Wednesday 3 July 2013

Interview with Professor Jon Tonge

It was likely a gratifying moment for Nick Clegg when he pulled up at the Penny Lane Community Centre during the 2010 election to see a bubbling crowd of excited locals. Alas, the faces fell and all bubbling stopped as the Lib Dem hopped out of his car. ‘I thought the VIP was Paul McCartney’, one sniffed despondently.

Such indifference to politicians in Liverpool certainly can’t be taken for granted. The 1980s saw the city in a ferocious struggle with the Government of the day as the name of the city became synonymous in the minds of many with industrial discontent and politically aggravated violence. The death of Lady Thatcher last month and the approach of stringent Government cuts is likely to see old wounds open.

Sitting down to discuss such things in the office of Professor Jon Tonge I feel in safe hands. Jon is Professor of Politics here at the University of Liverpool, Vice President of the Political Studies Association, a prolific author of political books and articles as well as being a frequent radio and television broadcaster.

I begin – this being pre-Thatcher’s passing and subsequent Ding! Dong! furore, and wanting to avoid, initially at least, the gloomy subject of graduate employment - by asking him about home. 

Home is an interesting one for Jon who originates from Bury and though now living in the Wirral still spends much of his time in Manchester. ‘Manc-Scouse!’ is how he describes himself.  

Holding a great affection for both cities he tells me he wouldn’t have it any other way. On top of the rich history and culture of Liverpool Jon speaks of his love for the stunning architecture and beautiful water front vista. Telling me, almost conspiratorially, that he thinks Liverpool, aesthetically, is a ‘much nicer city than Manchester.’

Regarding the University, Jon sees it as a vibrant and dynamic environment for students and cites the ‘political mix’ on campus that allows groups such as Conservative Future to thrive despite their counterparts in the city flailing.

Jon describes the latter as ‘virtually dead’ and doesn’t expect their fortunes to change in the near future.

In the 1980s Liverpool became a portrait of industrial strife with its fervent opposition to the government headed by the Militant-led council. Liverpool saw the Thatcher administration as indifferent to industrial decline sparking a fierce animosity in the city towards the Conservatives that still endures today.

Since Thatcher’s death last month, Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton has said that ‘people in Liverpool always felt that Mrs Thatcher would have liked to have cut us off from the mainland and left us floating in the Irish Sea.’

Jon, talking to the BBC, rejects the idea of Thatcher harbouring a personal vendetta against the city and sees Thatcher’s policies in Liverpool as not significantly different to any other northern city that relied on heavy industry.

‘Lady Thatcher believed that declining industries should not be propped up. A Labour government would not have been able to halt the city's decline in the 1980s, although the Tory policies may have exacerbated it.’

Mayor Joe Anderson has recently said that if a silver lining can be found in the relationship between Liverpool and the Lady it is how through the strife many people in the city became engaged and politicised.

Jon is particularly keen on this, especially in regard to young people, though perhaps through different means. Under the Brown Government he chaired the Youth Citizenship Commission which was designed to investigate how young people could be better engaged in politics. The former Government accepted all save one of the Commission’s recommendations, including maintaining Citizenship lessons; not a ‘wishy-washy’ subject in Jon’s eyes but vital in helping the young engage with politics.

‘In the absence of a GCSE in Politics how are young people supposed to get any political education? Surely at some point in your school career you should be learning about the political system in which you live?’

Before politics though what is principally on the minds of the young is future employment. Though believing it not to be as grim as the 1980’s Jon recognises the fear of a ‘wasted generation’ that has arisen as it did then. With graduate unemployment so high, once out of the protected green pastures of university more and more graduates can expect to find themselves moving back in with their parents, and for longer, than ever before; ‘Home’ becoming not a place of comfort but one of restriction and torpor.

‘It’s just a financial reality’, Jon says. ‘Parents are not going to get rid of their kids now until they are about 30. It’s difficult and I feel sorry for those who go home. I’m sure the parents are delighted to see them for a while and I’m sure the students are delighted to get a good meal but after that it’s awfully difficult to go back into that environment once you’ve had that taste of independence.’

Possibly in an effort to resist moving back home at all costs there has been a rise in graduates leaving the UK and setting out East for the growing Asian economies and the ‘Global Market’.

‘Of those that graduate this summer,’ Jon predicts, ‘a bigger percentage will be going abroad than has ever previously been the case. I think that is inevitable. Quite rightly this University is obsessed with Asia and growing in China.’

In Jon’s opinion, working abroad, whether as a student or a graduate, is a good thing. ‘It always surprises me how many few students don’t go abroad while at University given the opportunity, if only for six months. Maybe that is a nice commentary on Liverpool and the student environment here.’

Perhaps it is. For many of us we will only spend three years in this city and when looking back it is likely to appear to have been home for only the briefest of moments. While we are here maybe it is best to put off thoughts of Global Markets, and employment prospects, and Asia, and simply enjoy being in Liverpool. With all the bleakness that is told to be waiting for us on the other side, it’s extremely tempting.

Jon certainly isn’t going anywhere. ‘Having said that people should go abroad I don’t think I could bear to leave North-West England. I’m very comfortable here. Forget Asia!’

For now, happily. 

Bertie Digby Alexander
Liverpool 2013

Originally published in Ellipsis Issue 8 Summer 2013 -

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