The real leader of the past and present (re-elected) Conservative government in the UK is not David Cameron, the Prime Minister, but George Osborne, his Chancellor of the Exchequer. He, unllke Cameron, . . . is not rushed off his feet by his civil servants, doing PR work all over the country and abroad, but, ably assisted by the intellectual tyhpes in the Treasury, Osborne has time to read, reflect and consider questions of deeper strategy. He knows very well –and has for some time — that the demand for Scotland’s independence is not due to any great outburst of Scottishness but to the excessive centralisation of political power in London and Whitehall’s psychological distance from the Scottish people.
George Osborne is also aware that, in recent years, there has also been growing anger in other parts of the UK — in the northern regions particularly. Local politicians and businesspeople there are even more specific as to the economic gap and the preferential treatment given to London than to them when it comes to major redevelopment schemes, such as transport and other public services, This is made all the worse by knowing that it was their great industries of not so long ago — cotton, coal, steel, railways, heavy engineering, ship-building and the like that were those that led the industrial revolution and made for the prosperiy of the UK in the 19th century and paid for massive armies and navies, enabling the spread of the British Empire.
However, modern times requires a different blend of skills and profitable businesses, and it has been the Midlands (car industries) and the south (electrical goods) that successively took over during the early part of the 20th century leading, today, to the biological and digital skills of Cambridge, Oxford and also a great many other advanced services in London itself. The latter, such as those in health, education, finance, property, media, consulting, retailing, fashion, design, architecture, nano-engineering, equity law and others enable London’s GDP to have been gowing at over 7% p.a. in recent years while the rest of the country lingered at only 0.7% p.a. (and the latter is pprobably a negative figure if all the data wer accurately known).
London is economically viable, and subsidisies the rest of the country. Young talent migrate to London rather than stay in their own cities and regions. New business start-ups in London, despite having only 13% of the country’s population, are several times the rate elswhere. What can be done about it? Goodness knows, the disparity has been known about since the 1930s during the Great Depression when the bulk of the out-of-work were in the north. Since then, several schemes have been seriously tried by both Labour and Conserative governments, none of them making the slightest dent in the deteriorating situation.
But now we have the latest. This time from George Osborne and sloganised as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. He’s going to devolve the governmental control of many public services in transport, education, health, police and planning westwards and northwards and mainly to the large cities of Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle and also for these cities to have constitutionally powerful Mayors as London already has. (London also has a Lord Mayor, but that’s only a traditional, ceremonial past.)
Will the latest initiative succeed? I doubt it, much as though I would like to see other oarts of the country enjoying the same benefits as London and becoming viable in the international trade competition. The problem is that governments — even including thoughtful and genuine members of it such as George Osborne — cannot possibly know how to stimulate economic activity when it’s in the doldrums. Neither can anyone else actually. At any one time, the state of a region’s or a country’s economy depends on the equilibrium of a great many factors and it’s too complex to put weights on these and know where extra support might be effective.
The basic fact of human economic affairs is that we are totally dependent on innovation and we can never know what is going to turn up next and what social and economic effects it is going to have. When the telephone was first invented it was conceived of a being a device through which orchestral music could be piped to people at home having dinner! Some inventions — such as the world wide web — innocent enough at the time, are capable of growing into Leviathans but also bringing about consequences in every branch of economic activity that couldn’t possibly have been exrapolated.
Nowadays we have such a plethora of inventions pouring forth that there is always one of them which is going to be hugely destructive of existing ways of doing things and capable to developing other ways we couldn’t have had the foggiest idea about. The best we can say about the future is that specializations are going to grow and that education is probably the most important sector to be developed in any country and region that wants to keep its head above water.
If I had the political power to help Manchester and other cities become powerhouses like London then I would throw as many resources as possible into superb nursery education of at least the quality of those that is presently available to the rich and the higher socio-economic professional classes of London. It is in the earliest months and years when a child’s mind can be either blunted or can blossom into astonishing abilities. The results would be at least a decade away, and probably two or three, but decades of initiatives that were the equivalent of George Osborne’s today have so far been in vain.