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Andy Burnham: 'We need to rewire Britain and avoid the rupture that independence would mean'

Andy Burnham: 'We need to rewire Britain and avoid the rupture that independence would mean'

Like Nicola Sturgeon, Andy Burnham is a politician not afraid to bare his soul. The two have a lot in common, not least being of the North and passionately rooted in both the place and the people that they represent.

Both are known for not shying away from public displays of emotion and are also able to communicate directly and with empathy with voters of all persuasions, which is a valuable currency in a political world mired in obfuscation and lies.

So, when Nicola Sturgeon announced a travel ban between Manchester and Scotland in June last year amid a spike in Covid cases, and with no prior warning to either her own parliament or indeed to the elected Mayor for Greater Manchester, Burnham was angry. He still is.

At the time, Burnham accused the Scottish Government of “straightforward arrogance” and said that Sturgeon was treating the North of England “with contempt”.

In an open letter posted to Twitter, he railed against the way in which restrictions had been extended from Blackburn and Bolton, which he argued had a lower Covid case rate to that of Dundee, to cover Manchester and Salford, too.

He accused the Scottish Government of “double standards” and said he would be asking for compensation for people who might have to forfeit their holidays and for businesses who might lose bookings after the decision. 

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show the following Sunday, his fury was raw: “This is exactly what the SNP always accuse the Westminster government of doing – just riding roughshod over people. The SNP are treating the North of England with the same contempt in bringing that in without any consultation with us.

“I just think it’s double standards. It’s as simple as that. It’s hypocrisy because they’ve done to us exactly what they always complain that the UK Government does to Scotland.”

Sturgeon responded by questioning his motivations and saying if Burnham wanted a “grown-up conversation”, he should pick up the phone. 

She said: “I have a duty, it’s one I take very seriously, to keep Scotland as safe as possible.

“I’m sure Andy Burnham feels that same sense of duty towards people in the Greater Manchester area. I’ve always got on well with Andy Burnham. 

“If he wants a grown-up conversation, he only has to pick up the phone, but if, as I suspect might be the case, this is more about generating a spat with me as part of some position in a Labour leadership contest of the future, then I’m not interested.

“We’ve all got a serious job of work to do right now and I’m serious about doing that job in a way that keeps Scotland as safe as I possibly can.”

There was a snarkiness to the First Minister’s response and it stung. He said accusations of political posturing were unfounded and that he, too, was only ever acting in the interests of his residents as part of a devolved administration.

“If I’m being honest with you, Mandy, I was in my garden on the Saturday after England had played Scotland at Wembley and I am looking at all these people travelling down from Scotland to Wembley while I am reading about a travel ban imposed on us that I had known nothing about.

“They [the Scottish Government] had introduced a ban on Bolton originally, and we had raised concerns about that. I had even sent a letter to Nicola about that, and I don’t think I ever got a reply, saying that Bolton’s in Greater Manchester and I’d had residents here raising concerns with me about, for instance, a walking holiday they’d booked or that their hotel booking had been cancelled, and asking was there any insurance in place, and so on.

“And I was like, ‘well, I don’t know’. So, we had started to raise issues already and then, I think it was her Friday press conference, she announced that Salford and Manchester were to be included in the ban, which obviously becomes a bigger deal when the city comes in, and that was massive for us at the time because everyone was beginning to sort of move around a bit.

“This was in the middle of a big summer here last year, we had huge numbers of visitors coming through, but then with that announcement from her, the hotels were on to me here, saying they just had loads of bookings cancelled. It was a mess. And so I thought I was justified in saying to her that to not even notify me of what was coming was a surprise, let me put it that way.

“And on the Monday morning, John Swinney, I think it was, was on the radio and was kind of much more conciliatory, saying sorry and that there seems to have been a mix up and that there should have been some notice. But then the First Minister came out saying something a little bit more incendiary later in the day. 

“Let’s just say, it was a shock in the way it was done given how we have previously worked, and I think in one of the interviews she gave, she even talked about the fact that we worked together very well in the past over swine flu [when Burnham was Health Secretary]. But on this occasion, we didn’t, and we stood our ground because we believed the Scottish Government was well out of order.

“It felt disrespectful to the North of England and it’s this kind of stuff that brings out real issues about whether people feel welcome, do you know what I mean? And I can’t see how operating in this way is going to be in Scotland’s interest, going forward. And if people here feel like that, that is the irony because people in the North of England lean more to Scotland than they do to London and to the southeast.

“We feel more comfortable with Scotland than other parts of England, and that kind of barrier that was put up is therefore a problem for us, a real problem for us, because we don’t see life the same way, if you like, as let’s say that the Westminster set do and I think sometimes the SNP lump us all in together as one England and it’s not like that, you know, it’s a different place, in different regions, and you would have thought Nicola Sturgeon, of all people, would have understood the sensitivities of that.

“It’s fair to say this has probably brought some distance between us, which is unfortunate, but I believe we were not treated fairly through that whole thing and in the end, while the ban was removed quite quickly, I don’t think our position was fairly understood by Nicola Sturgeon.”

Have they spoken since?

“No.”

Fairness for his part of the world is a theme that Burnham returns to time and time again during our interview. And amid the pandemic, Sturgeon’s travel ban was not the first time that he had had to come out fighting his corner.

In October 2020, at the height of the Covid crisis, when the country had been in and out of lockdowns and the future was looking bleak and uncertain for many, Burnham was addressing the media in Manchester city centre when one of his aides handed him a mobile phone. In front of rolling cameras, Burnham read a devastating email which confirmed the government’s decision to impose the strictest measures of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester, effectively closing it down.

Additionally, the £65m requested by Burnham of the Treasury as “the bare minimum to prevent poverty, to prevent hardship, to prevent homelessness”, had been downgraded to just £22m in support.

Burnham didn’t hide how he felt. His face dropped, he exhaled deeply, turned back to the microphone and without missing a beat, looked down the live cameras and described the announcement as “disgraceful” and the government’s approach as an “experimental regional lockdown without the funding”. 

“I do always respond with my gut,” he says. “It’s partly because this part of the world requires it, and I guess I don’t have to hide it. But it was brutal here then and the sense I had, and this was kind of confirmed by ‘partygate’, really, was that when I was ever on the phone to ministers, I just had the feeling that they had no clue what it was like here, compared to what they were experiencing down there.

“We were about three weeks behind what was happening there. And by the time they were talking about lifting the lockdown, it was a staggering thing for us because our cases were still very high.

“And I made the point at the time that you can’t be lifting the lockdown now, but they just saw it from a London-centric perspective – because London saw its cases dropping, they’re now going to drop the national lockdown. Well, that’s what they did. And I always had a feeling that this was going to cause us a problem. And it did. Our cases never dropped in the same way that they were dropping elsewhere because we had more of it about when the lockdown was lifted.”

There was no doubt that for Burnham, even in the way that the announcement had been delivered to him, was illustrative of the North-South divide that had ultimately led him to quit Westminster politics in 2017 to stand as the first metro mayor for Greater Manchester. And he wasn’t having it.

His defiant face was splashed across national newspapers the next day and over the coming weeks as the rest of England entered lockdown and was awarded an extended furlough scheme, refused for cities in the north just two week earlier. 

Burnham was dubbed ‘the King of the North’, a poster boy for the value of elected mayors and for more devolution, up and down the country. In the mayoral elections in May 2021, he was rewarded for his efforts with 67 per cent of the vote. He says that the vote was testament to the fact that the people of Greater Manchester were now able to see, in practical terms, how an elected mayor could stand up for the area against Westminster and get things done.

“The people of Manchester have taken to devolution,” he says. “This place likes to do more for itself, and it doesn’t like to be told what to do by anybody and it is that passion for the place that drew me into politics in the first place.

“I was tribal Labour, if you like, of course I was, it was in my upbringing, but my experience of being in Westminster made me kind of see how the party itself is also so London centric. So, for me, coming back here to be mayor means I’ve tried to be a champion for the Northwest in everything that I’ve done.

“I genuinely do think Scotland is missing a trick in terms of not being part of this and having elected mayors. I was in Belfast recently, with Steve Rotheram the mayor of Liverpool, and in Dublin recently too, and the two of us did the first-ever joint mayoral visit overseas as well. We have signed a four-city agreement, so Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Belfast, and it would just be natural to have Glasgow in that mix.  

“And that, in the end, is what matters most to me. I operate independently of the Labour Party – they tried to ring me once or twice in my first couple of weeks, but I stopped returning the calls – and I call it as I see it now. I’m putting the place first, before party, and while obviously I have my affiliation and I support the party and I do what I can, when I look at my result last year, people of all political persuasions voted for me, and I’m very conscious of that.

“It’s place first and this is the thing about this role, it is place first and if you go at it as a party first thing, you’ll be a short-lived mayor, probably, or you’ll be tone deaf in terms of the way the role works. There’s something important about a place-first approach – it’s a unifying thing.

“I couldn’t do that when I was in Westminster and doing it here has been liberating. It absolutely has been energising and I think I’m now feeling, five years on, about to start a new negotiation with the government on more devolution, I’m feeling that we’ve come through the ‘will this experiment last?’ phase, and I think English regional devolution is here to stay. And I’m quite excited about what change that’s bringing into the country.”

