhoe Hall is the least of this. I do value Prudhoe Hall and also the Walled Garden (for which the plan if it happens is sensible, some sheltered homes outside to generate revenue for a publicly accessible garden operation). BUT what is needed here is a community, there are many excellent buildings here (like the pavilion) and some of the blocks which could be retained, adapted and re-used, to create along with many new houses variety and opportunity with continuity. The developer simply does not have the vision, the knowledge, the drive or the desire to do any more than knock down and build lots of houses with apparently no thought about where people work and how they get there? How does this impact on Blaydon roundabout? Why is it not matched to new road links across the Tyne to the A69 and south to the Derwent Valley (hardly very difficult that)? What is being provided as a social hub for the self employed with public Wifi (notably something Prudhoe's newest public building does not have)? Will there be a pub or a church? Many people, senior leaders, have said Prudhoe must not repeat Castlefields. In what respect does this development differ? Correlate what the developer proposes to . However after many years I have realised that Prudhoe's own ability with but two county councillors to cease being done unto and to take control of itself is very limited. The HCA could have offered the whole site to Prudhoe through the Community Partnership and the Town Council and said "now determine, your own destiny"."

On transport provision worm your way into this. It includes the offer of a minibus service for the development. How long will that last? Think 111. It is not a link to Newcastle or anywhere else. The "positive" step of offering such for 392+12+80 (Humbles Wood) so 484 homes tells me a lot. That anticipating people do anything other than drive hardly figures. It is a palliative sop.

One of the buildings slated for demolition. Why not flatted?