Alex Massie

Our Fracking Friends in the North

Our Fracking Friends in the North
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An old Washington cliche has it that a gaffe is what happens when a politician inadvertently blurts out the truth or, in a variation on the theme, reveals what he really thinks.

Enter Lord Howell. In ordinary circumstances Peer Says Something Daft might be thought as newsworthy as Friday Follows Thursday but Lord Howell is not some backwoods eccentric. He's a former cabinet minister and, more pertinently, George Osborne's father-in-law. Perhaps this should not matter but it does just as there's a certain frisson felt when David Cameron's father-in-law criticises government policy.

So Lord Howell's remarks that fracking be concentrated in the dismal desolate shires of northern England are interesting because they appear to confirm what we already know but rarely say; namely that the Conservative party is largely a regional, not a national, party.

Of course there are notable exceptions but, in general, the Tories are a party of southern England. Paradoxically the government's enthusiasm for High-Speed Rail may well be a trying-too-hard demonstration that the party appreciates it has a problem outside the south-east. The project rather screams: Look at what we're doing for the north! Please like us! It won't do and it won't fool anyone.

Perception matters. And the perception is that the government is rather better attuned to the needs of London and the south-east than it is to the needs of other parts of the United Kingdom. There is no point in Lord Howell apologising for his remarks (nor for noting that there is indeed more space for fracking in less densely-populated areas than in some other parts of the country). The damage is done. It reinforces a certain negative stereotype.

Of course it is also right that the government pay some attention to London and the south-east. Millions of people live in these regions, after all. But even people in the south-east suffer from the perception that the government is a government of and for the south-east. Money for the railways would probably  be more usefully spent relieving congestion in the south-east than on HS2. But the power and logic of perception trumps all else. So that can't be done. And yet housing policy  immigration  and transport policy - areas in which there are stark regional differences in need - are also stymied by the difficulty in crafting policy which suits all parts of the United Kingdom. That is, to be sure, in part a consequence of London's dizzying success but it's also a sorry reflection of government failure.

Even so, Lord Howell has gifted Labour a stout stick with which to beat the Tories and made it less likely fracking will happen anywhere in Britain. That's quite a twofer. The editorial in this week's edition of the magazine is quite right about that.

You can expect Alex Salmond to make hay with Lord Howell's remarks too. Few things please him more than reminders that the Conservative party is a regional, not a national, organisation. So you can add that to the long list of Lord Howell's demerits too.


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsuk politicsfrackingtories