Manchester has a fascinating political history full of controversy and societal change. But how will Professor Osborne cope with the controversy around his appointment?
It has been two years now since the Conservative Party conference was last held in Manchester, and two years since I left my hometown of Gibraltar for the wet, semi-urban pastures of Fallowfield. The de facto North West was a key campaigning target at the time for the Tories (and indeed, continues to be), in large part due to the Devomanc and HS2 programs touted by the Conservative government, then spearheaded by former Prime Minister David Cameron and ex-chancellor George Osborne.
The week of the conference in 2015 happened to be my second week in Manchester, not long after fresher’s week. I had heard of Manchester’s political history, especially ‘on the left’ of things, and my broadly left-wing alignment was satiated as I would soon write a piece (a joint feature with fellow student Fergus Selsdon-Games) in the Mancunion on Engels’ ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ 170 years after its publication. But I had not expected the physical and provoking activism that Manchester witnessed when the Tories were ‘welcomed’ with a public display of political frustration of the highest order.
Part of me was taking this positively – we were told that political apathy was endemic, in particular among students, yet an estimated 60,000 people marched in defiance of authority and the status quo. That was appealing to me. But the other part of me was curious – why the frustration? Who exactly is ‘Tory scum’ referring to? Why are there effigies of David Cameron fornicating with swine? It did not take me an eternity to learn of one of the decisive factors for this level of discontentment: Austerity. And there was no bigger advocate of what became the default economic ideology of the UK government than George Osborne.
Fast-forward to September 2017 and, in the words of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (roughly “the more things change, the more things stay the same”). All of a sudden, Britain appears to be headed for a hard Brexit, but nobody is clear on what an EU pull-out will eventually entail. The socialist left is dramatically revitalised under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, but the government is still largely controlled by the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg is now a potential option for leadership of the Tories, but he continues to live up to his reputation as the ‘‘Honourable Member for the 18th century’’. Most impressively, however, is that George Osborne is no longer Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he remains one of the most reviled politicians to discharge that responsibility in recent memory.
The former MP for Tatton will reportedly take up a sixth job this academic year when he lectures at the illustrious University of Manchester. His more pro-active platforms in the North West during his tenure have now either been proved to be ineffective or have been pushed to the back of the priority queue by order of an unconvinced (and judging by general election results, polling statistics, and cabinet infighting, an equally unconvincing Prime Minister) Theresa May. Of course, there is a certain reputational benefit to the university by recruiting an individual of the editor London Evening Standard’s stature. Such a divisive figure with such a destructive record in Greater Manchester might actually elevate the university’s profile (and hopefully that of the Northern Powerhouse too). While they ought to be credited for this coup, they cannot have envisaged the appointment to be controversy-free. The North West is a primary victim of the economic path pursued by Osborne and, as of now, the project to increase investment in Greater Manchester seems to have had minimal effect in comparison to the rise in food bank usage, child poverty and financial deprivation across the region. The socio-economic crisis that has deepened entrenched levels of inequality, more noticeably since the 2008 global recession damaged progress in all areas of society from health and social care, to policing and the tackling of crime.
In a city where Conservatives are set to receive another wave of civil protest for their upcoming autumn conference in October, it will be interesting to see how George Osborne engages with a student population that may not be terribly supportive of his record in government. One hopes that minds begin open, both on the part of George Osborne himself and the student body at large, and that strong and critical discussion is had in the spirit of inquiry that universities are based on, and the spirit of accountability that authority figures must be subject to. Osborne will not apologise for his unpopular direction of austerity and nor should anybody apologise for heavily criticising it either. But if he embraces the passion of many politics students, listens to them, and engages with them, perhaps the aristocrat can have a worthwhile experience at the university. Students from Arthur Lewis building to Antwerp Mansion should take the opportunity while Professor Osborne is obliged to lend an ear in his new role.