18 March 2017

George Osborne and the curse of London


In his new book The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart divides Britain’s population into “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”.

The former, he argues, build their identity on their accomplishments – the First at Oxford, the pupillage at the leading law firm, the non-executive directorships. The latter build it on a sense of place – the village they were raised in, the football team they support, the pub they drink in.

Goodhart’s argument is that for the last few decades, Britain has been run by the Anywheres for the Anywheres – and that they’ve made a right mess of it.

At the book’s launch this week, George Osborne actually came up as a possible counter-example. The metropolitan’s metropolitan, his brand of social and economic liberalism is impeccably Anywhere, not least in its determination to attract global talent and global capital to Britain.

But Osborne also, as MP for Tatton in Cheshire and the creator of the Northern Powerhouse, showed at least some awareness that there was a country beyond the capital, and that the Somewheres living in it had been decidedly short-changed.

The former Chancellor’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard is an extraordinary moment, which tells us all sorts of not necessarily welcome things about the relationship between the media and political elites, not to mention raising a host of issues around conflicts of interest.

But among many other things, it is the strongest possible declaration that Osborne’s heart is ultimately with the Anywheres. And for his constituents in Tatton, it suggests – as Jonn Elledge points out in a vitriolic piece over at the New Statesman – that Osborne was never as loyal to them as they were to him.

Until the next boundary review, they face the galling prospect of their current MP acting as the journalistic cheerleader-in-chief for the distant capital, gracing them with such of his attention as he can spare when not approving Standard headlines, or collecting a £650,000 salary for the day a week spent advising the trillion-dollar investment company BlackRock. Yes, he will still be chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, his think tank – but when will he find the time?

Until Osborne knocked her off the headlines – a small revenge, perhaps, for how brutally she disposed of him – Theresa May was set to dominate the day’s news with the unveiling of her Plan for Britain.

But the former Chancellor’s effective rejection of Tatton for Kensington is a reminder, like Goodhart’s book, that building a better Britain is about more than just getting the terms of Brexit right, or binding together the United Kingdom’s constituent nations.

Inner London is, by any standards, an astonishingly wealthy and productive place: the area where Osborne will be living and working, both as an MP and an editor, is the richest in Europe bar none.

But places such as Durham, Lincolnshire, Lancashire and Cumbria are much poorer than their French or German equivalents – and Cornwall and West Wales are poorer still.

One of Britain’s great long-term problems is that it is perhaps the most centralised country in the Western world: all roads lead to London, and all eyes are upon it. The new mega-mayors whom Osborne championed were, in part, designed to counteract this: to give the cities of the North the heft and vigour they needed, if necessary by welding them together.

But Osborne’s own actions show that he’s given up trying to crack that nut.

I’m sure Osborne feels both a loyalty to Tatton and a deep affection for it – it’s impossible to be an MP without developing such feelings. But just like David Cameron in my own home of Witney, the lure of the bright lights and big city proved to be too much. Better to be lording it at Davos than slumming it in the Dog and Duck.

Osborne’s editorship of the Standard is sure to provide a giddy spectacle for his fellow metropolitans. As for the people of Tatton, they could be forgiven for thinking their MP is indeed an Anywhere: Anywhere But Here.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX