As the outgoing MP for the City of Durham, I recently had the honour of speaking at the Founders and Benefactors Service at Durham Cathedral, which was held on Sunday, November 24.
I was honoured to be asked to deliver this address, and I gave my reflections on the state of the nation, and the importance of education in healing the divisions in our country. My full speech is below:
It is an honour and privilege not only to have served as MP for this beautiful city but to be able to finish my term of office by speaking in this magnificent and much-loved cathedral.
I was asked to say something about the state of the nation. Where to start?? Well, I started with the government’s own Social Mobility Commission. Its most recent annual report makes for familiar and depressing reading.
We learn that social mobility has stagnated, wages and living standards for many have flatlined, that more support is needed for the vulnerable, and much more investment is needed at all levels of education to tackle our productivity and skills challenges.
The North East fares particularly badly with higher levels of unemployment, child poverty and jobless households than the national average, and with a widening gap.
Not for the first time did I think that really it is no surprise that we are a society showing increasing signs of division, most recently demonstrated by the Brexit vote.
We are all fed up with Brexit but one of the many problems with the huge desire to move on at any cost is that we may do so without learning the lessons of how we got to be so divided, and what we need to do to bring us together.
It has not always been like this. From the 1940s to the 1970s we became a more equal society, including everyone sharing in a welfare state, to which everyone contributed.
Indeed, the mining communities of this and other parts of the country built mutual welfare schemes that became models for the welfare state that followed.
By no means was everything perfect. Services were often experienced as paternalistic, judgemental, bureaucratic and remote. These criticisms do have validity and need to be remembered even if the austerity of the last ten years has denuded our welfare state to the extent that they may seem trivial especially in the face of wholescale dismantling of services from Sure Start centres to social care, and for social security to become so mean that I saw in my surgeries people who had literally nothing to live on.
In addition to exploring the reasons for our divisions we also need to understand what will bring us together whether Brexit happens or not.
The founders and benefactors of this great city, who we are here to commemorate, did an incredible job establishing a great Cathedral and University that would not only become part of our city but of the world’s heritage too.
They brought people together around a common purpose to share knowledge and create communities: communities of faith, communities of scholars and of course the communities that won coal from the mines and really demonstrated what comradeship and looking out for each other meant when faced with adversity.
But cities and communities are not only made once. They are made and remade, and how we do this is more important than ever. I got some clues about how to do this from the Planning Commission I chaired earlier this year.
Everywhere we went from Liverpool to London to Plymouth we faced anger because people, passionate and informed about how their areas should be improved, were completely bypassed by the planning system.
Residents were not against progress, they just wanted local needs met with good quality development and appropriate infrastructure, including more green spaces, and more than anything to have a say and feel their voices counted.
I mention this because I think it provides the key to how we move forward together, and I believe places like Durham can lead the way.
One clear thing emerging from this election is the widespread recognition that we need more investment in public services and in our education system at all levels.
We need to build more houses and better infrastructure, especially for those towns and regions left behind, so that everyone can thrive and be confident about their own and their children’s future.
This is not someone else’s job. We have the challenge of restoring the fabric of our nation and communities. We have the founders and benefactors for the future, in this amazing building today. The council, the cathedral, the university, colleges, schools and nurseries, the DMA, and wonderful local residents and businesses. But if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past and recreate old inequalities and injustices how we do things will have to change.
Devolution at all levels needs to happen so people are given a real stake in where they live and where they work. Policymakers need to be accessible neighbours and not remote bureaucrats. And that is not, by the way, a criticism of the European Union! The founders and benefactors that we’re celebrating today were as internationalist as they were rooted in their communities.
We need to empower local governance, with the highest standards of best practice, so that our councils and councillors can achieve real change for their areas as local champions and not as gatekeepers of ever declining services.
Churches throughout this city provide beautiful buildings, music, literature, company and sanctuary. But their message of love, kindness, respect, welcome for diversity, compassion and care that emanates from this building and others needs to challenge and inform our public discourse at every level and our everyday lived experience recognising that it is what we do for others that will make the difference.
And there is no greater investment in this future than education. I have always believed that Education transforms lives, communities and nations. We need education as much as we need the air we breathe and the water we drink. We are all natural-born learners, and that is a reason for hope.
Walking through Newcastle recently, I saw a sign on Northumbria University that said ‘take on tomorrow’. It stopped me in my tracks because it is precisely what education must equip us to do.
We are fortunate indeed to have a world-class university here in Durham, with its quality education and ground-breaking research. Creating the knowledge base from which academic endeavour, entrepreneurs and businesses can flourish. Embracing digital and other technologies to provide employment that saves or planet rather than destroys it as part of the green revolution on which the future of our very planet depends. This is change indeed.
But education must be everyone. We cannot regard it as a privilege, we have to regard it as a lifelong right so that we can all skill and reskill ourselves over a lifetime, so no-one is left behind.
This is not utopia. It can be achieved and parts of our world are not a million miles away from it already but it does mean all of us addressing inequality, our public services working in partnership with communities on what is prioritised and delivered and a public discourse that genuinely recognises the value of diversity, welcomes difference, is kinder, supportive and compassionate and an education system that creates opportunity from Sure Start to PhDs taking everyone as far as they can go.
If we do that I am convinced that as a city, a county, a nation we will not only have the confidence and skills to take on tomorrow we will create a better, more unified tomorrow just like our founders and benefactors did before us.