Remembrance of times past: RFA Fort George, one of the last of its class built at the Swan Hunter yard, launched in 1991 and was decommissioned last year. Photograph: John Kippin.
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All agog on the Tyne

Edward Platt returns to the north-east, where he lived as a boy. In Newcastle, he discovers brave ne

An enduring affection for English Journey – a book that its author, J B Priestley, described as a “rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the autumn of the year 1933” – was one of the reasons I set out last summer to revisit the parts of the country where I have lived, and when I arrived in Newcastle on a cold January morning, the back-handed tribute he had paid to the nature of life in the north-east was in my mind. “There is, you see, something bracing about the Tyne,” he wrote. “After you have seen it, you realise that it is not for the likes of us to be sorry for ourselves.”

My memories of Northumberland are predominantly of its empty moors and long, windswept beaches, rather than the pits and slums Priestley found so oppressive, yet I was expecting to discover that his observation remained as appropriate as ever. After all, the past half-century has not been easy for the north-east. When Priestley said that the inhabitants of Gateshead lived “in a workshop that has no work for them”, the region’s old industries were in severe yet temporary decline.

Today they have disappeared altogether and the north-east is attempting to forge a new identity in the middle of one of the most severe recessions since the slump that coincided with Priestley’s visit.

The three years that my family spent in Northumberland came between those two lows, and before an equally savage period of retrenchment in the 1980s. I had spent the first two years of my life in Essex, where I was born, but in 1970 my father got a job in Southampton working for a company called the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation or ICFC, which was a kind of national investment fund, set up by the clearing banks and the Bank of England at the end of the Second World War. In 1972 he was appointed to run the Newcastle office. ICFC’s aim was to provide long-term loans and “risk capital” to small- and medium-sized businesses that had no access to capital funding, and it placed great emphasis on its network of regional offices. In 1974, it ran a national advertising campaign with the strapline “A Man in the Field Is Worth Two in the City”, and in Newcastle it illustrated the ad with a photograph of my father standing in front of one of the city’s best-known landmarks.

Grey’s Monument stands in the middle of Grainger Town, the elegant city centre designed by a speculative builder in the 1830s as Newcastle entered its period of greatest prosperity. In 1722, Daniel Defoe had anticipated Priestley’s lament for the lost souls of the north-east when he bemoaned Newcastle’s “prodigious number” of poor people, but by the end of the 18th century the city had begun to change. The Literary and Philosophical Society, the city’s celebrated library, was founded in 1793 and moved into a listed building in 1825. In 1830 a local aristocrat named Earl Grey became prime minister. During his four years in office, he oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British empire and implemented the Great Reform Act, which scrapped the “rotten boroughs” and ensured parliamentary representation for the rapidly expanding cities of industrialised Britain. According to the inscription on the pedestal of his statue, Earl Grey “was the constant advocate of peace, and the fearless and consistent champion of civil and religious liberty”. The advert no doubt was intended to evoke favourable comparisons between the noble lord and the lean, dark-suited young man with the fashionably florid sideburns staring down into the camera.

I didn’t remember Grey’s Monument, but I knew it second-hand from the photograph that had found its way into a family album, and it seemed an obvious starting point for my attempt to explore a city I hardly knew. As I made my way down Grainger Street from Central Station, I passed Bigg Market, centre of the nightlife for which Newcastle has become so popular, and reached a plaque that offered a more sober appraisal of the city’s nature. I couldn’t unravel the logic of the legend in the central panel inlaid in the pavement – “The Past Is My Present To Your Future”, it said – but
I recognised the aptness of the two-word prose poems in the squares placed around it: “Of Now”, “Of Then”, “Of Women”, “Of Men”, “Of Stone”, “Of Steel”.

Until New Year, the protesters of the Occupy Newcastle movement had been encamped beneath Grey’s Monument, but the tents had gone and the square was empty apart from a scattering of weekday shoppers. The street that curled downhill towards the river was also named after Earl Grey, and it is often described as one of England’s finest. “As for the curve of Grey Street, I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning,” John Betjeman said. “Not even Regent Street, even old Regent Street London, can compare with that descending subtle curve.” Priestley had been less impressed; he conceded that the centre of Newcastle had “a certain sombre dignity”, but it was “chiefly built of a stone that has turned almost a dead black”, and on a wet November evening in 1933, “the whole city seemed a black steaming mass”.

