As the recession bites, is a new kind of northern politics emerging?
Socialism in the north has a local, amiable identity – socialism at its most social – that makes it increasingly attractive today
guardian.co.uk, Friday 2 March 2012 21.00 GMT
'You should have told me. We could have gone." I've never been sure if I heard my father's words correctly – they seem to belong to a later, moneyed age of easier and more spontaneous travel. On the other hand, the fact that I remember where and when the words were said suggests that the surprise they held was real. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. We were walking home, up a road with a distant view of the Pennines, the folds of which looked to be configured like an old-fashioned signpost. I asked what was on the other side of those hills.
"Oh, Huddersfield, places like that.
I said I should like to go to Huddersfield.
"You should have told me. We could have gone today. I wish I'd known."
Could he possibly have meant it? Any travel longer than a few stops on the bus required careful preparation: timetable consulted, sandwiches cut, shoes polished, change counted, facecloth dampened, hair straightened. To reach Huddersfield from where we lived in Lancashire would have needed at least one change of train and perhaps a two-hour journey each way. It would have been a Day Out. My father said something about his "needing to go there anyway", but I can't remember why (a new part for the machinery he looked after in the spinning mill?) and the reason, if any, will now never be known.
Last week I went to Huddersfield for the first time. It would be wrong of me to imply that the gap between wishing to go and actually going had been spent as six decades of longing, with only the lack of a direct train connection from London standing in the way of fulfilment. Being there, however, suggested my childish desire to see it had been right. It is a pleasing and interesting place. Engels described it as "the handsomest by far" of the Yorkshire and Lancashire factory towns; Pevsner commended the neo-classical station, which Betjeman said had the most splendid façade in England after St Pancras. You step out of the station's Corinthian portico on to a wide square that slopes down towards the George Hotel, where rugby league was founded in 1895. Opposite is a statue of local boy Harold Wilson, looking livelier than he did as prime minister.
My guide, Paul Salveson, said he thought Wilson was underrated as a politician. Later he said he thought the same had been true of JB Priestley as a novelist, though now Priestley was winning respect. As regions aren't nations, Salveson could never be described as a northern nationalist, nor would he like to be. But his estimations of Wilson and Priestley give a clue to his political and social sympathies. The economic crisis has hit the north of England much harder than the south, with all kinds of measurable consequences from house prices (falling in the north, rising in the south) to unemployment figures (an 18% year-on-year increase, compared to 4.5% in the rest of the UK). Less measurable are the feelings of alienation from a southern government in London, and envy for the power of a Scottish one in Edinburgh. Both territories have what marketing speak knows as product champions – Cameron and Salmond – but where is the voice of the country that stretches from the Trent to the Tweed?
Salveson wants to find one and make it grow stronger. Last year, he and a few other northern socialists founded a thinktank-cum-campaigning-group, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, named after a suffragette and pacifist who was prominent in Manchester politics during the 1920s. The forum's aim is to develop what it calls the North's "distinctive democratic socialism … rooted in our ethical socialist traditions of mutuality, co-operation, community and internationalism"; and also to foster the case for a directly elected regional government, a new Council of the North.
At first sight, neither looks very likely. Regional assemblies in England were a John Prescott initiative that died when a referendum in 2004 rejected what could have been the first of them, in the north-east. As for socialism, when was the last time that word featured successfully in any organisation's job application? But in conversation, and in his soon-to-be-published book, Salveson makes a fluent case for the prospects of both. In 2004, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales had still to show how far they could deviate from Westminster's policies in areas such as health, education and transport. And socialism in the north, in Salveson's view, has always been more Methodist than Marxist. Its cycling clubs, choirs, galas and night schools gave it a local, amiable identity – socialism at its most social – that Salveson believes is increasingly attractive.
We walked around the town. I was glad I hadn't been before; if I'd come at any time from 1950 to 1990, I would now be noticing that certain things – independent department stores, trolley buses, covered markets – had vanished in the interim. This particular past having no presence in me, I could simply delight in what was there. Salveson showed me the university where he has a post as a visiting professor of transport logistics, though this gives a misleading idea of a 59-year-old enthusiast for an intriguing combination of railways, Walt Whitman and the Independent Labour Party. He lives a few miles up the Colne valley in Slaithwaite, pronounced Slawit, and there runs the Slawit Review of Books and the Free University of Slawit, which meets in a pub and discusses topics such as "Were the Luddites right?" (They got a big crowd for that one.)
All this seemed very good. We looked at the town hall, where every year the Huddersfield Choral Society sings the Messiah, an event so ancient and popular that tickets must be drawn by ballot, and then climbed through several floors of a kitchenware shop to drink coffee in a cafe at the top. We saw arcades and a sign for the offices of the Huddersfield Examiner, which still comes out every weekday. In the late-afternoon sun, hills shone greenly at the end of the streets.
And then we got a train over the Pennines to Stalybridge, where the Hannah Mitchell Foundation was to meet in the station buffet to finalise the plans for the foundation's public launch at Bradford City Hall on 9 March. Stalybridge's station buffet is famous and attracts Manchester commuters on their way home, as well men who look as though they might be dale walkers or fans of Philip Larkin and traditional jazz. Did I hear someone say "Ey up, Joe"? Perhaps. The crowd drank beer and ate plates of peas, a Stalybridge speciality, under photographs of steam locomotives and posters for the Amalgamated Association of Cotton Spinners.
It may be that, out of this mixture of retrospection and yearning, a new kind of northern politics is born. Political movements have thrived on unlikelier roots – Jacobitism, say. If it happens, it will be nice to think of Huddersfield as the shining city on the hill.