Remember last year’s spasm of “outrage” when The Guardian published an article about the north east, which questioned whether the economic picture was a rosy as the boosterists suggest? The article could have been used as a means to stimulate discussion, but instead it was used as a predictable springboard for the local media and spokespersons to attack the messenger.
The nadir was reached when one “business leader”, in an abuse of the English language, accused The Guardian of “violating” the region.
A self-confident and culturally assured region would have reacted quite differently – with insouciance rather than confected horror.
In a recent post, Alistair Bonnett drew attention to the forgotten Northumbrian Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The towering figure of this period, he noted, was Thomas Spence, the radical thinker and writer. But Spence emerged from an artistic and political milieu that included Thomas Bewick and James Murray among others.
It’s worth reflecting on the relationships between ideas and progress in the north east. The flowering of the Northumbrian Enlightenment accompanied the beginnings of the rapid and unprecedented processes that transformed the region into one of the first industrial economies in the world.
In the later nineteenth century, businessman, journalist and politician, Joseph Cowen was a beacon for progressive causes around the world and strong voice for working people in the corridors of power. He corresponded with Karl Marx and his friends included Mazzini, Louis Blanc and Bakunin. Garibaldi, Orsini and Kossuth visited him at his home in Blaydon. Cowen founded the Newcastle Daily Chronicle in 1858, the forerunner of today’s paper – though it is doubtful that he would recognise it now.
The region was characterised by a vibrant collective intellectual life centred on institutions such as the Mining Institute and the Lit Phil, where key figures such as Robert Spence Watson supported progressive international causes, but with a strong sense of their Northumbrian heritage and identity.
Out of this brew emerged the institutions that would later form Newcastle University. This highbrow tradition mingled with traditions of self-improvement among the region’s working class leaders such as Tommy Hepburn of the miner’s union and, later Peter Lee, who became the leader of Durham County Council when the nascent Labour Party took control in 1919.
In short, economic progress (and social conflict) occurred alongside debate and learning which drew on international influences and a sense of regional history and identity.
How does this compare with the present period? Where is the space today for this debate to occur?
We have universities but despite their talk of “engagement” they are mainly tied to national and international structures of power. The local print and broadcast media is a pale shadow of what existed only a few decades ago, despite the welcome arrival of Northern Correspondent.
Local media and political and business elites have yet to prove they can debate issues rather than shout about them.
History tells us, unless we rediscover our ability to deal with ideas in an open and constructive way, progress will elude us.
John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle University.
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