23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 26


Where civic commonsense is bliss, 'tis folly to be Wise


My heart goes out to Tony Blair in his battle to rescue Labour from its Nean- derthals. There are still many people on the Left, some in quite influential positions they have recently captured the Guardian, for example — who are working to destroy Labour's chances of winning the coming election and are quite capable of furnishing material for Brian Mawhinney, the Ulster bruiser now running Tory Central Office. These people would much rather not win at all than win under Blair, calculating that a moderate and successful Labour govern- ment will set back the Day of the Revolu- tion in which they still believe.

Blair is quite right to talk in terms of psy- chiatric treatment for such people because what these extremists do, when they get a finger on local government, makes no sense at all except in terms of their crazy mil- lenarianism. Take the case of the Wise Women, mother Audrey and daughter Valerie, two Far Left feminists who have captured the sleepy town of Preston in north Lancashire. No need to go into details; it is the usual tale of sectarian war- fare, in this case with a strong anti-male tinge, colossal waste of public money, catastrophic decline of public services and all-round bad temper. As a result the very name of Labour is hated among all classes in large parts of Lancashire.

Why does an honourable, ancient town like Preston, full of sensible, hard-working people, put up with this mockery of the democratic system? Time was when Pre- ston, far from giving a perch for the endless squawking of females like the Wises, elect- ed as its representatives strong, silent men who 'said nowt when they had nowt to say'. So far as I can discover, in the 40 years 1790-1830 none of the MPs returned for Preston, two in each parliament, ever made a parliamentary speech at all. Yet during these years the town expanded greatly and became rich.

Richard Arkwright, the genius of the Industrial Revolution, was born in Preston, one of 13 children of a desperately poor family, and it was in Preston he set up his famous spinning frame, the first machine that could produce cottonthread of suffi- cient tenuity and strength to be used as warp. The Horrocks family, also self-made, built five big factories in Preston ad provid- ed thousands of jobs, and it was Horrockses who were sent to Westminster to 'say nowt' — Prestonians had hard heads in those days. They also had spacious, generous spirits, expressed in soaring monuments to the aspirations of man and the glory of God. Preston is full of interesting buildings but it also has two of the grandest in the whole north of England. You would have to go a long way before you found anything more remarkable than the Harris Institute in the Market Place, in whose magnificent library I first studied the history of art.

Old Harris was a close, money-grubbing man, but when he died in 1877 he left near- ly half a million — a vast sum then — to be spent on culture, and the town forked out £80,000 of it to put up this huge classical pile, just as good as the far more celebrated St George's Hall in Liverpool. It is a real palace of the people, full of Ionic and Doric columns, Greek inscriptions, copies of sculptures from the Elgin Marbles and the frieze at Bassae, a place of resounding footsteps on marble, vast enfilades and Piranesi-like spaces. All is devoted pur- posefully to the acquisition of real knowl- edge and the enjoyment of high art — not a lesbian creche in sight.

Even more spectacular, in some ways, is the church of St Walburge, put up a gener- ation before in the 1850s by the pennies of ordinary Catholics. My mother used to recite a local rhyme which went: 'Proud Preston, poor people, Low church, high steeple'. The steeple referred to is St Wal- burge's, which is well over 300 feet high, and looks even higher seen from below in a railway carriage — the main line to Glas- Yes I know he's the gallery curator but is he art?' gow passes only a few yards away. The slim- ness, white stone and fairy pinnacles of this glittering dagger into the sky are unforget- table. I used to think the architect was Pugin, but it was in fact the remarkable Joseph Aloysius Hansom, who had elevated ideas about recreating the High Middle Ages in the industrial heartlands of the 19th century. The interior is enormous, on the scale of a major cathedral, culminating in a steep and dizzy-making hammerbeam roof. I often wonder what the Catholic cot- ton workers, who were not paid a fortune even in the boom times, and most of whom were poor immigrants from the tragic west of Ireland, made of this splendour created from their collection-boxes.

The fact is that the Victorians thought big, in both ecclesiastical and secular terms. For them, possessed for the first time in man's history with the power of steam and gas and electricity, and the ability to erect iron- and steel-framed buildings, nothing was too good for God and nothing too good for the people. Even in a modest provincial place like Preston, the local self- made grandees tried to outdo their neigh- bours by providing dramatic places of wor- ship and libraries to rival Alexandria. They had the same kind of civic patriotism which made the city-states of ancient Greece so creative or, a millennium later, impelled Florence and Venice and Mantua and Milan to battle with each other in designing the most enviable palace and employing the most gifted artists.

I wish that Tony Blair, in speaking to the people over the heads of the sectarians and class-warriors of Old Labour, could revive some of this local pride, which was deeply rooted in popular sentiment, folk-memo- ries and history. One target New Labour could set itself is to revitalise the communi- ty sense, the oneness, the ardour of places like Birmingham and Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester. It can do this by replacing the old politics of divi- sion and envy with the new politics of unity and common purpose, whose object is to show the citizens of these fine cities the aims they share and the goals they can attain if only they work together.

Mr Blair should descend with fire and sword on the Labour Party in Preston, bring it back to sanity and civilisation, and make Preston the place where the class war finally ended and the new era of creation began.