We’re delighted to announce that Northern Soul is the Media Partner for the #ThisIsTheNorth Convention 2020 hosted by The People’s Powerhouse. Due to social distancing measures put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event will take place entirely online. Now, more than ever, we need to come together to discuss the rapidly changing issues faced by the North of England and the people who live here.
Northern Soul talks to Nazir Afzal ahead of his appearance at #ThisIsTheNorth. Afzal was chief crown prosecutor for North West England and most recently was chief executive of the country’s Police & Crime Commissioners. During a 24-year career, he prosecuted some of the most high profile cases in the country and led nationally on various legal topics including violence against women and girls as well as honour-based violence. Afzal will be part of the panel event ‘Levelling up is a myth, so what next for the North?’ and will also be in conversation with Kim Leadbeater on November 24. Click here for more information or to book your free ticket.
Northern Soul: The Government has been accused of treating the North of England unfairly during the pandemic and, in particular, of being London-centric in its handling of the virus. What are your thoughts?
Nazir Afzal: There is no doubt that the Government have focused on London and the South to the detriment of other parts of the country, including the North of England. This was highlighted by their response at the beginning of the second lockdown where the mayors of Greater Manchester, Liverpool and others were calling for a significant increase in the payment that the Government were offering, which the Government refused. But within a week or two, maybe just days and when the rest of the country had to go into a second lockdown, that money was found. This demonstrates to me a refusal to listen to the voices of the North.
In the North, we have begun to see the reality of what the Government in Westminster are doing. We have begun to see the reality of what levelling up means (i.e. not much at all) and we have managed to get the sympathy of pretty much the rest of the country who realised that the North was being treated so unfairly
NS: Northern mayors have been outspoken about Tier Three restrictions for the North of England and the imposition of them by central Government. Do you agree with their criticisms?
NA: There was clearly a need for greater restrictions as the infection rate rose in the North of England. The UK Government had one response which did not accord with public health officials here in the North and certainly did not accord with the mayors from the North.
What it demonstrates to me is that centralising something, as the Government have done in relation to COVID-19, backfires. The people who know best about how to respond to local impact are local leaders. The tension that arose from Government trying to impose something that the northern leaders did not agree with, because they did not have the data, demonstrates a gap between what Government in Westminster want and what the governments, and the public, in the North of England need.
NA: The Government’s response to businesses has been ad hoc, often made up as it goes along. This is why understanding the needs of local businesses really falls to local leaders and not to the Government in Westminster. Independent businesses in particular have struggled. Some of them, such as those who have existed for less than 12 months, have not received any furlough money. And if they have, they received it too late to save their businesses.
What we are concerned about is that we leave this lockdown, there won’t be a business for them to continue with. ‘Too little, too late’ seems to be the mantra of the UK Government and businesses will suffer, and have suffered, as a result of this mantra.
NS: How well is the North represented in mainstream media?
NA: It was quite astonishing, when the tension between the northern mayors and UK Government arose, how little the London-based media knew what was going on. Some of them were asking questions about who these mayors were, despite the fact that some of them had previously been Ministers. The reliance on correspondents based in London means that information about the issues, tensions and conflicts involving the North are often received secondhand.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t some great writing from correspondents based in the North. They often relate to local newspapers who somehow have managed to survive when others have not done so. But, if there’s one message that the media in London need to receive, it’s that they need to ensure that northern correspondents are properly resourced, that they are able to feed their copy in in real-time and not just be the ninth item on the news bulletin.
NS: Do you think that Northern stereotypes are still found in national media?
NA: There remains a perception that people in the North wear cloth caps and go off to the mill. For whatever reason, there is no understanding of the fact that Leeds has a massive financial sector, that Manchester has great creative industries and Liverpool has businesses that are national, if not international, leaders. That leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It demonstrates, once again, how closed-minded the Government in Westminster is and, perhaps, how the influential people in the South get their information. That means we are going to be constantly be sidelined unless, and until, those stereotypes and those myths are challenged and replaced.
NA: It beggars belief that the Government and their MPs voted against free school meals for the school holidays, particularly at the recent half-term holiday. It beggars belief that they had to be forced to grant free school meals in the summer, following a campaign that was in part led by Marcus Rashford. It shows an unwillingness to listen, it shows an unwillingness to realise the impact of their decision-making and this, of course, is illustrative of much of the Government’s response to COVID-19. It has been based on what they have received from advisers or political machinations, rather than expert advice.
The experts in the North told them a long time ago that the poverty gap was growing and that people who were already suffering, particularly young children, would suffer even more. If they had learnt the lessons from the summer, they didn’t show it at half-term and it looks unlikely that they will show it in the winter either.
NS: What implications do you think the recent US election has for the UK?
NA: There was a great deal of satisfaction and relief in many quarters at the loss of Donald Trump and the fact that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the next senior leadership team of the United States of America. Of course, there is still concern as to what will happen between now and the inauguration date, given the President’s refusal to concede.
However, what it means for the United Kingdom is perhaps troubling in the sense that the Prime Minister and much of the current Government have committed a lot to their support for President Trump. Now that we move into the next stage of Brexit, the requirement to have a trade deal with the United States of America is absolutely pivotal. Maybe the relationship with Biden and Harris might provide us with some concern. But I think, actually, they are more likely to listen to the needs of the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world, in the way that the ‘America First’ attitude of President Trump did not.
NS: Your memoir, The Prosecutor, was published in April 2020. What made you want to write a memoir?
NA: I’ve spent a career in public service, a quarter of a century as a prosecutor and half of that time as a chief prosecutor – between 2011 and 2015, I was the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West of England. I’ve been immensely privileged for the ability to provide some justice to people that had previously not had that justice. Also, I’m privileged that victims and survivors shared their stories with me. Therefore, it was essential for me to use my memoir as a way of being able to communicate the concerns, the learning and the issues that arose during my career.
I have always, as a public servant, been determined to tell people that I am their servant. I think this book is my way of being able to identify what needs to be done, what has been done and what still remains outstanding. But I also pay tribute to those who touched me during my career and I hope, through me, that you, the reader, will also learn something.
NS: What does the North mean to you?
NA: The North is my adopted home. I was born in Birmingham, I lived half of my life in London and I’ve now based myself here in Greater Manchester and travel extensively throughout the North. I’m touched by the reception I got from the people I engaged with. I feel a sense of ownership, I feel a sense of belonging, I feel a sense of duty. Having spent a career in public service, I want to continue to deliver for the people, not just of the North, but given that I live here for my neighbours and my communities.
When I hear about or understand that there is injustice, I want to ensure that something is done about that. I pay tribute to the people of the North who have survived extraordinary suffering and tragedies, but who have also developed and built great communities and I feel one of them.
NS: Judges have become increasingly involved in politics, especially in recent years over Brexit. This has led to accusations that judges are meddling in politics. Do you agree with that?
NA: Judges apply the law and if people break the law, including governments, then it is up to judges to appropriately find against them. It really concerns me that the Government of this day have decided to pick a fight with judges and pick a fight with lawyers, calling them ‘activists’. All lawyers and judges do is apply the law of the land. That is their first responsibility, their first duty.
If the Government didn’t break the law, there wouldn’t be any need for judges to find against them. We are in a very perilous place if we attack those who administer the law, because without the rule of law there is no democracy.
Alongside our media partnership, Northern Soul is also running a must-see online event. Our Editor, Helen Nugent, will be chairing an expert panel examining if mainstream media is biased against the North.
We’ll debate how well the North is represented in national media, if Northern stereotypes still abound, and the importance of regional journalism in the 21st century. Click here, to book your free ticket.