The demise of northern liberalism?

July 31, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Posted in British Politics | 5 Comments


(Image by incurable_hippie)

When Irving Patnick reputedly described Sheffield as the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, he may have been referring as much to his own isolation as he was the radicalism of the 1980s. As the city council defined itself in opposition to the Thatcher governments, so Patnick was defined as a solid blue hold-out in a county drenched in red – the ‘enemy within’, if you like.

For decades his well-heeled Sheffield Hallam constituency – home to farmers, doctors & lawyers, owners of factories & steel works – had loyally returned Conservative MPs, and even as the red flag was hoist above City Hall, Patnick remained a stubborn voice of opposition. If Sheffield really was a breakaway republic, his Hallam constituency would’ve been a fringe rebel enclave – blue to the bitter end.

Of course, demographics, lifestyles and party loyalties have all changed significantly since then; the Conservative vote has collapsed since 1997 and its current Lib Dem incumbent enjoys a generous majority. But whilst the make-up of the constituency might’ve altered since Patnick’s days, there’s still a sense that it’s as estranged from the rest of Sheffield as it was in the 1980s. As Jonathan Raban noted in the New York Review of Books:

Image by Brett Patterson (Flickr)

‘These Lib Dem gains reflected the rise of a younger, modern, middle class of people who traveled widely, valued their membership in the European Union, balanced their fear of statism against their university-bred ideas of social justice and fairness, and were keenly protective of their own personal liberties and civil rights. Sheffield Hallam might have been their capital-the young families in renovated old houses, new Audis, Priuses, and Smart cars on gravel driveways, the restaurants, boutiques, and health food shops along Ecclesall Road. Lozenge-shaped Lib Dem placards proclaimed “Winning Here,” and so they were, but the annoying smugness of that phrase seemed part of the character of the place. Sheffield Hallam knows, rather too well, that it’s where the winners in South Yorkshire live.’

To his credit, Nick Clegg never sought to present himself as just the MP for a few affluent suburbs on the Derbyshire border. In the general election campaign he would talk about ‘my city of Sheffield’ and contrast the life chances of a child born in the impoverished parts of the city with one born in the comfort of his own constituency. He didn’t merely seek to speak for his constituency, but for Sheffield as a whole, and it was an approach which won his party respect, votes and seats.

Just a few months after polling day, Clegg may now be starting to understand how it feels to shuffle in Irving Patnick’s shoes. Whilst a coalition with the Tories might have been received badly enough in a city where they remain an endangered species, the long-running controversy over Sheffield Forgemasters is where the most hurt and mistrust is felt.

It’s a city which is deeply proud of its past and eager – sometimes over-eager – to return to the days when its steel production was of world renown. Knowing that it was one of the few companies in the world capable of producing those reactor components only compounded that pride, and the cancellation of the loan which would’ve made it possible was welcomed as warmly as a boot to the gullet.

But it was once the story assumed national significance that the greatest damage was done. With contradictory accounts emerging from Forgemasters, Clegg and the coalition, plus the news of a Tory secretly lobbying for the loan to be scapped, conspiracy began to take the place of where a straight story should’ve been. Cries of ‘betrayal!’ were soon replaced by whispers of Tory sleaze, and Clegg started to be spoken of as their barrowboy.

To say that Labour exploited Clegg’s discomfort is an understatement. When Jack Straw chose Forgemasters as the focus of his first PMQs, he did so not because it was a matter of national importance or even a particularly current news story. No, Straw chose that topic because it could embarrass the Deputy Prime Minister and his party across the North. It was a rather unsubtle attempt to ‘prove’ one of Labour’s most longstanding critiques: that a liberal party cannot represent the interests of the working class; that Labour remains their only home.


(Image from Liberal Democrats)

The daunting challenge for Lib Dems in the years to come is to demonstrate how that impression is wrong. Voting and constitutional reform may both have great democratic importance, but they’re not nearly as high a priority for the party’s voters as they are for its activists. The fear must be that, in the midst of the coalition’s spending cuts & tax hikes, Labour holds aloft both their push for an AV referendum and the Forgemasters fiasco as emblematic of the party’s self-interest & subservience to the Tories. It is not without reason that some members fear that council & Parliamentary seats across the North are now extremely vulnerable.

As an MP, Clegg’s seat is almost certainly safe; it would take an almighty revolt to reverse Sheffield Hallam’s long history of voting against the grain of the city. But what is much less clear is how many of Clegg’s regional colleagues will still have jobs after the next election, and whether the prize of finally being able to sit in government has come at the cost of the demise of northern liberalism. For a politician, there are few worse things than being alone.


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  1. “It was a rather unsubtle attempt to ‘prove’ one of Labour’s most longstanding critiques: that a liberal party cannot represent the interests of the working class; that Labour remains their only home.”

    Nothing you’ve said here contradicts that claim though, does it? It only makes the claim stronger.

    Putting a set of quote marks around “prove” does not equal an argument…

    • It wasn’t intended to, actually. The quote marks were there to show that I’d prefer the reader to decide whether that critique had been proven or not.

      On second thoughts, they probably didn’t need to be there at all, and this is probably one of the only things I’ve written where the inappropriate use of punctuation has changed the meaning of a paragraph.

      • I stand corrected – I’m afraid it’s a personal peeve of mine, and I was lumping you in with some pretty low company. And what I SHOULD have said was that I found the rest of the post well written and informative.

  2. Thanks Michael, and I’m glad you pointed it out. Ours is a funny old language and none of us is ever as good at communicating as we think we are; the beauty of a blog is that you at least get the chance to see your mistakes once they’re made.

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