It is part of the metropolitan mess into which our country has descended that Middlesbrough came under attack the other day: The onslaught arose from a Daily Mail columnist, recycling an earlier rant, but this time with a hornet under his hat. Because the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister for Decentralisation and Cities, had grown up on Teesside, he must have lived on a ‘deprived’ estate, the London-based writer lamented – as though no-one north of Neasden had ever bought their own home. Because, growing up in the mid-eighties North East, Clark had hesitated before deliberately joining the Conservative Party, rather than falling in to its arms as unthinkingly as his neighbours might have joined Labour, he must be suspect. And, because he had once acknowledged that part of a Guardian newspaper columnist’s comments about the rise of poverty may be worth at least listening to, he was, it seemed, simply displaying the weaknesses of the streets of his origin. No matter Clark’s A levels which took him from his South Bank, Middlesbrough, Comprehensive to Cambridge. No matter his Cambridge degree which gave him the platform for a place at the London School of Economics, a doctorate and senior roles in consultancy and the BBC. No matter that alongside Directorship of the Conservative Central Policy Office he founded a family, found a parliamentary seat and moved on to the national stage.
Yes, it is a matter of public record that Greg Clark’s father was a milkman, running, with his own father, a small business (John Clark and Son), serving their own community. And milkmen are businesspeople, traders, at the heart of their communities. As the ignorant railing of the Daily Mail droned on, one could imagine thousands of decent, hard-working parents across the North, South and West rising up in fury: who was this metropolitan journalistic moaner to denigrate those who rise at four in the morning and work most days of the week whatever their walk of life? Who was he not to appreciate that milkmen – like nurses, doctors, and the best community volunteers – check on the safety of neighbours and pay their own way? What neurosis underpinned the Mail columnist’s fear of real families, with present fathers and loving mothers, valued grandparents, and fond siblings? Parents and grandparents earning a living, bringing up children and expecting higher standards from their kids’ behaviour than is sometimes found in even the most well to do households? This noble heartbeat of family enterprise, graft and decency runs to the very core of mainstream British life and it was in its furnaces that Greg Clark, Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, was fashioned.
Greg Clark’s current role of course has taken him to the very heart of the Establishment. A regular at Number 10, and a Minister in both the Departments for Business and Local Government, he is intellectual, urbane, and brilliant. But under the quiet exterior beats the heart of a man who is convinced that every single talent in our country should be given the opportunity it deserves. This is not a paternalistic crusade of tick boxes and targets, but a passionate one that wants the North to speak with greater recognition, that champions children with mental ill-health in the South and which promotes the responsibility of every citizen to step up to their civic duty. Clark is on record, for example, regretting that proportionately those with the least do the most giving to good causes in the UK. When he had the shadow charities brief, he pointed out that average charitable giving was 0.7 per cent of income; if that could be increased to a round 1 per cent, it would unlock a further £4 billion for charities with all of the positive impact that would bring.
Clark’s vision is no less radical when it comes to the organs of state. He wants to ‘turn government upside down’, to drive as much power and influence back to the cities that once made our country great. So, rather than a centrally planned UK where we might all look up to London, he champions a diverse economy where Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, and Bristol can create jobs, drive educational improvement and walk on a global stage as equals with other global cities with whom they now compete. The largest English cities outside London comprise 27% of our economy, and, in Clark’s view, growing that figure will also have huge knock-on benefits for every Briton.
But a decentralised economic environment needs new leadership. Fast-moving modern corporations are not led by slow moving committees and no longer, in Clark’s view, should cities be. Liverpool, Salford, Leicester have all opted for an executive mayor elected by all those cities’ voters. On May 3rd, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and six others will also have the opportunity to do away with a council leader appointed in secret, and opt for a public voice to champion their corner. For many, Mayors will create a moment where all people of talent will have more space to flourish, and a recognisable person to contact, should they find blockages to their civic contribution. In that sense Clark’s call to economic revival is directly linked to the potential for civic renewal.
Meanwhile, we may wait some time for an equal development in aspects of the behaviour of the London dailies. However, for as long as our political system is so concentrated on the capital there will always be the risk that admirable families in Plymouth and Portsmouth, Bristol and Hull, Manchester and Middlesbrough will run the risk of being misrepresented by those who have never visited nor would understand if they did. Until the hornets on parts of the Daily Mail are asleep, a character such as Greg Clark in the Cabinet, rather than simply in the Ministerial ranks, is likely just the kind of political antidote we need.
This profile of Greg Clark by Tom Lomax was first published in this week’s Catholic Times