Evidently it had been cleaned since then. The stone of Grainger Town was a soft, pale gold in the morning sunlight, though its elegant streets and buildings sit within a city shaped by robust and unsentimental planning. In the 19th century, a railway viaduct was driven through the middle of the medieval castle that gave the city its name, leaving the remnants divided by the tracks, and recently motorways have been pushed through the centre. The bridges and viaducts that brace the city against the slope as it falls away towards the Tyne were another reminder that Newcastle is both the workshop and the showroom of the Industrial Revolution. Robert Stephenson built the early steam engine known as the Rocket in a factory in Forth Street, and he also built the bridge that provides a dramatic entrance to those arriving from the south. Earlier in the day, I had been sitting on the train, listening to a trio of Christian missionaries discussing a project in Malawi as Durham flickered past. Neither the sudden apparition of The Angel of the North nor the sight of a scrapyard stacked with cars and lorries had alerted me to our imminent arrival in the north-east’s pre-eminent city, and I was surprised when the train emerged from a cutting and I found myself looking down on the grey waters of the Tyne.

Priestley was particularly dismissive of Gates­head, Newcastle’s sister city, which lies on the south bank of the Tyne: he claimed that it had “fewer public buildings of any importance than any town of its size in the country”, but that changed after Lottery funds became available at the end of the 20th century. As we crossed the High Level Bridge, I caught a glimpse of the three landmark structures that have opened on the south bank of the Tyne in the past ten years, and when I reached the bottom of the hill on foot and passed beneath the huge stone ramparts of the Tyne Bridge I saw them from the level of the river. The linked chain of steel and glass mounds that make up Norman Foster’s Sage centre for the arts was directly opposite, and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art occupied a converted grain warehouse further downstream. The final part of Gateshead’s trio of grands projets was supplied by the tilted hemispheres of the Millennium Bridge, which provide a pedestrian link between Newcastle and Gateshead and complete a renovated riverscape to match the splendour of Grainger Town.

The development of the Quayside on the Newcastle bank was less dramatic, though the man who had overseen it maintained it was no less  complete. Alastair Balls is a quietly spoken 68-year-old Scotsman who began his career in Whitehall and rose to the post of senior economic adviser to the Treasury. While he was in London, he had met a delegation of miners who came south with “flat caps and begging bowls” in the late 1970s, and he remembered attending a funeral of an uncle at a Methodist chapel in south Tyneside where the women sat on one side and the men on the other.

Yet even though the north-east seemed a “cultural throwback” that did not put him off, after 15 years in London he decided he wanted to live somewhere “a bit grittier”, and he moved to Newcastle in 1983 to become northern regional director of the Transport and Environment departments.
Shortly afterwards, Margaret Thatcher visited a shipyard in the north-east and the workers turned their backs on her. “They still believed that they could build the best ships in the world,” Balls said, when I met him in the pub beside the Millennium Bridge on the Quayside. “They said they needed subsidy – but they could still build them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true. No one wanted to buy them.”

Balls believes that two events galvanised the region: the opening of the Metrocentre in Gateshead, which is usually said to be Europe's largest shopping centre, and Nissan’s decision to build a car plant in Sunderland. The car plant may be located on Wearside but Geordies claim a stake in it as well, and it “acted as an enormous hike”. Production started in 1986 – the same year that the first phases of the Metrocentre opened – and a year later, Balls became director of the newly created Tyne and Wear Development Corporation. The regeneration of the Quayside was his main task. The wooden staves of the jetty were rotten and the adjacent warehouses had been used to store asbestos. Treacherous underfoot, stacked with carcinogenic debris and unused by shipping, it had fallen into “total dereliction”. It is now a kind of “urban park” and an integral part of the city, yet some say that the cultural and residential regeneration of the Tyne will not count for much unless its industrial sites are also revived.

After I left the Quayside, I travelled a mile downriver to the offices of a company called Shepherd Offshore in the old naval yard in the Walker area of the city. The naval yard once belonged to Armstrong Whitworth, and it was one of the most significant warship manufacturers in the world. “Armstrong brought the world vessels, and then artillery, and then put the two together,” Andy Williamson, Shepherd Offshore’s director of business development, told me as we sat in the boardroom looking out across the dock to the slow-moving water of the Tyne. “Basically, you had ships and guns and then guns on ships.”

