Monthly Archives: November 2010


innovia and wigton

When I ran last week from parliamentary meetings about the Cumbrian sewage system; to the Olympics; the Forestry Commission; army reforms; and rural planning guidelines, I found myself struggling to keep up with it all. Learning about new policy areas can be bewildering and dispiriting. Officials scatter jargon: yesterday, SME didn’t mean Small and Medium Sized Enterprise but ‘Subject Matter Expert’. Lobbyists cite little known committees and policy wonks recite statistics. Everyone makes lofty mission statements. It took me ten minutes of repeated questioning, for example, to understand that a charity which described itself as ‘addressing urban regeneration and youth opportunity, through accountable and creative approaches to social inclusion’ was in fact restoring a community hall. You are always trying to guess what is not being said: to spot the other side of the story. It is difficult to learn through such briefings.

Seeing a project on the ground feels different. Last week, for example, I visited the Innovia film factory in Wigton. None of my meetings with management had prepared me for the factory itself. We moved in white coats and glasses between buildings which seemed fit for NASA. One was filled with great waterfalls of moving viscose and a whiff of sulphur. It took a half-hour walk down a four story tower to watch the transformation of resin pellets into polymer film for me to begin to follow the process. I thought, for example, that he said the polymer passed through a ‘dye’ and could not understand how colour defined the shape of the film. And once I realised he had said ‘die’, I still struggled to visualise how a flat metal press could shape a bubble and why it was necessary to heat, cool and heat the same material again.

But the visit wasn’t only a chemistry lesson, it was an economics lesson. Before I visited, I couldn’t understand Innovia’s success. Its energy costs were high. Ninety per cent of Innovia’s film was exported and it was not even near a motorway, let alone an airport. They relied on a thousand workers and engineers and they were competing with Asian countries, which have low wages and a far larger pool of engineers. Innovia had not retired all their old technology, out-sourced their research, dramatically cut staff numbers or bought state-of-the art computerised robots for cutting. Instead, they had kept a generously sized research and development team and built much of their machinery in-house. Instead of retiring lines they had kept their cellulose plant and their bubble mould far longer than their competitors. Instead of using computerised machines, they used people (more people were employed in cutting than in making the film itself).

But as I walked I saw how these characteristics, which I thought were problems, were in fact part of Innovia’s extraordinary success. By keeping the cellulose and bubble moulds, when others haven’t, they can use these now rare technologies for fashionable purposes (cellulose can make biodegradable film, bubble moulds can make thicker film). Human cutters have allowed them to adapt to different size orders far more cheaply and efficiently than a computer. As a result, they are the only cellophane plant to survive in Europe (from twenty in the 1980s) and they are the world leader, or the second in the world, in every one of their products from polymer banknotes to transparent pressure-fixed labels (they make the Appletise labels for example). This is what makes them the largest, most profitable international export company in the constituency and the life-blood of Wigton.

But government is not helping. The Chief Executive showed me that he had just been hit with a half million pound extra energy bill: this is because of lack of national investment in energy generation (the country as a whole needs hundreds of billions of energy investment). A cutter explained how the lack of bus services was making it impossibly difficult for his son to commute to the factory. Tom, who had started as an apprentice, confirmed that English schools are now producing too few good engineers.

Innovia is one of a hundred things in Cumbria which I need to understand. In the last three months, I have been looking at broadband and gypsy fairs; solar panels and affordable housing; care homes and the haulage industry; milking machines and fuel poverty; European grants and tourist information centres; war veterans and supermarkets; pub buy-outs and the probation service; industrial parks and national parks. Each Cumbrian encounter shifts my view of government policy. But when I sit in those meetings in London listening to the statistics and the action plans of senior officials, guessing whether they were misleading me or misleading themselves, I feel paralysed in a web of official concepts. Walking the ground in Cumbria is different. The Innovia visit was not just an insight into an extraordinary local company: it revealed in ways no briefing could, the contradictions in government policy on education, the environment, the economy and energy. The politician’s best hope is to take these very local and particular encounters and hurl them like a grenade at the policy centre.



Article first published in The Financial Times on 13 November 2010.

Sir John Mandeville, the great medieval traveller, claimed to have visited almost every place in the world except the Garden of Eden: he describes China; he describes a country of “eternal darkness” which appears to be Afghanistan. “But of Paradise,” he writes, “I cannot speak, for I was not there … which I much regret.” He was looking in the Middle East, but Eden is in Cumbria. And I walked this autumn through it from the source of the Eden river to the sea.

I last walked along a river when I walked the Hari Rud in Afghanistan in January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban. I am not good at explaining why I chose to walk, but I have never found a better way of learning to love a place. The short distances allow me to stop in villages I would never otherwise have visited. (I stayed in 500 different family houses on the walk). I remember the Hari Rud as a slit in a stony desert, with faint traces of mud settlements and castles. It took me seven days upstream to reach the narrow deserted gorges, which concealed the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain, destroyed by the armies of Genghis Khan. In the mountains around, the ethnic groups and dialects and religions changed every few miles.

