It was the moment that saw him crowned ‘King of the North’. On the steps of the Bridgewater Hall, smartphone shoved under his nose, Andy Burnhan got the kiss-off from Boris Johnson live on air, then stepped up and found the words to express how unfair it was.
It was like he got dumped by text on The Only Way Is Manchester the week of the Take A Break readers poll.
So did he really score a victory for the region in its tangle with the South?
When you unpick the politics and the consequences and the sums involved on that occasion…the £90m asked for and the £65m walked away from and the £22m left with and the £60m supposedly clawed back…did that spat over covid compensation signify much more than a media money shot?
For a generation, council leaders have played hacky sack with Westminster on the basis that it’s the only sand-filled sporting diversion in town. Bidding for grant money, playing the regeneration game, commissioning the Northern Powerhouse ‘jam tomorrow’ jar…Sir Howard Bernstein, Sir Richard Leese and their ilk have told us to make common cause with our Southern masters in the bid to loose ourselves from the gurning gravel-rub of having their foot on our necks.
It was certainly a novelty, then, when our handsome new city-region Mayor fired back a couple of black puddings over the parapet, regarding last year’s Tier 3 debacle.
The notion that this return-fire should have impelled the Mayor towards leadership of the Labour Party should give us pause, however.
What exactly has he done to suggest he could rethink the nation like a Thatcher, an Attlee or a Blair?
Mayorships are often dismissed as toothless posts – the perfect ‘safe space’ for soul-seeking politicians to find themselves. As a foundry for future nation-builders, though, their credentials are questionable. Boris Johnson looked a great sport snagged up on a zip wire but was it really the sign in the sky of a leader in waiting?
This weekend saw Burnham bag £1bn for Greater Manchester’s Bee Network transport system, as part of Rishi Sunak’s primer for transport in the regions.
This may allow horse and cart to be brought back under council control in Saddleworth.
“As welcome as it is, infrastructure investment alone will not make levelling up feel real,” admitted Burnham. “That will only happen when the frequency and coverage of bus services are increased and fares are lowered to London levels.
“So we are now hopeful that the Government will soon build on this foundation and match this allocation with revenue funding to make our Bee Network vision a reality.”
Do we snark too glibly? Well, the Andy Burnham which Andy Burnham is seeking is a curious contradiction. Rooted in his mindset, and wrapped up in what may more genuinely be his finest moment – his commons address over Hillsborough in 2016 – is a curiously deep-seated suspicion of Westminster and the Establishment.
From the Battle of Orgreave which sparked his political consciousness to the tragedy at Hillsborough over which he cemented his reputation, to the report into Operation Augusta he commissioned which ruffled so many feathers…many of the positions he’s adopted espouse a mistrust of the institutions of state: the police, the judiciary, the media, parliament itself.
“We’re watching the whole thing [Westminster] disintegrate,” he told GQ a couple of years back. “It’s a bizarre place with a deeply dysfunctional atmosphere.”
Don’t even get him started on the post office and the World Service.
On the other side of his schizology, however, is the blundering doofus who so spectacularly screwed up his 2015 Labour leadership bid, having set out as the viable left-wing candidate and favourite.
Said initially to have enjoyed the patronage of Unite and a tangible majority within the party, he proceeded to launch before a murder of accountants at Ernst & Young, talked up some twaddle about “aspirational socialism” as though he didn’t realise people see through that kind of all-things-to-all-people piffle and in the end let Jeremy Corbyn in by trying to out-monster Liz Kendall from the right.
All of which could signify the almighty struggle for the soul of a political giant were it not taking place inside the mind of a former special adviser for Tessa Jowell: an undoubtedly able, well-meaning and photogenic career politician who left the North, did English at Cambridge then fell into the Thick of It Whitehall circus of filofax polishers with little other perspective on the world.
So we might reflect…Robbie Williams found himself by leaving Take That but it didn’t turn him into Bob Dylan.
Using Greater Manchester as set dressing for his ‘journey’ is as phony as his Downing Street kiss-off. Promising and failing to end rough-sleeping doesn’t augur well, while putting his hand in his own pocket to fix speaks of a need to be liked.
Let’s not disdain for the sake of it. A billion clawed back from that prosperous neighbouring country called London is at least a start – to go with the free bus passes for teenagers and that highly contentious stuff about accelerating to zero carbon earlier this week.
But make no mistake: the divide is a gulf is an abyss…the North doesn’t need a Clement Attlee right now. It needs Clement Attlee Plus. The amount of levelling-up required is gargantuan.
“It’s like we’re back to the ‘80s,” says Dave Wallace, veteran fanzine editor and Manchester City fan non pareil. “In a strange way it’s like we’ve actually come full circle.”
Dave’s ‘zine, King of the Kippax, may have been born in a distant era – post-Heysel, pre-Hillsborough, amid the struggle to improve the lot of the cattle-prodded fan. But today around the Etihad campus, as all the online vlogs and podcasts predict the teams and assess the tactics, City’s last living print fanzine is still there tapping into the mood in the stands.
You can count the ways the world’s richest club has taken its eye off the ball this year, says Dave. From staff shortages (“you ring the ticket line and you’re 192 in the queue, you go to the counter and eight of the ten are closed”) to security checks (“because of the terrorism they search every single fan, which is all right in summer I suppose”) to smartphone ticketing (“you’re terrified you’ll get locked out of the ground”) fan-friendliness is out and cattle-herding seemingly back.
“It’s been a tricky time and it’s took a lot of effort to try and get them to take it on board.”
It’s all there in issue 281 out in a couple of weeks.
Outsize footwear dept
Having badgered us to review their new book the poor lambs at Pariah Press fell to squabbling over whether they could spare a copy. Make no mistake, though, in the hand-to-mouth world of alternative publishing the micro Manc outfit deserves to be rocking the counterculture, rather than throwing pails of confetti about under a Big Top in boat-sized brogues.
Their republication of Michel Butor’s ‘lost classic’ Manchester novel Passing Time, earlier this year, was a genius idea. Much the same can be said of the ambition to restore wildchild Lancashire poet Melissa Lee-Houghton to her rightful place in the coming months.
In writer Austin Collings, meanwhile, they boast one of the city’s original voices. His new offering, God’s Fox, comprises an astonishing photo monograph of Prestwich’s famous psychiatric hospital. Sniff at its buttonhole and its candid portraiture will squirt you in your lazy third eye, so thoroughly does it go against Manchester’s cosy ‘City of Literature’ grain.
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God’s Fox is available from Pariah Press here