Williamson used to work for the regional development agency, where he campaigned to keep the yards downriver zoned for industrial use, and his commitment to the task has continued since he joined Shepherd Offshore. The company is owned and run by two brothers called Bruce and Freddy Shepherd, who are part of an entrepreneurial working-class clan from the East End of Newcastle. Their father, who was a lorry driver, set up a transport business and acquired the family’s first riverside property. When the North Sea oil and gas industry developed in the 1970s, the Shepherds established a base for manufacturing and servicing offshore platforms, and as shipbuilding declined, they bought up more and more vacant land on the north bank of the Tyne.

Some people regard the Shepherds with unconcealed distaste, not least because of their tenure of Newcastle United Football Club. They owned the club in conjunction with the family of Sir John Hall, the property developer who built the Metrocentre, and had a plan to unite the local football, rugby, basketball and ice hockey teams in an entity that would exemplify the spirit of the “Geordie nation”. Yet Hall’s grandiloquent vision for the Newcastle Sporting Group did not catch the local imagination, and when he failed to get permission for an all-purpose stadium, he began to dispose of the parts of his sporting franchise. The Hall family retained a stake in the football club, but in 1997 Freddy Shepherd became chairman and John Hall passed on his shares to his son, Douglas. A year later, Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall suffered the embarrassment of being caught on a tape in a Spanish brothel by the News of the World’s “fake sheikh”, Mazher Mahmood, describing Newcastle women as “dogs” and mocking the club’s supporters for overpaying for its merchandise. The Shepherds have also been accused of mismanaging the club and plundering it for profit. After the businessman Mike Ashley bought Newcastle United from the Halls and the Shepherds in 2007, newspapers reported that the families had made £95.7m and £50.1m respectively on their investments, partly by virtue of being in charge when football clubs of Newcastle’s profile changed from local concerns to publicly listed companies.

Yet there is no shortage of people prepared to speak up for the Halls and Shepherds. One local businessman told me that John Hall’s initiative had inspired a new breed of entrepreneurs in the north-east, and Andy Williamson was naturally inclined to defend his employers, insisting that they are “local boys done good” who have reinvested heavily in their community. He said the Shepherds were the first to recognise the potential of the old shipyards on the Tyne. They bought the naval yard in 1986 and have since turned it into an industrial estate called the Offshore Technology Park, with tenants involved in oil and gas and deep-sea exploration, such as Wellstream and Duco. They have also bought up other sites downstream.

Williamson maintained that Shepherd Offshore and its “anchor tenants” have invested £120m in manufacturing capacity and new infrastructure on the north bank of the Tyne in the past 12 months alone – a figure that allows it to claim it is performing the “pump-priming role” usually taken by central governments.

He said he would let me see for myself, and we climbed into a Land Rover and set off past a ship loading up on the dock, where 250-tonne reels of coloured cable were stacked like giant spools of thread. The first sites we passed were still derelict, but work has begun on the Neptune shipyard downriver, which Shepherd Offshore bought in 2008. So far, it has invested £38m on renovating it, and two partially completed warehouses lie beyond its gates. The first is leased to an American company that had intended to use it as a turbine blade manufacturing plant until new owners put the plan on hold, and the second to a British firm called Bridon International, which is establishing a plant manufacturing steel and wire rope.

We passed another ship moored beside a new concrete “load-out pad” and stopped beside the dry dock where the Mauretania, which once held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing, had been built; it was 217 metres long, 35 metres wide and 11 metres deep and it looked like an immense, drained swimming pool.

Further down the dock, a bumpy, mud-strewn path wound between the mountains of earth that have been collected for the task of filling in the other three dry docks in the Neptune yard. When the work is completed and Neptune’s 800-metre dock is added to the 900 metres of the Offshore Technology Park, the Shepherds’ holdings on the north bank of the Tyne will constitute what Williamson calls a major UK manufacturing supply base. “You’ve got a working river again – and if you look at where it was in the 1980s . . .”

The Tyne’s best-known shipyard, which lay at the end of the Shepherds’ holdings, was a reminder of the fate that had been averted. My father went to a ship launch at the Swan Hunter yard soon after he arrived in Newcastle but it was coming to the end of its productive life. After it was privatised in 1987, it was used as a base for offshore oil and gas platforms, but it couldn’t beat the competition from the Far East, and in April 2007 its cranes and floating docks were sold to one of India’s largest private-sector shipbuilders. The buildings and equipment beyond the fence that ringed the yard adjoining the eastern edge of Shepherd Offshore’s holding were demolished and the land was bought by the local council. All that is left of Swan Hunter today is a small company that provides engineering and design services from an office on the site.

The rows of terraced housing that abutted the retaining walls on the edge of the docks were a reminder of the intimate relationship that used to exist between local people and the shipyards, but Williamson saw no reason to despair. “We go to crisis meetings about the region losing its identity, but in the meantime we plough on and we manage to get quite a lot done,” he told me. He believes that the Tyne might one day generate work for 10,000 people – a fraction of the number it once employed, but nonetheless a “rising from the ashes” that has no parallel in the industrial heartlands of the Midlands where he was born. Yet its success is far from guaranteed: offshore wind could be the “biggest game-changer” that UK manufacturing has experienced in the past 50 years, but it will require central intervention, and since the coalition government announced in 2010 that it was scrapping the regional development agencies there has been little indication of a co-ordinated plan. “There is cause for concern, but we put our best foot forward,” Williamson said. “Build it and they will come. It’s been said before.”

The Shepherds’ acquisitions are not limited to properties on the Tyne. In 1993, they bought Mitford Hall, the 5,000-acre estate near the county town of Morpeth that had belonged to the Mitford family since the 11th century. In 2009, they confirmed their place among the city’s new aristocracy
by acquiring La Sagesse, a site in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond that includes the listed home of Charles Mitchell, who began shipbuilding at the naval yard in Walker in 1852.

Yet the influence of Northumberland’s old families has not entirely faded, as the event that marked the beginning of the financial crisis made plain. It used to be said that most of Northumberland was owned by the Forestry Commission, the Duke of Northumberland and a handful of aristocratic families, including the Ridleys. Matthew White Ridley, the 4th Viscount Ridley, who died last month, was the elder brother of the late Conservative cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley. The 4th Viscount Ridley was chairman of Northumberland County Council between 1967 and 1979 and subsequently served as Lord Steward of the Household – an important role in the royal family.

His son, the science writer Matt Ridley, who is now the 5th Viscount Ridley, inherited the title and the family estate, Blagdon Hall, which lies ten miles north of Newcastle. By a less direct mechanism, he also inherited some of his father’s responsibilities for local concerns. The 4th Viscount was chairman of the Newcastle-based bank Northern Rock between 1988 and 1993 and his son was its non-executive chairman from 2004 to 2007, a time when it was pursuing what a Treasury select committee described as a “high-risk” business model that depended on raising funds from wholesale markets – essentially, large-scale interbank transactions. When the markets froze in 2007, it could not raise the money it needed to meet its short-term obligations and depositors rushed to withdraw their funds, making Northern Rock the first UK financial house in 150 years to suffer a “bank run”.

Nicholas Ridley was an outspoken advocate of the free market and Matt Ridley has always been equally sceptical of the value of regu­lation: he has said that “government is the problem not the solution” and described it as “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world”. Yet, under his chairmanship, Northern Rock was forced to ask the Treasury for emergency credit. It was subsequently nationalised and split in two. The Treasury has kept control of the so-called bad bank, but in November last year it sold the “good bank” to Virgin Money for £747m – a loss to the taxpayer of at least £400m.

Matt Ridley declined to speak to me and Virgin Money would not talk about Northern Rock’s recent past. Alastair Balls, who is chairman of Northern Rock Foundation, the bank’s charitable arm, which had a great deal of money to dispense in the boom years, said they were right not to drag it up again, though others told me he was overestimating the blow to local pride constituted by its demise. Balls said that Northern Rock’s collapse had played out like “a Shakespearean tragedy”, and called it a “great enterprise which had got into difficulties, partly through reasons of its own making and partly for reasons beyond its control”, which seemed a generous interpretation.

A select committee report criticised Matt Ridley for failing “to act as an effective restraining force on the strategy of the executive members”, and he resigned from Northern Rock in October 2007. Yet his family’s wealth and connections ensure that he remains a powerful figure in Northumberland. Blagdon Hall, which has been in the White Ridley family since 1698, includes tenanted farms, residential and commercial properties and two coal mines, one of which figures in a new scheme intended to carry the process of “cultural regeneration” that began in Gateshead further north.

The architect Charles Jencks is using the spoil from the Shotton surface mine to create a “recumbent female figure” 34 metres high and 400 metres long. It will be the “world’s largest human form carved into the landscape”, and it will form the centrepiece of a 19-hectare “landform public park”, called Northumberlandia, that will bridge the division between “the rolling countryside of mid-Northumberland and the urban areas of south-east Northumberland and Newcastle”.

Northumberland’s premier aristocrats have produced a piece of landscape architecture of their own. The Alnwick Garden is a complex of formal gardens built around a water cascade on a 17-hectare site next to Alnwick Castle, ancestral home of the Duke of Northumberland. That Alnwick Castle is now best known as the stand-in for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films is testament to the faintly fantastical nature of life in rural Northumberland. Another of the family’s properties is Syon Park, near Kew, the last privately owned stately home in London.

The Alnwick Garden has been called “the Versailles of the north” and it is said to be the largest and most expensive garden created in Britain since the Second World War. I walked round it with my wife and son two years ago when we were driving from Edinburgh to London, and I didn’t go back during this trip north. Instead, I caught the train to Morpeth, where I lived as a child.

The county town of Northumberland lies 21 miles north of Newcastle, halfway between Alnwick Castle and Blagdon Hall and two miles east of Mitford Hall. We moved there at short notice, and for a year we lived in a house on a 1950s estate near the station. A board on the far side of the road listed the exotic trees that had been planted in the adjoining arboretum and another listed the names of the streets beyond the entrance to the estate, but the difference between the worlds they represented was not as extreme as it initially seemed. The tarmac streets that wound past the houses on the estate seemed to follow the contours of the land as naturally as a trodden path winding through a wood.

We left the house when I was six and I had been back only once but, to my surprise, I found it without hesitation. The house was bigger than I remembered: it had two sitting rooms facing the unfenced front garden, and the woman who answered the door said they had turned the garage into an extra flat for her parents.

An elderly Indian man leaning on a stick and smoking a cigarette emerged from the house next door as I crossed the footbridge above the stream at the bottom of the road. It was market day and there were roadworks in the high street; a single lane of traffic was filtering past a small collection of stalls set up in a square. A woman selling home-made fudge told me that she remembered the market when it filled two car parks by the river, but “the lamb man” on the stall opposite had a longer perspective. Jimmy Bell’s family had been bringing sheep into Morpeth from their farm in East Wingate, ten miles to the north-west, for the past 400 years, and he saw no reason to bemoan a temporary dip in fortunes. Twelve years ago he began butchering his lambs and selling the meat directly to the public, but otherwise little had changed.

Our second house in Morpeth stood in a sloping garden halfway up a street called Kings Avenue, five minutes’ walk beyond the market. It was bigger and older than the other house, a large, square Victorian building three storeys high. An unframed canvas was propped on an easel in the sitting room and there were flowerpots in the conservatory facing the garden where I remember playing as a child. The solidity of its pale sandstone walls reminded me of the manor houses and farmhouses that some of my family’s friends used to rent on the rural estates around Morpeth and, indirectly, of the moors and beaches that many people still regard as Northumberland’s greatest prize.

On my way back to the station, I stopped on the lichen-encrusted bridge above the River Wansbeck, which burst its banks in 2008 and flooded the town. The water was low enough to show the footpaths on either side, but the branches pinned against the piers of the bridge testified to the force of a current that seemed to grow stronger as it swept past my first primary school, Goose Hill, which lay beyond a patch of empty land on the far bank. There was a solicitors’ firm at the end of the bridge called Wholley Goodings and a Union Jack was flying from one of the houses upstream.

My father would have stayed longer in Newcastle, but in 1975 he was persuaded to accept a job running a bigger office in Liverpool, and 25 years later ICFC – or 3i, as it had become – left as well. It had floated on the stock market in 1994, and once it began pursuing the quicker, larger returns its institutional shareholders required, it dismantled its network of regional offices. In effect, it had quit the field for the City, and my father was not alone in regretting the way it had abandoned its original remit. Lucy Armstrong, who went to work for 3i in Newcastle when she left university in 1989, said that its departure was seen as a bad sign at the time and is still regretted now. “People still talk about it – they say we want the old 3i back, or something like it,” she said. “That’s something you’ll hear a lot in this town.”

