How do you judge the character of a politician? One way is to work for one, which in the case of Greg Clark, the Minister of Cities, is something I did for several years. Of course, that makes it rather difficult to write about them afterwards. Feel free, then, to completely discount my objectivity on this or any other matter.
Fortunately, Paul Waugh, who has never worked for Greg Clark, has interviewed him for the House Magazine. In doing so, he seizes upon a much quicker way of getting to know someone, which is to ask them about their heroes:
“Greg Clark is clutching a birthday present from his wife, with the glow of a man whose spouse knows exactly what he wants. The item he describes as ‘one of my proudest possessions’ is not a shiny new e-tablet or similarly modern bit of gadgetry. It’s a Victorian medal, struck to celebrate the achievements of an historic politician in his home town of Middlesbrough. The bronze disc (a gift bought by a shrewd Mrs Clark on eBay) depicts Henry Bolckow, an industrialist who brought coal and ironworks to Middlesbrough and was elected as its first mayor and MP. Cast in 1881, it was issued to everyone who participated in the unveiling of a statue to Bolckow after he died.”
Bolckow’s statue was funded by public subscription. It’s hard to think of any MP who might receive such an honour today. But then it’s hard to think of a backbencher or council leader with the power to make as big a difference as Bolckow did to his community.
Though lip-service is still paid to the importance of ‘local leadership’ the fact is that most of the important decisions affecting any English town or city are made in London. Indeed, even our capital, with its international clout and high profile mayor, is largely governed from Whitehall not City Hall.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ promised a fundamental change in this unequal distribution of power. The slogan may have gone, but, largely unreported by the London media, power is being devolved through the City Deals programme, for which Greg Clark is responsible.
Of course, almost all contemporary politicians have warm words for the idea of localism. What’s different about Clark’s approach is that he’s realised that true localism can’t be dictated by the centre:
“When the big cities and towns outside London created the wealth and generated income, there was a different attitude that came with it. There was a sense that they came to London to tell government how it should be, not to beg and plead. They weren’t supplicants.”
This might seem an elementary point, but it’s one that’s been missed by successive governments – including those led by politicians who were supposed to represent England’s disempowered cities:
“If you look at the North East, under 13 years of Labour sometimes it seemed half the Cabinet was from the North East. Did they transform the economic prospects of the North East, did they use their familiarity and power there for the good? Not a bit of it. If anything the North East went backwards during that time, compared to the rest of the country…”
Given the location of Labour’s heartlands, one might have expected a greater commitment to genuine decentralisation. However, that’s to forget that Labour never fully abandoned its faith in the top-down bureaucratic power of the state. The fact that such power resides in London is of much less significance than the prospect of controlling it.
Far more inexplicable, is any Conservative reluctance to devolve power: Disempowerment reinforces dependency and, therefore, socialism. Conservatives have no trouble understanding this dynamic at the level of the individual, but it applies just as much to entire communities.