Howard Davies: Lessons from free trade crusader John Bright on staying in the EU

MT DIARY: Rochdale's finest, Bob Dylan's Brexit blues and how to rile the French.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

For the last two months, with scrupulous fidelity to the trips that featured in my calendar, I have been obliged to write about two fun-filled visits to Frankfurt, soon to become the post-Brexit financial capital of Europe, if London’s ebullient mayor has his way. Fortunately, this month I can take a break and leave the riverine promenades of the Main to their riotous devices, in favour of the green pastures framing the lovely rivers Roch, Irk and Irwell.

Finding accommodation for a family weekend in Rochdale is not straightforward. seemed initially puzzled by the request, though that hasn’t stopped it sending regular emails suggesting we repeat the experience, in that charming way they have. Eventually we found a hotel on the edge of a small urban park with a crown bowling green, overlooking the splendid High Gothic Town Hall.

It is fondly believed in Rochdale that the town was not bombed in the second world war because Hitler so admired the architecture that he wanted to take it down decorated brick by decorated brick and re-erect it as a Rathaus somewhere in the Reich. There is no reliable source for this story, but why spoil a good myth?

It is incontrovertible, though, that John Bright was Rochdale’s most distinguished son, outranking even Cyril Smith and Simon Danczuk, and his statue has pride of place in the park. Her favourite daughter, Gracie Fields, gets a theatre instead, perhaps because she went to live in Capri. Why anyone should choose Capri over Rochdale is a mystery to me, but there is nowt so funny as folk, as they say in those parts.

I do not know how Rochdalians plan to vote in the EU referendum: the views of townsfolk with a penchant for electing such curious MPs cannot easily be predicted. But I suspect that John Bright, a free trade crusader, would have been a stayer. He even promoted the then (and now) unfashionable cause of Anglo-French friendship, and supported the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860, which lowered tariffs on wine, mainly, boosting the cross-channel booze trade. No doubt the White Stagecoach Men of the day congratulated him warmly.

Bright is well worth remembering in these less idealistic times. Whether one can say the same for the group of Rochdale dialect poets commemorated on a neighbouring plinth is not so clear. I might be clearer in my view if I could capture the sense of ‘Aw sed awm O Rachde felley mon un we’re meterly fause there aw’ll warrunt te’. If that plinth had fetched up in Grossdeutschland along with the Town Hall, the Gauleiters would have been reet puzzled.

The next stop on my Northern Powerhouse (Trademark: G Osborne) tour of inspection, I stayed near the Irwell in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, erected as a tribute to Cobden and Bright’s abolition of the Corn Laws, which brought down the price of baguettes all over Lancashire. It is now a fancy hotel, full of ‘Scandiwegians’ at the weekend, over to watch the football, or Manchester United, depending on who’s at home. But the ghosts of Charles Hallé and John Barbirolli haunt the corridors, and conference rooms are named in their memory. Bob Dylan, who also played the Free Trade Hall a few times, is less in evidence. He has never forgiven the man who shouted ‘Judas’ in 1965 when he plugged in his electric Fender to play a raunchy version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Some unreliable historians think the incident took place in the Albert Hall, but this Manchester Grammar School boy, who had friends in the stalls on the day, is here to put them right.

So far as I am aware, Bob has not yet given his many fans guidance on how to vote in the Brexit referendum. In fact, for 50 years he has never given his view on anything. But perhaps we can guess it from his oeuvre. There are many clues to be found in his song titles. ‘If you Gotta Go, Go Now’ and ‘Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine’ seem to place him firmly in the Vote Leave camp. So does ‘I Shall Be Released’, with its promise of a better tomorrow. But ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ is a little more ambiguous in its messaging, and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ might have been written for Jean-Claude Juncker.

However in Manchester these days, it is footballers not rock stars who call the shots. Both teams are full of EU passport-holders, who have taken jobs from journeymen Brits. Juan Mata and Vincent Kompany should be Remainers, one might think. But United have now turned their backs on Europe, or is it the other way round?

Back in Paris, the French have begun to revert to type. I always find that comforting, in a way. In a recent poll of European views on whether the UK should stay in the EU, or take French leave (which over there is translated as filer á l’anglaise) they were the least favourable to our continued membership. A majority of those pollsters asked thought we should take our tiresome Euro-scepticism back home and keep it there in the fog and the rain. Perhaps that could be turned to advantage by the Remainers. If the French want us to go, surely the right and proper thing to do is to stay, if only to annoy them? That could be the winning argument on the day. If it doesn’t work we may hear another, rather more obscure Dylan song emerging from Downing Street: ‘Going, Going, Gone’.

Howard Davies is chairman of RBS. Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

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