Now I was walking downstream in Cumbria. It was a holiday: I hoped to let my thoughts settle, but I also hoped to learn more by walking the ground because the Eden is the vital artery of the constituency of which I am MP. Eden, too, was once a place of conflict. For 400 years it was a north-west frontier province of proxy wars against Scotland. And these were not the first fights. Beginning at the source, among the dark rivulets of the Mallerstang Valley, I soon passed the castle of the slayer of Thomas Becket. Ten miles later, I passed Crosby Garret, where a Roman frontier cavalryman had discarded a glittering mask and helmet. (It was dug up in May this year). By the time I reached the narrow deserted gorges at the very centre of the river, I was in green, fertile land. But the valley was always shadowed by the limestone hills and their histories.

Eden attracts far fewer visitors than its beauty deserves, perhaps because it is not what a visitor to Cumbria expects. When a tourist climbs Wild Boar Fell from Garsdale in Yorkshire, or walks from Martindale in the Lakes or Alston, in the Pennines, they cross moss and becks, beneath mists and eagles. And if they glimpse, 1,500ft below, a great, cultivated river basin, stretching towards a fertile plain and the sea, they must be tempted to ignore it. After all, it doesn’t make sense. How could it be there – this great flat slab of sandstone, 90 miles long and 20 miles wide? How could it wedge itself between the limestone mountains of the dales, the fells and the borders?

The bare line of the Pennines which runs north from the castle at Brough to Hadrian’s Wall is formed from sea shells 300m years old. But the Eden Valley is the remains of a dark red desert. It is 70m years younger, and it does not seem to know its place. The desert has become an oasis. Its rich grass can feed dairy cows, not simply sheep. Its trees are not the stunted hawthorns and mountain ash of the high hills, but broad sessile oaks and chestnuts. There are fat salmon in the river. If Wordsworth, who lived most of his life in Cumbria, rarely acknowledged Eden, it is perhaps because it did not fit the melodrama of his Lakes. Only WH Auden has found poetry in such impertinent geology. During the second world war, he wrote, in “New Year Letter”:

Whenever I begin to think, an English area comes to mind.

I see the nature of my kind as a locality I love.

Those limestone moors that stretch from Brough

To Hexham and the Roman Wall

These are the symbols of us all.

There where the Eden leisures through its sandstone valley

Is my view of a green and civil life that dwells

Below a cliff of savage fells

From which original address

Man faulted into consciousness

I stayed my first night in the Tufton Arms in the county capital of Appleby. The hotel is at the base of the great avenue of sandstone buildings – lavender and russet and scarlet – that runs from the moot hall up the hill to the castle. This urban civilisation was laid out in the 17th century by Ann Clifford, one of the first female magnates of England. But its civil life persisted in the shadow of other ways of life. For hundreds of years, clans of gypsies and travellers have come from the south and across the sea from the west, pitching their caravans and carts on the foothills above the town for the horse fair. I watched hundreds of girls in sequins and bare-chested boys, under the eyes of a hundred police, ride their horses into the Eden river and emerge soaked, to canter bareback through the streets. Billy Welch, the gypsy leader, had camped with his people in a circle of caravans above the town. He gestured to the volcanic cone of Dufton pike and said to me: “This earth is sacred to us – this is our Mecca – in this I recognise no policeman: none can take this from us.”

On the second day’s walk I drew parallel with the first signs of human consciousness – the standing stones. In each, it seems, the neolithic builders responded to the fells above. Long Meg and her daughters, a circle of 69 standing stones, echoes the saddleback ridge of Blencathra 20 miles west; Mayburgh Henge at Eamont Bridge echoes the line of the Pennine moors.

But Eden is also very much part of modern England. In Afghanistan, deep paths lead from each village to the river, where water is collected. In the open country, the Eden runs deep and free but at some villages it can feel abandoned, hidden behind cottages like a disused canal. The ethnic and linguistic and religious differences have faded. The old dialects once heard around the Methodist communities of the East Fellside and in the churches of the Lakes are heard no more. Only the place-names show there was once ethnic variety: Saxon (like Dufton, meaning the place of the doves), Celtic (like Penrith, meaning the red hill) or Norwegian (like Crosby Ravensworth, named after Odin’s symbol).

In Afghanistan, I would not have been able to have the deep warm bath at the Tufton Arms; nor enjoy the roast pork at the Duke’s Head in Armathwaite; nor find a companion quite like Robert Warburton, a dairy farmer. His and his wife’s family – the Addisons – have farmed beside the river for centuries. But his understanding of the river was scientific, not traditional. He taught me how the river can change completely every hundred yards with a new riverbed or a bridge. He pointed out the rare white-clawed crayfish that can only live over limestone because they need calcium for their shells. I learnt how phosphate-fed algae choked the crayfish and suffocated the lamprey. He showed the riffles, which suit the new-hatched fry, the pools for the parr and the runs for the adult salmon. He made the river seem more alive and changeable than it had ever seemed in Afghanistan.

But this science of the Eden was always shadowed by myth and geology. It is a place of Arthurian legend. Cumbria was one of the last Celtic kingdoms, on the old Roman frontier. After the Romans withdrew, it was defended by its warlords against Anglo-Saxon attacks. Pendragon castle near the river’s source is named for Arthur’s father. The henge by Eamont bridge is called Arthur’s Round Table. But if there is a Camelot here, it is not a monument but the volcanic cones of Knock and Dufton (whose name suggests a royal residence), on the joint between Eden and the Pennines. It is a symbol of creative energy at the geographical centre of Britain. As Auden continues:

Along the line of lapse, the fire of life’s impersonal desire

Burst through the sedentary rock

And as at Dufton and at Knock

Thrust up between the mind and heart

Enormous cones of myth and art

But it was not that distant history, nor the poetic myths, nor even Auden’s geological states and strata, which made this journey for me. It was the living English context. Robert was only one of 30 people who joined me for sections of the walk. John could differentiate a sessile oak at 50 yards. Simon walked 70 miles with me and taught me river management. A doctor opposite Great Corby showed me the meditation caves, which early Christian monks had carved like the Buddhists of Bamiyan into the cliff. And they were not simply studying the landscape but preserving it. I saw volunteers from the Eden Rivers Trust counting trout and crayfish, and weeding Himalayan balsam from the banks.

The last day took me through the ever richer land of the plain, past Hadrian’s Wall and through Carlisle, once capital of Scotland. I approached the great mouth of the Solway Firth and the west coast from which the Vikings came, and where fishermen still use Viking nets. The landscape by then had widened. I stumbled among mud flats, working my way back over hidden channels. The dark red of the Penrith sandstone and the narrow rapids of Lazonby were far behind. I was wandering, slowly, towards a flat horizon over smoke-smudged sands. And finally I realised that I was out of Eden. This great broad tidal channel, stretching languorously along the coast was no longer a river but the sea.


remembrance sunday, 2010

“That at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

Those are the words of George V, announcing Remembrance Day in 1919. This ceremony – seemingly so natural – did not exist before that moment. War was remembered by the Assyrians and the Sumerians in stone carvings of exuberant victory parades. Rome was defined by the extravagant ‘triumphs’ of its conquering generals. It took the First World War to turn our thoughts from conquest to sacrifice, and our memorial from chariots and chants to stillness and silence.

My father was one of two brothers, and their father worked in India. They were sent to the same British boarding school aged seven. They spent all their holidays together, often walking alone through the mountains. And because their father had served with the Black Watch in Iraq in the First World War, they too joined the Black Watch in 1940. Uncle George was wounded at Alamein and killed in Sicily, where he is buried. One of my earliest memories is of seeing my father place his thumbs down the seams of his trousers, at the sound of the last post and come rigidly to attention in front of an English war memorial. Two minutes of silence seemed a very long time for a child.

My father first saw me stand to attention at Remembrance Sunday when I was 18. I was in my uniform, with my poppy in my lapel and my sword drawn and I was very nervous. I had practiced punching my sword, out to the right, for the salute, so often that my arm seemed to remember the action by itself, but when the bagpipes sounded, and the march began, my steel-soled shoes slipped and I almost fell on my back, kilt in the air, at the head of a company of soldiers. During the two minutes silence, I looked through the rain, at the veterans who understood war as we did not.  It was 1991 and the Black Watch had last gone to war in Korea forty years earlier. The Cold War was over and our training felt as though we were rehearsing for a play which would never be performed. But we were wrong.

Twelve years later, my very brief stint in the army far behind me, I laid a wreath on Remembrance Sunday in the cemetery in Al Amara in Iraq. During the two-minute silence I stared, alongside ranks of British soldiers in their desert fatigues, at a wall, inscribed with the names of all the British soldiers who had been buried in that same Iraqi field in the First World War.  There were 4,621 buried under our feet, including half a battalion of the Black Watch and the name of “Private Frederick Bewley, S/6436, 2nd Battalion, Black Watch, Born in Langwathby, Cumberland. Son of Elias and Mary Bewley of Ivy Cottage, Langwathby.”

Remembrance Sunday has its strong familiar rituals: the poppies, and the marching veterans with medals, the Queen, the Cenotaph, the words ‘at the going down of the sun…’ and the C and G repeated three times by a lone bugler to introduce the last post. But at the heart of it, we find silence.  At the end of the First World War, where an ancient Greek would have built a hero’s statue, we built a tomb of an unknown soldier; where an ancient Greek, or even a modern American, might have a funeral oration, we have silence. We sense, perhaps, something in death which goes beyond words, or images, or individuals – which minds can only equally, anonymously and singularly confront in silence.

My friend Nick, who joined four years after me, has served in the Balkans, Baghdad and Kabul. Today he is in Helmand. On Sunday he will be standing in silence with his brigade in a province where more than three hundred British soldiers have been killed. There will be silence in Canada, whose troops have been in Kandahar and Australia, whose troops have been in Uruzgan. And it will be a silence shared by civilians in Vancouver and Sydney and Penrith. And it is silence that we can recognise in the very first time it was introduced, 91 years ago (described in the Manchester Guardian of 1919):

“The tram cars glided into stillness…the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’…Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”

the csr and cumbria

At seven o’clock the morning after the spending review, I was on Radio Cumbria with Jamie Reid, the Labour MP from Copeland. Jamie was angry. He predicted disaster. When I said that coalition had committed, unlike Labour, to increasing NHS spending, he snapped, ‘That’s not true. I don’t know how you can sleep at night.’ I like Jamie and it was not simple to explain why we disagreed. I had found the arithmetic confusing. How were we going to have an 80 Billion pound cut with 25 per cent cuts in most departments? I knew that total spending would increase from 670 Billion to over 700 Billion in the next four years. I grasped that inflation and debt interest might create a real 6 per cent cut and I could see that  half the budget was already committed (like pensions), or protected (like the NHS). But I still couldn’t understand how that meant 25 per cent cuts in most government departments. And if 6 per cent was only a 40 Billion cut, where did the 80 Billion come from?  It took me two days before I worked out the shifts between 2010 and 2015 values.

I was still struggling with some of this when I sat on the floor between the chamber benches during the Chancellor’s speech. Beside me was Sir Peter Tapsell, who’d been in the chamber when Churchill last spoke. My friend Charlotte Leslie from Bristol was crammed on the step beneath me, so neither I nor she could shift our legs. The speaker fought to control the catcalls from Labour and the answering jeers from the government benches as though he was calming a gladiatorial contest, more than an economics seminar. I tried to work out whether the protection for science spending was in cash terms and what exactly the change had been on flood defences. But most of all I focused on broadband.

The cuts only made broadband more important. Every closure put services further from our villages. Every job loss put pressure on the private sector. Superfast broadband could dramatically improve rural services and businesses. Some amazing volunteers, working with my office, had reduced the estimated cost of installation from 43 million to 3 million by identifying unused public fibre, exploring different technologies (wi-fi hubs, aerial fibre and microwave links) and encouraging communities to connect the last miles themselves. I had lobbied each relevant minister and emphasised the connection to ‘Big Society’. We had convinced almost every major company to demonstrate their plan for Cumbria. We had held a conference in Penrith with everyone from the broadband Minister to Obama’s broadband regulator. But where were we going to find even 3 million? There weren’t the government funds to provide us with basic, let alone superfast, broadband. And we were in the midst of the most dramatic cuts since the Second World War. The Secretary of State himself had warned me not to get my hopes up. So when the Chancellor announced there would immediately be money for a superfast broadband project in Cumbria, I was unable to suppress a delighted yelp. It seems we have got about 10 million.

But broadband cannot assuage the anger about the spending review, from Jamie and many others. Cutting 25 per cent cut in government is difficult and painful, in part because of fixed civil service contracts and statutory obligations.  If the private sector doesn’t take off, steeper cuts might bring lower growth and higher unemployment. How do cuts effect Penrith and the Border? Key local businesses have already lost NWDA funding. Organisations  – like the Commission on Rural Communities – are closing and dedicated staff are being laid off. We are already Centres in Kirkby Stephen and Appleby. There will be worse news to come when departments complete spending reviews.

There is, however, reason to think Cumbria may suffer less. We had one per cent GDP growth during the recession. We can continue to exploit our Big Society vanguard status to win government projects. We are less vulnerable to single failures because of our thousands of micro-businesses. Farmers have been less affected by the spending cuts. Tourism – our largest sector – may even benefit from holidays at home. I was not a supporter of the new supermarkets, but they may bring tens of millions of pounds of investment and hundreds of jobs.

Cumbria, however, is not an island. Britain’s economy is very vulnerable to the situation in Europe and the United States.  New broadband can protect and grow our economy. But it will only ever be a small part of our future. The Chancellor calculates that cuts will create a British government which we can afford, a debt which the markets will trust, and an economy which grows strongly in the medium term. He believes that doing less would be dangerous. But in any case, we will need all Cumbria’s improvisation, resilience, and luck before any of us – to borrow Jamie’s phrase – can really sleep soundly.