Bringing high tech business to the North East

Putting in place the infrastructure for new kinds of business requires vision and leadership.

Everyone knows the phrase "coals to Newcastle". This is a tale of "software to Cambridge". From Newcastle. When I started my business thirty years ago it seemed far-fetched. There were less than 10 technology businesses in the whole of the North East. Now there are over 300, from software to computer games to cloud computing. Only London has a higher rate of high tech start ups. So we are doing our bit for "rebalancing" the economy.

The obvious questions are why and how? The simple answer is that while some industries depend on capital to get going, for technology companies it is people.  Software and computer games are by their very nature "weightless" products that can be sold in every corner of the world over the internet without any significant transport costs – the exporter’s dream. If you can sit a talented programmer or a creative designer in front of a computer, they can be producing saleable products that are instantly exportable.

The greatest asset for any region is its universities. The greatest problem in the North East is raising the aspirations of our own population to go to them. In a global competition for talent, you need places "where talent wants to live". This means that you need to have a buzzing music and cultural scene – Newcastle has been voted one of the world top party cities - good affordable housing and easy ways to get to work. Tyneside and the rest of the region has a justifiable reputation as a great place to be and this has been fostered over the last decade by a combination of strategic, long-sighted public investment in creative and cultural infrastructure like the Sage Gateshead, and the establishment of organisations like Generator who support the music industry and make events happen.

University involvement and partnership with business has grown by encouraging graduate internships and establishing "hatcheries" nurturing embryonic businesses. Publicly-funded initiatives like Sunderland Software City and Digital City on Teesside have been able to provide guidance, mentoring, premises, and networking for new business. Organisations like North East Access to Finance help fund the growing numbers of start-ups and high growth companies.

I chaired the Regional Development Agency until it was closed this year. Its founding idea – that public and private sectors need to support each other - is right. Here are three things that would make the biggest difference in the next ten years. Firstly, there needs to be more productive and innovative partnerships between the private sector, the universities and the public sector. Each offers different elements to the mix. Entrepreneurial ideas and drive, a trained and educated workforce coupled with innovative research and development in the right "connected" locations are the fundamental building blocks for this industry. Secondly businesses like this need finance. Often UK banks are reluctant to lend to this sector so we need to create small grants that allow clever people to test ideas and then more substantial equity investments as businesses mature and develop. Finally we need vision, leadership and role models. People who see what the North East's economy could look like and have the ambition, drive and determination to make it happen. The region has changed much since the dark days of the Likely Lads, what we need for the future is tomorrow’s Bob and Terry having Masters degrees in software engineering and creating world-leading software.

Paul Callaghan is Chairman of Leighton, the North East-based technology, software, media and communications group that he founded.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser