If Manchester’s ultra-mayor Andy Burnham really is King of the North — as Labour’s bobble-hatted folklorists believe — then Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool, is his regent and champion. These two old Scouser pals have a lot in common: they’re mad for them Manchester bands and they love their footie. In fact, they adore their version of the North-West so much they’ve jointly written Head North, an odd chapparal of memoir and manifesto, in which tales about growing up proper end in head-shaking disillusionment with Westminster, and are followed by a shopping list of solutions to the North-South conundrum.

Like many on the Left who live in the North, I admire Burnham, I genuinely do. He manifests his inherited Christian principles by donating 15% of his salary every month to a homeless charity. He helped fight for a second, thorough inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, and got it. He’s performing the ultimate act of socialist civic alchemy by bringing Manchester’s bus service back into public ownership, which puts him well to the Left of Keir Starmer, let alone this month’s Tory transport secretary, whoever he is. Burnham’s instincts on renationalisation, regional devolution, and creating a new green industrial age for the North chime exactly with mine and are therefore entirely correct. And yet. It’s always been far too easy to mock Burnham’s Mayor-of-Munchkinland bumptiousness — so let’s begin.

Head North is extremely earnest. Better still, it’s exhilaratingly unedited. Take Burnham’s account of a Christmas party in 2015, at “a kooky little place in Leicester Square that had become a popular hangout for some MPs”. Steve and Andy had been “put down as VVIPs on the guestlist, which felt a bit much”. I mean, there’s your first flashing light, mate. You’ve just been clattered out of the park by Jeremy Corbyn in your second Labour leadership bid, now suddenly you’re what — kooky royalty?

Anyway, there they are, the VVIPs. Knocking back a few, minding their own business, when “a bucket of champagne and four flutes landed on the table. Then two young women approached us and sat next to us. I was being polite and saying hello…” Of course you were, you gormless fanny. Luckily, Steve twigged what was going on.

“As I was being manhandled out of this place by my mate — a little tipsy and a little confused — I saw this lens in the corner of the room. The entire episode was a sting by a newspaper… These were truly shark-infested waters.”

The image of a baffled, pissed Burnham being physically hoicked from tabloid peril is an oddly endearing one. Was he really an innocent abroad in the fleshpots of SW1 though, or just hopelessly, stupidly naive? There’s a case to be made for the latter. As he reminds us approximately 8,000 times in the book, he’s an Everton fan — he has nursed a visceral hatred of the Sun for its disgusting coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy since 1989 — but he still tumbled into a photocall in a London taxi plastered with Sun ads during his 2015 party leadership campaign.

“Was he really an innocent abroad in the fleshpots of SW1 though, or just hopelessly, stupidly naive?”

Blame that shark-infested Westminster bubble, I suppose, a phrase that makes several appearances. Indeed, no cliché is left unturned in the memoir section of Head North. Here’s Rotheram, on his political ascent: “It did feel like different worlds colliding when you saw me, a lad from a building site in Kirkby, working with people who had every opportunity handed to them on a plate.” The whole book’s like this, the two of them taking it in turns to say the same things in often identical language, a sort of platitudinous leap-frog, until they’ve both run out of puff.

Burnham’s, though, is the more interesting career trajectory: Everton scally to trade mag hack to parliamentary assistant to MP, right up to Big Manc. Being mayor suits him. He was, by contrast, utterly forgettable in the early days, one of those generic ministers shuffled around by New Labour in the fag-end of its run. In 2009, Burnham was in many ways a calamitous culture secretary. He made loud walrus noises about safeguarding the internet for children and then didn’t because he couldn’t. He seemed pretty clueless about art, and architecture. For instance, he granted immunity from listing to the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens estate — a decisive step towards its eventual, scandalous pulverisation.

At least he could talk about football — which, let’s face it, is how most people experience popular culture. He has always been more comfortable talking about working-class pursuits. During his indignant pandemic confrontation with the Johnson government, he warned that pubs and bookies were suffering. This common touch, his understanding of how ordinary people live, is perhaps why he was a bad Cabinet member but is a very good urban mayor.

It was no help against his suave, haughty nemesis, Michael Gove, however; when Burnham was opposite him in 2010, as Labour’s shadow education secretary, it went pretty badly. In the Commons, Gove offered commiserations on the failure of Burnham’s (first) leadership bid: “He was an advocate for both modernisation and aspirational socialism, which is why, of course, he came fourth out of five.” Our Andy, warming to the rap battle, warned Gove that he and Ed Balls were the “strike force for the parliamentary football team — he softens up opponents and gives me the bullets to finish them off”. Gove wanly observed that bringing firearms to a football match didn’t really seem fair. How clever Gove seemed, how clumsy Burnham looked. And this sense of being excluded from the posh end of democracy seems to fuel a lot of Head North’s bitterness about our patrician parliamentary culture.

