Has the North-East lost its identity? asks Sir John Hall

The Advertiser Series: RETAIL DREAM: Sir John Hall in front of the newly-opened MetroCentre in April 1986 RETAIL DREAM: Sir John Hall in front of the newly-opened MetroCentre in April 1986

“MONEY liberates you,” says the North-East’s most famous entrepreneur, who fears that the region has lost its purpose, and risks becoming a low-wage, low-skills economy.

Former Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall - a fourth-generation miner - became a poster boy for 1980s free enterprise when his company Cameron Hall Developments masterminded construction of the MetroCentre in Gateshead.

But the tycoon explains in a new book on North-East football that it was a radical Labour government which laid the foundations for his success.

Up There, by North-East writer Michael Walker, chronicles the region’s changing fortunes as both a football and industrial power.

In a chapter of the book Sir John talks about the influences that shaped his youth – coal and the camaraderie of working people – and reveals how the post war Attlee government helped liberate him from the limited life-choices his parents had faced.

The first seven years of his working life were spent down the pit, starting at Newbiggin Colliery when he was 16.

“I was a surveyor at the coalface,” Sir John recalls. “I used to watch these men lying on their side digging, thinking: What a job.

“The great thing was the camaraderie, the working class spirit. The ‘Big Society’? All the mining villages had the big society long before anyone thought about that. You lived with each other. There were 34 houses on my street and you knew everyone on it. We lived as one.

“But a coal-village life was structured, your life was set out for you and ruled by the colliery manager, the headmaster and doctor, they controlled your life. I always feel that before the war I

was fodder for the coal mines, working-class fodder.

“It was expected of me to go down the pit - it would have affected my father if I hadn’t, he might have lost his house.

“Then Attlee came in and there was a social and political revolution. The Labour Party had fought hard for change and got in with a massive majority in 1945.

"I was a strong left-winger. I could never understand why my father and other miners didn’t vote Communist. He was a Labour man, he wasn’t left-wing. The miners were never extreme.

“I was a strong supporter of Attlee. There was one road in and out of our village and I remember holding a tin of paint, white paint, while my father and his friends painted on the road: ‘Vote for

Labour, do it well, let the Tories go to hell.’

“There was change. It was a tremendous liberation. It gave us free health, free education and nationalized industries. They nationalized the pits, and that was the pinnacle of my father’s life.

“I can still see it, the day they pulled back a little curtain to say: ‘This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of The People.’ That was liberation.

“They also got more money. And money liberates you. You feel cowed when you don’t have money. I’m a product of that Attlee government.”

By 1986, when Sir John was proudly showed the then Prime Minister around the MetroCentre he was an unashamed Thatcherite.

At the time the MetroCentre was Europe’s largest shopping and leisure complex, employing more than 6,000 people in the service sectors which gradually replaced those heavy industries – shipbuilding, mining, engineering - that had made this region world famous.

“The North-East had a raison d’etre. What is it now? Nobody knows,” says Sir John.

“We were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution before anybody else and we came to the end of it before anybody else.

“We’ve probably reached the bottom of a curve but we haven’t found what is next.

“When China got organised, their labour was so cheap, it hit us. In shipbuilding we reacted to change too late, we didn’t re-invest and look ahead. We had short-term capitalism.

“There’s a negative feeling about the North-East. Labour brought us great change socially and economically. But it didn’t change us culturally.

“This is a Labour fiefdom and it has kept us culturally static.

“Our wage structure is too low; there are three million people in the region, not enough. But we don’t want companies coming here for cheap labour. Tell them to go to hell,” adds Sir John.

BOLD - Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom & Bust published by deCoubertin Books is out on August 18.

Comments (3)

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12:00pm Wed 6 Aug 14

Galathumpian says...

These stories are so true. In the Durham and Northumberland towns and villages there were thriving self sustaining communities that have turned into ghost towns, something like the mining towns in the old West. No real high paying personally satisfying jobs have replaced those on the basic industries that have disappeared. The whole area is, and will remain, depressed, no matter how much PR about re0vitalisation is pushed down our throats. And let's not forget it was the same Mrs Thatcher that hastened the demise. It need not have been so.
The North East was destroyed by political ideology, and the mentality of a grocer's shop keeper.
These stories are so true. In the Durham and Northumberland towns and villages there were thriving self sustaining communities that have turned into ghost towns, something like the mining towns in the old West. No real high paying personally satisfying jobs have replaced those on the basic industries that have disappeared. The whole area is, and will remain, depressed, no matter how much PR about re0vitalisation is pushed down our throats. And let's not forget it was the same Mrs Thatcher that hastened the demise. It need not have been so. The North East was destroyed by political ideology, and the mentality of a grocer's shop keeper. Galathumpian
  • Score: 5

6:30am Thu 7 Aug 14

Jim Dodds says...

And all that was achieved by the Attlee government is now in the process of being rescinded by an Old Etonian mob in Westminster. Those would have us returned to Victorian conditions that their privileged positions in this sold out industrial colony may be maintained. They took their money earned by ICI, Dorman Long, Cleveland Bridge et al, sold the workers out and invested elsewhere from tax havens. I know of no other country in the western world where accent divides society into stratas of 'class' more clearly. I know of no other country that would allow foreign nationalised railways to buy British railways rather than own them for all of us, that would sell it's post office at a knockdown price to benefit party supporters, that would allow names like Rolls Royce, Jaguar and Rover to be bought by foreign manufacturers. We now have an education system redesigned to keep the working class 'where it belongs' and university education is too expensive to be afforded by all. As long as control remains in Tory hands, Westminster may just as well be occupied by multinational corporations. Sad to say, who knows what New Labour stands for, either what or who it represents?
And all that was achieved by the Attlee government is now in the process of being rescinded by an Old Etonian mob in Westminster. Those would have us returned to Victorian conditions that their privileged positions in this sold out industrial colony may be maintained. They took their money earned by ICI, Dorman Long, Cleveland Bridge et al, sold the workers out and invested elsewhere from tax havens. I know of no other country in the western world where accent divides society into stratas of 'class' more clearly. I know of no other country that would allow foreign nationalised railways to buy British railways rather than own them for all of us, that would sell it's post office at a knockdown price to benefit party supporters, that would allow names like Rolls Royce, Jaguar and Rover to be bought by foreign manufacturers. We now have an education system redesigned to keep the working class 'where it belongs' and university education is too expensive to be afforded by all. As long as control remains in Tory hands, Westminster may just as well be occupied by multinational corporations. Sad to say, who knows what New Labour stands for, either what or who it represents? Jim Dodds
  • Score: 1

12:27pm Thu 7 Aug 14

Galathumpian says...

How true. On a trip to the USA recently I met a British ex-pat who has been living there for some time now. He commented, rather pointedly, that since the time he first moved to work in the States, no one has asked him what shape of ball he played with. A telling comments on the UK I thought.
What surprises, and disappoints, me, is how the Tories can get elected. I think there are so many voters who naively think that these well educated politicians really do know best what is good for us.
How true. On a trip to the USA recently I met a British ex-pat who has been living there for some time now. He commented, rather pointedly, that since the time he first moved to work in the States, no one has asked him what shape of ball he played with. A telling comments on the UK I thought. What surprises, and disappoints, me, is how the Tories can get elected. I think there are so many voters who naively think that these well educated politicians really do know best what is good for us. Galathumpian
  • Score: 2

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