THE Chancellor George Osborne was in York yesterday talking once more about his Northern Powerhouse. By some outrageous oversight, Man On Ledge wasn’t invited along to heckle.
Osborne chose the National Railway Museum to launch his National Infrastructure Commission, promising to invest £100 billion over the remainder of this Parliament. He said he could afford this amount “because we are making difficult decisions on day to day public spending”.
Some of the money will be spent on better transport connections between Yorkshire and the North West, according to Osborne. This is a good idea and if it even begins to happen under the chancellor’s watch, he can have a pat on the pinstriped back from me.
That figure of £100 billion was flourished with the confidence of someone waving another man’s chequebook, but did it actually mean anything? Is this new money or old money with a smart bow wrapped round it? Is this proper hard cash or tricky accountancy?
Who knows, but here is the question Man On Ledge would have asked: This Northern Powerhouse of yours, Chancellor, does it contain any steel? Those rails on which the trains will run, do they call on steel? Are the trains perhaps partly made of steel?
You see there is surely a bitter irony here. While Osborne talks up the north – and good on him for that – he is at the same time a key player in a government that has more or less abandoned the British steel industry to a grisly fate. So one northern sector is talked up, while another is left to wither and die.
Yesterday Osborne took account of the locomotives around him, referring to “the engineering wonders of their day”.
“They are all museum pieces now but in their day they were the most sophisticated machines of their age and they came from a time when we planned for the long term and our technology was the latest technology and our infrastructure was the greatest in the world.”
Fair enough, I suppose, but the image that came to my mind was different. In the summer, the railway museum was used as the setting for an ambitious community play called In Fog And Falling Snow.
This production traced the rise and fall of George Hudson, the railway pioneer, fraudster and huckster – a steam-propelled tycoon who helped to establish the British rail network in the 1840s, before his sudden and shaming fall from grace, when he was found to have been swindling shareholders and paying dividends from capital and not profits.
Hudson ended up in prison. He had been Lord Mayor of York three times (so, incidentally, the present incumbent has not been the only embarrassment in that role) and the Tory MP for Sunderland.
Long before In Fog And Falling Snow, my friend Robert Beaumont told this story in his book The Railway King: A Biography of George Hudson. Reading Robert’s book, or watching that fine production this summer, you can’t help but be filled with a mixture of admiration for Hudson – allied to a sense of shock at the damage his behaviour inflicted on those who believed his every dangerously ebullient word.
Now no one could accuse George Osborne of such an approach: dangerous ebullience is not his style. He favours the dry drone, alongside endless repetition of the same dull but devious phrases.
If history is a burnt-out fire, the ashes are what can be raked through. Some might rummage in George Hudson’s ashes and pull out a pioneering capitalist. Others might sift the same ashes for evidence of a crook and a cheat. In a sense both are probably true: sometimes they do go together.
Which brings us back to Mr Osborne. Will all his talk of a Northern Powerhouse be looked back on as a defining moment for the north? Or will his new commission just be another long-winded talking shop that ends up delivering sod all?
My Chinese-borrowed pound is on the latter.