Now, of course, there’s a Gove-Burnham rematch, and Andy’s well ahead on points. Gove is Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities — exactly the sort of wide-spectrum bullshit he derided in 2010, when he restored the Department for Education’s no-nonsense title. (The ministry had been rebranded in the late Brownite era as the Department for Children, Schools and Families.) These days, Gove has to pretend the Government gives a toss about Manchester and Liverpool. Burnham, who has repeatedly called his bluff, reports back on how Westminster has serially betrayed his embittered and angry constituency. As Gove’s stock has fallen, Burnham’s has risen. Meanwhile, the North-South divide is worsening.

During the pandemic, the Tories’ political disdain for the North wasn’t even hidden. Burnham recounts a telephone call with Boris Johnson, who seemed entirely unaware that Manchester had been under Covid restrictions for two months without any compensation. Burnham had been presented with a rescue package as a fait accompli. It wasn’t enough to cover furlough. When he went back to Downing Street, he got Robert Jenrick, who “just spoke in this very pompous way”. There followed a nervy few hours of brinkmanship, with Downing Street trying to split Manchester MPs. Burnham convened a press conference, telling everyone “more in sorrow than in anger” (but with actually quite a lot of anger) what had happened. While he was speaking, he got a text from an MP: now, Manchester would only get a third of the original offer.

It was the opposite of levelling-up, petty and nasty. “I walked away from that press conference utterly crestfallen,” Burnham writes. Then the messages started flooding in. He’d stood up for his people against the spiteful protectorate of the South. The King of the North had, in defeat, proved himself. The civic reeves and stewards all swore allegiance.

Head North calls for a real levelling-up, as opposed to the recent hollow farce. Burnham and Rotheram make a strong case for a new, green industrial revolution. The North-West, thanks to its topography, could produce twice the amount of clean energy it needs. Exporting the rest could make us £50 billion a year; if profits could be kept in the region, it would be transformational. I live close to Morecambe Bay — 52 square miles of wind, sun and tide just sitting there, all vast and shallow and keening for something to happen. Apart from a smallish offshore windfarm, it’s a wet blankness haunted by the vanished hordes of 20th Century factory workers on holiday fortnights, and the ghosts of Chinese cockle pickers. I’m with the Lads: let’s get the green energy revolution rolling.

That’s just one example of their good, uncontroversial ideas — more social housing, improved social care, the renationalisation of public utilities; these are enlivened here and there with teenage politics. Burnham on Thatcher: “We all remember her comments that there is ‘no such thing as society’; she fundamentally believed that people did not have a right to the basics in life.” Mate, I yield to nobody in my loathing of Baroness Trunchbull and even I don’t believe that. Still, the Lads come across as unvarnished men but busy ones, trying their best to improve things for the vulnerable and homeless, the sort of people Robert Jenrick would step over, if he ever encountered them.

There’s a mood throughout the book of adolescent hurt, a culture of tribal victimhood — which is entirely justified, on the evidence of the last 14 years of Tory cold-shouldering, and also makes total sense, when you realise that the audience they’re addressing is the North itself. It feels as though the purpose of this book is to galvanise the region’s tribes, to weaponise a shared set of complex grudges, rather than to persuade anyone south of Stoke-on-Trent of anything.

In the end, Head North is a harmless anthology of sensible ideas, larded with chippy biographical detail and some absolute clangers — Liverpool was collateral damage in Thatcher’s “perusal of right-wing dogma” — but what really irritates is the way everything is suffused with Northern exceptionalism. According to Scouse and Scouser, Northern mums are the fiercest mums, Northern mates are the most loyal mates, and the reason the authors are natural team players is, you guessed it. There’s a lot of chat about levelling up, but these guys clearly think they represent a higher form of humanity to start with. As a Southerner who’s lived in the North-West for half my life, I can confirm that there are plenty of arseholes up here and plenty of kind, comradely, mum-loving people in the boroughs of London.

The accidentally-funniest example of Northupmanship comes in 2010, when Our Andy hears that Ed Miliband is standing for the leadership against his brother David: “I never imagined that two brothers would run against each other — I guess as a Northerner that is not something we would do.” Two brothers at odds! It makes you wonder if Burnham — a football and Madchester fan — has ever heard of the Manchester footballing siblings Bobby and Jackie Charlton. Or indeed the Manchester band, Oasis.

This Northern exceptionalism will play well to the gallery, but might it not undermine the case for regional equality? Perhaps the special case they argue for the North won’t go down that well in the Midlands, say. But it does furnish an interesting origin story for the Scouse Marvels: thwarted and frustrated by the elite cabals of snooty Southerners, they return disappointed to their homeland — and to their ultimate, glorious destiny.

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