I love my father-in-law dearly, but he has a terrible habit of going into a situation with one set of misconceptions and coming out of it with them refracted yet further out of shape. Luckily, neither of us holds any position in Parliament, or has a high-profile political career, or is in anyway related to the aristocracy, so his pronouncements that, for example, Greece has never been a Christian country, tend not to cause Duke of Edinburgh-esque scandal.
Not so poor old George Osborne. His father-in-law, Lord Howell, did them both the misfortune today of dropping a tremendous clanger in a House of Lords’ debate on fracking. With what appeared to be the admirable aim of pouring oil (or perhaps gas) on troubled waters, he reassured his fellow peers that there were obviously “beautiful, rural areas” where the horrid industrial accoutrements of extracting shale gas – trucks, roads, disturbance – would justify opposition to any such developments. No fear! The solution, naturally, is not to lump all parts of the UK together. Why not, instead, look to the “large, and uninhabited, and desolate areas” of the country, particularly those in the North East, where “there is plenty of room for fracking…well away from anyone’s residence”. (And, presumably, where all those bits of heavy industrial machinery would blend seamlessly into a landscape composed largely of pit heads, smoke stacks and cooling towers.)
The deliciously scandalised gasps and chortles which followed showed that, perhaps, this might be an overly simplistic approach, and, sure enough, the remarks caused outrage. Ironically enough, the pictures posted on the #desolate hashtag on Twitter perform much of the function of the now defunct “Passionate People, Passionate Places” tourism campaign run by the now equally defunct One North East, showcasing the stunning landscapes of much of this region. The obvious reaction, alongside anger, is to point to the fact that the conspicuously un(der)inhabited areas are, in fact, likely to be National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or tick off the spectacular coastline and heritage sites. It’s obvious, and it’s natural, and I did it myself, but I think that fundamentally it misses the point of why this provoked such anger.
I could forgive Lord Howell the use of the word “desolate”, a perfectly respectable, indeed rather lyrical way to describe the wide-open spaces of the upland moors across Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. Even the OED, helpfully, suggests “a desolate Pennine moor” as an example of its usage. The trouble is that, whatever the word, I suspect that’s not what Lord Howell meant. His meaning, instead, is in the explicit contrast with his own idea of what constitutes a valuable beautiful countryside, even of what constitutes “residence”, which smack – perhaps unfairly – of an understanding of this area based in equal parts on a hazy recollection of Wuthering Heights, and having once seen Kes. More, it implies that the whole region is effectively at the disposal of national energy policy (this, when the wounds from the closure of the mines still run so deep) – hell, they cost enough, it seems to say, why not recoup some of that by saving ourselves the unpleasantness of having it happen in our own back yard?
Back in January, when HS2 was in the news, a spoof did the rounds on Twitter purporting to be a hand-drawn map by George Osborne of the route the new line would take. Being the chippy northerner I am, it still makes me laugh with its sly dig at our well-connected and rather London-centric elite. Wales is “unknown”, Scotland is for “hunting” and my own little patch, is a tentative “??? The North(?)”. It also rings very true with the perception that many people up here have that our region is seen as some kind of alien territory, peopled with those who lacked the energy, ambition or ability to move elsewhere. That we’re a bit of a theme park, really; a wasteland of fecklessness and post-industrial dependency on Westminster handouts, studded with a few pretty bits for holidays or country retreats or rural idylls once one’s City fortune has been made. The perception may be unfair, but ongoing policies (which, after all, matter more than semantic bloopers), are doing little to change it.
I don’t know much about fracking, or indeed whether there is anything worth fracking locally (stop sniggering there at the back), but I’m left feeling more than ever suspicious that if it’s not good enough for Guildford, it’s not something we should welcome with open arms – the carrot of jobs and investment notwithstanding. As for Lord Howell, who has already issued an apology of sorts (George Osborne appears to wield more clout over his father-in-law’s utterances than I do over mine), I shall sigh in the knowledge that he has almost certainly come out of this encounter with an even dimmer impression of the North than he came in with – and actually, that saddens me still further. We’re losing out, heavily, and as beautiful as our landscapes are, we need to be heard as a region and as people, not purely as a shrilly offended “other”.