Armstrong left 3i in 1995, coincidentally the year my father retired, but she still lives in Newcastle, where she is chief executive of the Alchemists, a kind of consultancy that provides advice and support for “fast-growing, entrepreneurial companies that have reached a critical point in their development”. She is also director of the Confederation of British Industry’s council on small- and medium-sized enterprises – or private and family-owned businesses, as she prefers to call them. She believes that SMEs will play a vital role in driving the UK out of recession. “Crudely put, the government’s bust, the consumer’s bust, and only about 30 per cent of the FTSE-100 companies’ turnover is in the UK, so they’re not really British businesses,” she says. “So it has to be private and family businesses.”

This is one area where the north-east has an advantage: because there are now few public limited companies that maintain headquarters outside the south-east, the region is dominated by SMEs. That many of these are manufacturing and hi-tech engineering firms also counts in the north-east’s favour. Domestic demand is so weak that growth will be export-led; and it is not only thanks to Nissan that the north-east is the only region of the UK to boast a positive trade balance.

Others believe that the future will depend on kibs – knowledge-intensive businesses – in the “creative-media” field. Charlie Hoult, scion of a family that for four generations has run a business from a ten-acre complex of warehouses in Ouseburn called Hoults Yard, believes that Newcastle embodies the modish concept of “Ideopolis”, a city that requires no more than an airport, a university and good broadband connections to prosper. Hoults Yard is a case in point. Charlie was running a public relations business in London when he got “spat out by the financial crisis” of 2008, and came home to take on the family firm. Hoults Yard has been in the family since 1917. It was originally the base for a removals company and a pottery business set up by Charlie Hoult’s great-grandfather, but the pottery shut down in 1963 and 20 years later Pickfords absorbed the removals firm. It was Charlie’s father who had to find a use for “a large draughty space in a dodgy part of town”. He started letting units to photographers who placed more emphasis on heat than light and appreciated the site’s industrial character. When Charlie took over in 2009, he continued the process of converting the site’s warehouses into offices and studios, though he says he has been more forceful about presenting Hoults Yard as a “creative village” rather than a business park.

Alastair Balls has similar ambitions for his adopted town. When he arrived in Newcastle “people were still talking about the grand old days when there were ships floating down the Tyne and everyone turned out for the football match”. He believed that a “cultural transformation” was required. He was particularly concerned that Newcastle’s universities – an essential component of the Ideopolis – were “punching below their weight”, so he helped set up an educational and scientific charity, the Centre for Life, which now occupies a campus near the railway station designed by the ubiquitous Terry Farrell. Matt Ridley, who knows a great deal more about life sciences than he does about finance, was the founding chairman. The Centre for Life is a “centre of excellence” in the fields of genetics and stem-cell science. Its success is consistent with Newcastle’s determination to promote itself as a student town. In term time, students account for 5 per cent of the local population, and it is acknowledged that Newcastle must do more to retain graduates who are educated in the city.

It also has to provide more opportunities for its indigenous population. One recent growth area has exploited the distinctive Geordie accent. Priestley called it a “most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”, but it seems that I am far from alone in finding it easy on the ear, if the preponderance of call centres is any guide. Today, an estimated 60,000 people are employed in call centres in the north-east, or one in 20 of the local workforce. And yet few will be surprised by the conclusion of a report, published last year by Durham University, that such work is perceived as a “stopgap” at best, poorly paid and with little chance of advancement. However, even jobs like these are under threat.

In the past year, unemployment in the north-east has risen by 25 per cent, outstripping not only the relatively modest increases in London and the south-east but those in other parts of the north as well. House prices – that indispensable guide to the nation’s emotional and financial health, at least in the middle-class mind – confirm the north-east’s predicament. According to the Land Registry, house prices rose by 2.8 per cent in London in 2011 but in the north-east they fell by 7.1 per cent, making it the only region in the country where the average house costs less than £100,000. There is worse still to come for a region that is heavily dependent on public-sector employment: 94 per cent of the departmental spending cuts and 88 per cent of benefit reductions the government has announced have not yet been implemented, but already people are saying that things are worse than they have ever known them.

Ken Milor, who lives on the landmark Byker estate in the deprived East End of Newcastle from which the Shepherds originally came, has been unemployed for three years and he has had only one job interview in that time. Milor grew up in the old back-to-back houses that were demolished in the 1970s to make way for the estate, designed by the Swedish architect Ralph Erskine, and he still lives close to his old home. He began his career with a three-year apprenticeship at Swan Hunter, but since injuring his back at the age of 25 while working as a gardener, he has had paid work intermittently. In 1999, he launched the Millennium Jobs Scheme with the former footballer Peter Beardsley. The aim was to get 2,000 people into work, and he was the last to get a job. He worked as an events organiser for a year, and in 2001 he began volunteering for a project helping asylum-seekers.

