“MONEY liberates you,” says the North-East’s most famous entrepreneur, who fears that the region has lost its purpose, and risks becoming a low-wage, low-skills economy.
But the tycoon explains in a new book on North-East football that it was a radical Labour government which laid the foundations for his success.
Up There, by North-East writer Michael Walker, chronicles the region’s changing fortunes as both a football and industrial power.
In a chapter of the book Sir John talks about the influences that shaped his youth – coal and the camaraderie of working people – and reveals how the post war Attlee government helped liberate him from the limited life-choices his parents had faced.
The first seven years of his working life were spent down the pit, starting at Newbiggin Colliery when he was 16.
“I was a surveyor at the coalface,” Sir John recalls. “I used to watch these men lying on their side digging, thinking: What a job.
“The great thing was the camaraderie, the working class spirit. The ‘Big Society’? All the mining villages had the big society long before anyone thought about that. You lived with each other. There were 34 houses on my street and you knew everyone on it. We lived as one.
“But a coal-village life was structured, your life was set out for you and ruled by the colliery manager, the headmaster and doctor, they controlled your life. I always feel that before the war I
was fodder for the coal mines, working-class fodder.
“It was expected of me to go down the pit - it would have affected my father if I hadn’t, he might have lost his house.
“Then Attlee came in and there was a social and political revolution. The Labour Party had fought hard for change and got in with a massive majority in 1945.
"I was a strong left-winger. I could never understand why my father and other miners didn’t vote Communist. He was a Labour man, he wasn’t left-wing. The miners were never extreme.
“I was a strong supporter of Attlee. There was one road in and out of our village and I remember holding a tin of paint, white paint, while my father and his friends painted on the road: ‘Vote for
Labour, do it well, let the Tories go to hell.’
“There was change. It was a tremendous liberation. It gave us free health, free education and nationalized industries. They nationalized the pits, and that was the pinnacle of my father’s life.
“I can still see it, the day they pulled back a little curtain to say: ‘This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of The People.’ That was liberation.
“They also got more money. And money liberates you. You feel cowed when you don’t have money. I’m a product of that Attlee government.”
By 1986, when Sir John was proudly showed the then Prime Minister around the MetroCentre he was an unashamed Thatcherite.
At the time the MetroCentre was Europe’s largest shopping and leisure complex, employing more than 6,000 people in the service sectors which gradually replaced those heavy industries – shipbuilding, mining, engineering - that had made this region world famous.
“The North-East had a raison d’etre. What is it now? Nobody knows,” says Sir John.
“We were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution before anybody else and we came to the end of it before anybody else.
“We’ve probably reached the bottom of a curve but we haven’t found what is next.
“When China got organised, their labour was so cheap, it hit us. In shipbuilding we reacted to change too late, we didn’t re-invest and look ahead. We had short-term capitalism.
“There’s a negative feeling about the North-East. Labour brought us great change socially and economically. But it didn’t change us culturally.
“This is a Labour fiefdom and it has kept us culturally static.
“Our wage structure is too low; there are three million people in the region, not enough. But we don’t want companies coming here for cheap labour. Tell them to go to hell,” adds Sir John.
BOLD - Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom & Bust published by deCoubertin Books is out on August 18.