If George Osborne wants to support the Northern Powerhouse, he should run for mayor of Manchester

Well, that worked out well: George Osborne in Manchester, January 2015. Image: Getty.

Manufacturers of high viz jackets and other personal protective equipment, rejoice: George Osborne is back – and he's worried.

Two months after the former chancellor was unceremoniously – one might almost say gleefully – fired by Theresa May, Osborne popped up on this morning's Today Programme to fret about his beloved Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in code so obscure it could defeat the Enigma machine, he said there had been a "little bit of a wobble" about whether May's government was "still committed to the concept".

Luckily, though, George is on hand to sort things out. He's launching a new think tank, the "Northern Powerhouse Partnership", which he has generously agreed to chair. The body will bring together political and business leaders from across the north, and campaign for greater devolution and improve transport links. It will do, in other words, most of the things Osborne wanted the Northern Powerhouse to do when in government, with the one minor difference that he’s now outside it.

The left has often questioned Osborne's commitment to the north. His austerity budgets, by an odd coincidence, tended to fall disproportionately heavily on regions that voted Labour, a group including almost all the northern cities. And some in the opposition have campaigned against devolution, on the grounds it was just a way of putting Labour councils on the hook for Tory cuts.

For some, the cynicism runs yet deeper. Many on the left have sneered at the idea a Conservative could even care about a region of the country his party had effectively left to rot in the eighties. Osborne loved Thatcher; Thatcher hated the north; ergo, Osborne must hate the north, too.


I've never quite bought this. It always seemed to me that there was a very good reason why an ambitious Tory would want to revive the northern economy: rich constituencies are less likely to vote Labour. It’s not a contradiction for Osborne to be sincere about the Northern Powerhouse, yet be cynically trying to undermine Labour, both at the same time.

Now he's out of power, and what do you know, his own political self-interest is aligned with the right thing to do once again. Heading up his new think tank will allow Osborne to keep banging the drum for the north, while also giving him a new powerbase and continued political relevance.

But there’s a danger that this looks a bit, well, half-hearted. Exactly what the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will do is difficult to work out, because it doesn't exist yet – but Britain is not short of think tanks, and why this will be any different remains to be seen.

If Osborne really wants to build his powerhouse, he should stop mucking around and go for the big job: mayor of Greater Manchester.

The king in the north

The Tories are not over flowing with potential candidates in Greater Manchester. Of its 10 boroughs, only one (Trafford) is held by the Tories; just five of the region's 27 MPs are Conservative, and none of them is a household names.

Osborne's constituency (Tatton, in Cheshire) isn't in Greater Manchester – but it does border it, and consist of places well within its orbit. He has as good a claim to the party's nomination as anyone.

More to the point, though, this is his baby. The Northern Powerhouse, city regions, metro mayors – all were Osborne's idea. If he wants to show that he was serious, that this was more than an attempt to wrong-foot Labour, well, here's his chance.

Labour's mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, a man who has never been accused of being overly tactical in his positioning. Image: Getty.

In its early days, the London mayoralty was not taken seriously, and struggled to attract top-flight candidates. But a Manchester mayoral election in which a former chancellor faced off against a former Labour health secretary would show, from the start, that this is a big job for serious people. If Osborne wants the new mayors to be taken seriously, he could do worse than run for the job himself.

I don't believe for a second that Osborne will do this, for the very good reason that he will probably lose: Manchester is a Labour city, and Osborne is not exactly electoral cat nip. (Last March, a YouGov poll found that, after six years as chancellor, just 8 per cent of the British electorate thought he'd be "up to the job of Prime Minister".)

But another hit against Osborne has always been that he treats politics as one big chess game: that he is a man without principal, concerned only with tactical advantage. Fighting a quixotic campaign that he is highly likely to lose might, paradoxically, boost his reputation.

Oh, and he'd probably get to wear a lot of high viz gear on the campaign trail, too.

So, come on George. You want to show you believe in the north and its powerhouse. You want the new metro mayors to be serious political figures. And you want a platform from which you can rebuild your reputation and, what the hell, throw a few rocks at the people who fired you.

How about it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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