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Hotspur's spirit is stirring

Simon Jenkins

In Northumberland a rebellion is brewing against London's bureaucratic power. It might yet spread

IF I were a northerner I would rerun the 1569 uprising of the earls. I would summon Nevilles, Percys, Howards and Stanleys to the Great Hall of Raby and from there I would sally forth to slaughter any southerner in sight. How dare they load me with abuse and stupid governance? How dare they presume my fealty?

This week not one London politician but two pranced north to curry favour. Michael Howard decided to apologise to Liverpool for an offensive article in The Spectator by ordering its editor, Boris Johnson, to visit the city in person. The implications were bizarre. The Spectator corrections department appears to be run from Conservative Central Office, while Mr Johnson having to go to Liverpool was supposedly a penance so awful that Liverpudlians would bow down and vote Tory in misty-eyed gratitude.

Small wonder Mr Johnson was eaten for breakfast and any Tory in sight was sent scurrying back to the featherbeds of Notting Hill and Westminster. Liverpool is a cheery place these days, and does not take well to being patronised. When hit by a publicity stunt, it takes no prisoners.

Meanwhile Liverpool’s cousins over the Pennines were having their own fun. Labour’s answer to Boris Johnson, John Prescott, has been beating the streets trying to persuade the citizens of Northumberland and Durham that he is one of them. The advocate of rate-capping, ring-fencing, targetry and dirigisme is trying to blame it all on the bastards of Whitehall. Like a Beijing commissar in Tibet, he wants the local people to do what he says but also wants them to ask for it nicely. This week he has sent everyone a referendum on a proposed regional assembly, to be approved by November 4.

Opinion in the North East appears to be going against Mr Prescott. I find it near incredible that anyone should say “no” to an offer of more democracy. But northeasterners know when they are being conned. Mr Prescott’s assembly has no power. It can “oversee” only economic development and house building, but since these are based on targets laid down in Whitehall, the oversight is meaningless. The assembly cannot even deal with transport or education, which are passing to Whitehall. To compare such a body with regions in France, Germany or Spain is laughable. Even the Welsh Assembly has more to do.

Mr Prescott has already “lost” his regional assemblies in the North West, Yorkshire and points south. He did not risk a vote and relied humiliatingly on rejection by an opinion poll. But he did hope that the Geordies would be dumb enough to say “yes”. His undoing may be his hidden agenda, which is the abolition of his pet hates, the English counties. A yes to a North East assembly will trigger yet another reorganisation of local government in Northumberland and Durham into fewer, larger authorities. This means that power will move upwards from local communities to distant bureaucracies, more easily controlled from the centre. This is exactly what has happened in Wales and is about to happen in Northern Ireland.

Yet there is hope. The ghosts of the Nevilles and Percys are stirring in the magnificent Northumberland hills. That county is in uproar over a council plan to abolish its distinctive three-tier school system. This involves 45 “middle schools” from 9-13, peculiarly suited to this hilly, rural county. To fight abolition, Northumberland’s citizens have taken their cue from what happened in Kidderminster in 2001. There a local doctor, Richard Taylor, stunned the political community by winning a seat in Parliament on the single issue of saving the local hospital. His “party” has now taken over the local council.

In Northumberland, 35,000 people petitioned to save the schools. This has spawned a pressure group led by John Harrison named K3 which is exploiting an unnoticed provision in the Local Government Act 2000. This allows a petition of just 5 per cent of local electors to demand a referendum for the direct election of a mayor (or governor). In a highly charged atmosphere, such a referendum is likely to pass. A mayoral candidate committed to saving local schools or hospitals then stands a good chance of beating any conventional party candidates. Under a mayoral constitution, the council as such would vanish.

True, Whitehall will do all it can to balk such democratic insubordination. The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, went up to Gateshead this week to warn education authorities not to think that they could decide their own schools policy any longer. But a Northumberland mayor/governor directly mandated to save the middle schools would be hard for Mr Clarke to crush.

Northumberland’s gambit could blow a hole in the constitution of local government. It shows a way forward for the “new politics”, noted by observers across Europe. Such politics is single issue and ad hoc, localist and passionate. It can erupt from no more than a bad road scheme, an unpopular school plan, a hospital closure, high taxes or council corruption. It is direct accountability, feeding on the neglect of local issues by national parties.

Whoever runs as mayor/governor of Northumberland has noble forebears. “Warm-blooded” Hotspur led his rebellion from these parts, also fighting against London apparatchiks “to reform some certain edicts and some strait decrees that lie too heavy on the commonwealth”. The northern counties of England are real places, not mere colonies of the South.

Already direct election, in the form of Ray Mallon, Ken Livingstone and “the dozen mayors”, is slowly changing the chemistry of English local government. Such democracy is a hundred times more accountable than Mr Prescott’s poodle assemblies. Now K3 is breaking new ground.

Theirs is politics untried and exciting. The 2000 Act offers a sword to 35,000 Northumberland citizens in a rage over the loss of their schools. They have fate in their hands. They should vote “no” to Prescott and “yes” to the K3 referendum. They should vote for leaders who will do what they want, and not the bidding of some satrap from the South.