There are times when a cardinal point transforms into a state of mind and that, in politics, is a red flag.
When social media began to refer to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester (the metropolitan area of the historic English city, with almost three million souls), with the hashtag #KingOfTheNorth (King of the North), Boris Johnson detected that he had a problem.
His promise to flood and consolidate, incidentally, a new conservative majority behind the so-called “red wall” had been seriously questioned.
The one that was the cradle of the industrial revolution, and that today struggles to reinvent itself, has suffered like no other city from the ravages of covid-19.
In fact, it never lifted the social restrictions that the rest of the country happily abandoned in mid-July. In this second wave, the virus has been primed with that region of the country. Liverpool, Leeds, Yorkshire and especially Manchester, have seen the numbers of infected skyrocket.
The north drags for decades. “This government won the elections and was elected with the explicit promise that it would equalize the wealth across the country and end the division between north and south.
And it is doing just the opposite. This battle goes straight to the heart of the way the UK is governed. Everything for London and the South. For the north, simply what Downing Street decides ”, Mayor Burnham explains to EL PAÍS.
At the age of 50, this Labor politician who was part of the Gordon Brown government, has discovered his voice in municipal politics, an essay that has barely been released in the United Kingdom since in 2010 the direct election of the mayor was allowed in several important urban centers .
Burnham stood at the gates of City Hall on October 20 to blame Johnson for breaking up negotiations and refusing to grant more financial aid to Manchester’s citizens and businessmen. Right in the Plaza de St. Peter. In case more symbolism was needed.
There, in 1819, the “Peterloo massacre” took place, when local militias charged tens of thousands of people demanding a more representative Parliament. With that play on words (“This is going to be your Waterloo”,
“It was impressive, and I think the mayor was absolutely right. You could see how the citizens were gathering around him to encourage him, when he began to explain himself to the press ”.
He is fondly remembered by Thom Keep, a librarian and employee at The Portico Library. It is the ideal place to understand Manchester.
It has more than 200 years of history, and on its shelves are accumulated the books about travel, politics or biography that the subscribers of a then wealthy city were buying. Among his associates was, for example, suffragette Emily Pankhurst. And it still holds a coveted prize, the Portico Prize, worth 12,000 euros, for the book that each year best reflects the spirit of the North of England.
The reality, however, does not necessarily have to match the symbolism. Market Street in central Manchester bustles with people on a Friday afternoon.
The city was finally subjected to Level 3 alert (very high) to control the coronavirus, but that boils down to the fact that pubs that cannot serve food at the table have to close, along with the popular betting houses. Shops and restaurants are still open.
The political damage, however, has already been done. Because Downing Street has given the impression of preying on the weakest. Because it took less in this second wave to offer financial aid to London than to Manchester.
And because, instead of imposing the national restrictions that everyone demanded, he tried a local strategy without giving too many explanations.
“North will not be a test tube” can still be read in huge red letters on a wall in central Manchester. “And they have not stopped insisting that it was a political position,” complains the mayor. “They don’t understand regional or local governments.
We do not move in the political calculation in which they move in the Parliament of Westminster. We are concerned about the neighbors. And my will is always to collaborate … until you see that they are going to harm those you represent. It is at that moment when you must find your own voice ”.
His voice, moreover, is not a lonely voice. At least 50 Conservative MPs from constituencies in North England, North Wales and the Scottish border regions have created called Northern Research Group.
They demand from Johnson a clear exit strategy from the new confinement, and above all that it fulfills its promise to invest millions in infrastructure and technology in the most backward regions.
They have a more pragmatic and less romantic idea of the north. It will be won or lost if citizens notice the change in their standard of living.
It has already been made clear by an overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the northeast of England, rejecting in the 2004 referendum the possibility of enjoying, like Scotland or Wales, their own Autonomous Assembly.
“Deep down all these cities are like drops of water, and the center of Manchester is like Liverpool or Leeds”, says Steve (he prefers not to give his last name), the manager of J. Wippell & Co Ltd, Since 1789 he has been selling jerseys of the best Irish wool or hats of the best Scottish tweed at his Bridge Street store.
“We are different, but if you take a walk down any shopping street in Manchester, the shops are the same as everywhere.”
Although not even the most skeptical of this regional resurgence deny the obvious, as the mayor emphasizes: “If the Government is not careful, the pandemic could end up destroying some of the most fragile economies in the north of the country. People are already suffering a lot, and everything is going to get harder as we move into winter. “