It’s nine years since I last interviewed Burnham. Scotland was in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum debating leaving the UK. He made a light-hearted quip about not wanting Scotland to leave the UK because he didn’t want to have to drive on the other side of the road. It was a comment that has haunted him and gave some indication of how lacking in levity and polarised views in Scotland had become.

But at that time, you could sense that Burnham, the Labour MP for Leigh since 2001 and a former health secretary in Gordon Brown’s government, was at a crossroads of his own, looking to leave Westminster. He has tried and failed to be elected the leader of the Labour Party twice, being beaten once by Ed Miliband and then by Jeremy Corbyn, and was beginning to feel that it was the party that had left him.

But times are different now. Politics is different. And he has also changed. Two weeks ago, he penned a seminal article for The Observer on how he now believes in changing the voting system to include proportional representation so that Westminster better reflects the voting intentions of the whole of the country.

So, is he preparing for a bid to be Labour leader for a third time?

“I know it sounds mealy-mouthed, but I am not plotting to return to Westminster. I’m really in the midst of this job and I have said I’ll do a full second term. And that’s what I’m doing. I fell out of love with Westminster and so I’m not hankering after a return.

“But I’m going to be honest with you and say, one day, maybe, I would, because I still have a part of that sense of unfinished business. But if I ever did, it’s not just to do the job. I now have a real sense of the profound change that the country needs. I recognise that there’s a reason why Scotland is as it is, feels as it does. There’s a reason why, here in the North, there’s a lot of frustration about Westminster politics.

“And that’s because the current electoral system that we’ve got at a UK level puts power in too few hands, it gives too much power to vested interest, to big business and to the media. And it skews politics. It’s too oriented down there and doesn’t think enough about up here. The pandemic brought that out. So yeah, if I was ever to go back, and it’s no time soon, but if I ever was, it will be to change things in the interests of the bits of the UK that I think have not ever had a fair deal.

“When we last met, I was on a journey out of the Westminster system, which you probably picked up on because of the work I had done on Hillsborough. But I had become by then a bit of an outsider in the Westminster system and wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I could see what was wrong with it, but it’s only when you really come out of it that you really feel the need for change.

“It was that experience of confronting the establishment, the system, when you’re trying to advocate for the North of England and realising that I was even talking about people on my own side who tried to tell me to stop what I was doing. And when you come up against those brick walls, you kind of get a clearer sense of how the country works or doesn’t work for the North of England in terms of the way we’re treated.

“And you can’t help but think, do I want to be part of this? So, when this role came up, it felt natural to me then to make a break at that point, and then to try and come at things from a different way. And I think we have done that, to a degree. I think the voice of the North of England has got louder since we met in 2013, maybe not immediately, but it has in the last five years, and I think some of this change is still building. 

“I genuinely do think Scotland is missing a trick in terms of not being part of this and having elected mayors. I was in Belfast recently, with Steve Rotheram the mayor of Liverpool, and in Dublin recently too, and the two of us did the first-ever joint mayoral visit overseas as well. We have signed a four-city agreement, so Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Belfast, and it would just be natural to have Glasgow in that mix.  

“There’s a core of common shared history, isn’t there, and a common sort of culture? And I’ve had quite a bit to do with Susan Aitken, and I like Susan, but I think it would be good to take that a stage further. The way I look at things is that some of the big change we need in the next decade is going to be driven from the bottom up by cities. And I think that’s already happening.

“And I think the risk for the whole of the UK is that our cities aren’t empowered enough. You know, we meet mayors in the US, and they’ve got unbelievably well-developed powers. And I think, certainly on a climate point of view, cities are going to be the prime movers and they need to be able to move and move quickly. And if Glasgow were in the mix with us, if Glasgow had an elected mayor, or in Gordon Brown’s phrase, ‘an elected provost’, I would be on the phone to that person, I would think, once a fortnight at least.

“And that would move things to a more practical relationship between England and Scotland and perhaps away from the big ‘P’ political, which can sometimes hold us back and create barriers. I do think we’re a strong force to get change done and that could work for us in the North of England and for Scotland if we were to do more together and to join forces.

“I do understand sentiments in Scotland probably more now than I ever did when I was a Westminster MP. I had a bit of a feel for it, obviously, coming from the North and everything, but I do understand it more now.

“And obviously, the way Westminster has treated us through the pandemic and other things that they do, I understand it more, but I still think the answer for the UK is the rewiring of Britain to make it work differently, and better for all the nations and regions, and not the rupture that independence would mean.”  

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