The wider north-east has a relatively small black and ethnic-minority population compared to the rest of England, but Newcastle conforms with national trends: its population is 87.8 per cent white, on a par with the national average of 87.5 cent. A local councillor told me that the children at Byker Primary School speak 35 different languages. Nonetheless, Milor said that the East End did not have a “particularly diverse community” ten years ago and, given the way that asylum-seekers and refugees were characterised in the press, he had wanted to do his bit to ensure that the north-east’s reputation for hospitality was preserved.

Over the next eight years, he graduated to the role of principal project worker. “I was really proud of what I achieved,” he said when I met him in the church hall that houses the Byker Community Association. “I was just a lad from Byker. I didn’t have any qualifications, but I had a passion for helping, and I worked my way up.” In 2009, he was promised a three-year contract to continue his work but the funds ran out. He is still bitter about the way he was treated: “That was it – here’s the door, turn the light off on your way out. It wasn’t good.”

With his long record of voluntary work, however, Milor soon found himself running the Byker Community Association. “This is Cameron’s idea of the big society, and we’ve been doing it for years. The country couldn’t exist without it. I do 11-hour shifts here – I’ve got voluntary work coming out of my ears – but I can’t find paid work to save my life. I despise Thatcherism and its legacy, but this is worse. It’s reminiscent of the 1920s. It’s quite shocking.

The division between rich and poor is so extreme, and they pick on the weakest first. We’ve always prided ourselves on giving, and our government prides itself on taking from the most vulnerable. That’s Cameron’s Britain. I hope he can sleep at night. Because I can’t.”

I wanted to see the neighbourhood where he had spent his life, so we left the community centre and walked down the hill to the “Byker Wall” – the unbroken line of flats that forms the northern edge of the estate. Because it was designed partly to shield the interior from the noise and fumes from the traffic on the A193, its façade is pierced by only a few windows, but on the inside it is broken up by balconies and by the red, green and blue wooden cladding that colour-codes the estate, softening the assemblage of brick walls and concrete walkways. Byker was one of the products of T Dan Smith’s vision of turning Newcastle into the “Brasilia of the north”. Smith was the Labour leader of Newcastle City Council who went to prison in 1974 for corruption. One of the legacies of his rule was the enduring distrust of politicians and political structures that prompted the people of the north-east to reject John Prescott’s plan for a regional assembly in such convincing numbers in 2004. Yet Smith’s desire to clear the city’s slums and replace them with something better resulted in the striking architecture of places such as Byker, which was granted Grade II listed status in 2007.

Milor was pleased that Byker’s merits have been recognised, though he was dismissive of the “Perrier and croissant” lifestyle of the architect who proposed the listing and lived briefly in a flat in the Byker Wall. His attitude to the estate as a whole was no less ambivalent. He regretted the loss of the neighbourhood that he knew as a child and disliked the high-handed way the changes had been made, but welcomed the improvements in heating and sanitation, and recognised the wisdom of replacing the old back-to-back houses, which ran up and down the hill, with flats that run across the slope and command wide views of the city and the Tyne below. The taxi driver who took me to Byker said the houses on St Michael’s Mount were in the best location in the city, and the renovated garden of the church below the community centre enjoys the same commanding views. A circular timeline engraved on a sundial on the terrace identified landmarks in the city and the year in which they entered its history, but my eye was drawn inexorably to the shimmering trail of the Tyne and the interlocking loops, curves and ruled lines of the bridges that tie the cities of Newcastle and Gateshead together.

Milor said the view gave him goosebumps and that it was the Tyne Bridge that meant the most to him, as an old-school Geordie. Its semi-circular form and the phantom shapes of the great ships that had slipped into the water beneath it are an uncompromising demonstration of the engineering prowess that made Newcastle rich. By comparison, the newer structures seem fragile and meretricious, for they were generated during the debt-fuelled boom of the first part of the millenium, and are devoted to culture and leisure. But there is no doubt that Newcastle has undergone a transformation. The difficulties that lie ahead are as great as any it has faced, and yet the city I found seemed a brighter and stronger place than the one my father would have known, let alone the one that J B Priestley discovered.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. “City of Abraham”, his book about Hebron, will be published by Picador in September

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue