Guardian Readers burn Tim Leunig in effigy.
Press, politico and blog reaction to the Policy Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report has been quite extraordinary. The Guardian today was particularly wretched, producing a big special article extolling the North (if you really think it’s so great, why did you leave Manchester then?) and quoting David Cameron extensively (audio here):
“This report is rubbish from start to finish,” he said, repeating the charge four times in two minutes. “I think the author himself said it might be a bit barmy. It is barmy.” Referring to the report’s co-author Tim Leunig, he added: “I gather he’s off to Australia. The sooner he gets on the ship the better.”
Being part of a multi-media network these days, the paper has been prominently advertising Chris Grayling’s rebuttal of the report on Comment is Free (“I’m not allowed to say what I really think of it on a family website”) while failing to mention that Tim Leunig himself has an article giving his side of the story. To compound things, the paper has issued a handy extract of the report providing all the “damning quotes” while failing to mention its actual proposals or even provide a link to the report.
On the blogosphere, Leunig is variously described as a “twat” and a “fucking idiot.” Recess Monkey has been far more restrained, merely posting a mugshot of who presumably all right thinking socialists should direct their Daily Hate towards. Finally, noticing that no-one in the media appear to have noticed that Leunig was the central party’s golden boy 12 months ago (he being of the Community Land Auction idea), the Lib Dem press office have issued a standard press release so all local parties can join in with the fun (I’m surprised that Tom Papworth is moaning about this though; doesn’t he have some Focus leaflets to deliver?). But just to show what a classy act we really are, the party has declined to issue a national press release. I’m sure those of us working in public policy are now really reassured that the party will stand by us when the chips are down.
What is most remarkable is that in the last 24 hours since it has been available, none of these people appear to have bothered to read the actual report. Jonathan Calder has, and it is hard to fault his analysis:
David Cameron has called Cities Unlimited “insane”. My own reaction on reading it is quite different. While I like the idea of selling empty property cheaply to its neighbours and local control of development funds, it seems to me to be based on two quasi-Marxist assumptions. They are:
- contempt for piecemeal reform;
- the belief that it is the state’s role to forecast how society and the economy will develop and then expedite that development.
The fact is, Leunig and James Swaffield do bear some responsibility for the mess they have found themselves in. Fundamentally, they appear to not be able to make their minds up. On the one hand, most of the prescriptions of their report are excellent. But their analysis of the situation is at the height of economistic hubris. No-one can deny that northern towns such as Manchester and Newcastle have declined since the height of the industrial revolution and have struggled to recover since, but how does that inform us about the future? No-one can deny that the south east has been beneficiary of the post-industrial era, but how does that lead one to conclude that it will remain the case over the next 20-50 years? Can you really measure success and failure in such simplistic economic terms (I for one would move back to Manchester in a heartbeat if I thought I could have a similar career to the one I have here in London; I can’t stand the Capital)? Fundamentally, how can you claim to believe in devolution and reject ideas of a command economy while proposing to plan UK-wide demographics down to the last neighbourhood?
It isn’t really the north that should be upset by this report, it is the good burghers of Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire whose countryside Leunig and Swaffield are proposing to tarmac over. Yet this is based on the assumption that in a post-industrial information age, location will remain as important as it was 100 years ago. My ill-informed analysis is different: the south east has boomed while the north has wilted because that is where the UK’s knowledge economy has been focussed. Invest in a knowledge economy up north and there is no reason why we can’t see benefits across the country. From reading the report, I would expect Leunig and Swaffield to agree with that, at least up to an extent, so why preface their work with the counsel of despair which has caused them so much heat over the past 24 hours?
Back to the media reaction though, I have to wonder if this whole row has been engineered by the Policy Exchange deliberately. The Smith Institute has just had an uncomfortable year with the Charity Commission breathing down its neck. The Policy Exchange must know that its intimate, revolving door relationship with the Conservatives is likely to come under scrutiny sooner or later. So, why not engineer a row with the Tories? And use a Lib Dem as the patsy to boot?
Earlier this year, there was a suggestion that Nick Clegg’s Policy Exchange speech had been leaked to David Cameron thus allowing the Conservative leader to undermine his rival by making a strikingly similar speech 24 hours earlier. Charity Commission investigation or not, if you are a Lib Dem you would be well advised to only sup with the Policy Exchange with a very long spoon.