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11 March 2024

Battle cry of the Scouse dads

In their book Head North, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram continue to peddle a tired northern exceptionalism.

By Jonny Ball

We Scousers like to revel in the outsider status of our imagined community. It is a core element of our civic myth-making, jealously guarded even against people living just a few miles away. The 1980s serve as our modern origin story. Local politicians riff on well-worn notes about Maggie Thatcher, “managed decline” and the Toxteth riots. And, as their co-authored book Head North: A Rallying Cry for a More Equal Britain shows, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are no exceptions.

The Liverpool-born metro mayors of Manchester and Liverpool combined authorities have tried maybe a little too desperately to portray themselves as relatable, laddish deviations from the identikit politician. They’ve done charity DJ nights in city-centre bars while wearing Fred Perry jackets, and spend pages pointing out the seminal influence of dad-rock indie bands and fashions from the football terraces. But their ruminations quickly begin to read like Merseyside bingo, ticking off all the aforementioned themes as well as Boys from the Blackstuff, the Beatles, footballing prowess and the Militant Tendency.

The north, much bigger than Liverpool and indeed Manchester, was taken for granted by New Labour (“They’ve got nowhere else to go,” Peter Mandelson once said of its working-class voters). Its post-industrial areas were suddenly rediscovered by confused journalists on a Brexit safari following the Leave vote. The collapse of the Red Wall in the 2019 election seems likely to be reversed if we go to the polls this year. But, layered with cliché, Head North misses an opportunity for new insights into any of these developments. Though personal tales reminiscent of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen are combined with some decent, on-trend policy proposals, these will already be familiar to the kind of person who reads non-fiction titles written by regional politicians.

The book’s ghostwriter, Liam Thorp, is political editor of the Liverpool Echo, which has been criticised for painting flawed local leaders in overly positive hues. That the Liverpool metro mayor’s book has been written by the most senior local journalist tasked with holding him to account has not gone unnoticed.

Head North relentlessly portrays Burnham and Rotheram as downtrodden heroes fighting injustices meted out by Tory governments. They are crusaders against southern snobs, and dynamic leaders of cosmopolitan metropoles that could stand easily on their own two feet if only they were given more money and power. An us-against-the-world subculture gives Liverpool its edge, but when the trope is employed so repetitively by politicians it begins to grate.

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There’s some truth in the overall critique. The UK is over-centralised and Treasury rules put anywhere outside the south-east at a structural disadvantage. London enjoys an outsized share of public money for world-class infrastructure, which in turn encourages private investment. And the privations caused by industrial decline and hard-monetarist economics disproportionately affect the north.

But the book does little to acknowledge the nuanced reality behind the “London elite” vs “neglected north” caricatures. Embracing the stereotypes with gusto, it fails to admit that south Liverpool’s trendier suburbs probably have more in common with hipsterish parts of the capital than the poorer neighbourhoods in the city’s north end.

Burnham and Rotheram have a bone to pick with Westminster’s “London-centric” ways (the phrase is repeated ad nauseam). But while British politics’ aristocratic, Oxbridge elitism gets short shrift, the authors are endlessly effusive about an international mayors’ junket, in which they rub shoulders with Henry Kissinger in a New York penthouse and praise the multi-billionaire and former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg for his mentorship and support.

Head North is written in the pally tone of a footballer’s tell-all autobiography, which is odd for something that will mostly be read by policy wonks. The book is at its most enjoyable when gossiping about local political squabbles, but the revelations only confirm that municipal politics can be as dysfunctional and petty as Westminster, contradicting its key message – that devolution can inspire national renewal. In reality, for most people the town hall can seem as distant as Whitehall, and its politicians just as inept and self-regarding. If you’re looking for answers, go elsewhere.

Head North: A Rallying Cry for a More Equal Britain
Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram
Trapeze, 272pp, £22

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: Is Andy Burnham preparing for a new job?]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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