Over the Liberal Democrats’ “Marmite position” towards the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, former party leader Tim Farron remains bullish. A 52 per cent majority secured the Brexit vote in the referendum, with that result tilted in no small part by the actions of the north of England. Nearly 57 per cent of voters in Cumbria, for example, which encompasses Farron’s own Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency, signalled to leave the EU. Farron describes this as “disappointing if unsurprising”. But the 47-year-old, whose choice to align the Lib Dems’ subsequent general election campaign uncompromisingly with the European project, doesn’t blame northerners for their rejection of the status quo.
Their ire, he says, is not something that’s happened overnight. Rather, successive governments’ reluctance to invest in the North has failed to suitably convey the benefits of EU membership, creating a feeling of contempt towards the Westminster bubble. When it comes to former Prime Minister David Cameron and ex-chancellor George Osborne, Farron pulls no punches. “One of the contributing factors to Brexit was treating the North as an afterthought. I thought Osborne’s ‘punishment budget’ was the crass, self-inflicted coup de grace that killed the Remain campaign. He said: ‘If you don’t vote the way I want you to, you’ll lose your homes and pensions.’ A lot of my old school mates, thought: ‘I haven’t got any of that, I’ll screw you then.’ It was a very shallow gamble from Cameron and Osborne.”
What few attempts at including the rest of the country in national development there have been, Farron scoffs, can be seen as “patronising, half-baked solutions”. He says: “The solutions that Whitehall has offered towards the North and the Midlands… plonking the DVLA in Swansea, for example, is your typical Whitehall response. HS2, while I remain on balance in favour of this, it’s very much a southerner’s idea of what needs doing: make it easier to get to London.”
Bottle-necking jobs and industry towards the capital, Farron warns, is not a healthy economic strategy. The need to make “the North a matter in itself”, he insists, should be even clearer post-Brexit. While Farron remains sceptical of the decision to leave the bloc and maintains that history will reflect on it unkindly – “I’ll eat a chocolate hat if it doesn’t” – he says that spreading wealth to areas no longer in line for subsidies, and improving internal access to services and the opportunities to export a wider variety of UK goods, are critical if the UK is to be even remotely self-sustainable. “Investment necessitates scale and ambition. Investing in particular industries is important, but that’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s the infrastructure that’s vital. Take the east-west high-speed rail link for example – HS3 – or the discussion about Heathrow. That might have been more sensible if we had discussed improving one of the northern airports. HS3 is so significant, because it’s connecting the two most significant ports from Hull to Liverpool. The idea that all routes should lead to London is bad for London and it’s bad for the UK.”
Farron stresses that a lack of connectivity, in many senses of the word, is hampering the north of England. Drawing on his own constituency’s in-tray, he says: “I’ve renewed a bid for us to have radiotherapy treatment at my local hospital in Kendal. Chemotherapy is there but for radio you’ve got to do a six-hour round trip elsewhere. The access for us is different to an urban area.”
Though Farron’s Lib Dem premiership might be remembered most immediately for how it ended – a resignation that cited the difficulties in balancing his Christian faith alongside the party’s position on homosexuality – his ability to draw so readily on local issues to inform wider ones, is a reminder of what he does well; and why, if only by the skin of his teeth in the last election, he keeps getting elected. June saw Farron’s majority in Westmorland and Lonsdale cut by 8,172 ahead of the Conservative James Airey.
How does his experience as a local MP compare to his experience as a national leader? Briefly distracted by the picture of Blackburn Rovers’ 1994-95 Premier League title-winning side that hangs with pride of place in his office, Farron replies: “I love being an MP in our part of the world. It’s an astonishingly beautiful place, but there are a variety of challenges that come with it. Being a leader was a challenge and an honour. Basically, we needed to save the party – we were as good as dead after 2015 – but we survived and made seats.”
Channelling the late Tip O’Neill, Farron says: “All politics is local. Politicians are often suckered into talking about the Westminster agenda in the Westminster bubble. As leader, it was harder to catch the eye of the people who were putting the news together with issues that were outside. The majority of northern MPs in senior positions don’t actively live in their constituencies. I’m not saying they don’t have a place there, but even as leader, I tried to spend as much time in the North as I could.” Do safe seats breed complacency? “Perhaps. Sometimes people love this place [Westminster], more than the place that elected them to it. I like Westminster, but I love the place that elected me.”
Given Westmorland and Lonsdale’s concerns about the EU, how did campaigning on such a pro-European ticket affect his standing in his constituency? “I work my patch hard, because I love doing it. When I stopped being leader, people said they were glad I was back. What that tells you is two things: that they are glad that I’m still around, but also that they felt like I had gone away.”
Ultimately, Farron is hopeful that the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, as outlined by the Conservative Party in 2010, can become more than just an idea. But he says in delivering on this pledge, there needs to be a real step up in urgency and enthusiasm for the potential of the North.
Devolution of power, he says, needs to be done properly and while the new metro mayors might be a move in the right direction, there are still gaps to be filled. “We saw that the chancellor [Philip Hammond] has been meeting with metro mayors about devolution recently. He’s met with Manchester, Merseyside and Teesside. But what about Northumberland? What about Cumbria? Invest and listen to local areas about their needs. They know what they need and what they can do. Let them do it.”