The Michaelmas Group

Rallying support for Merseyside

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Photograph: Colin Thomas

In 1982, Michael Heseltine challenged the private sector to reverse its desertion of the inner cities.  When he was Minister for Merseyside, he took a coach load of directors from the City of London round parts of Merseyside, urging them to come and invest.  There seemed to have been little response to his challenge when David Sheppard and Derek Worlock formed the Michaelmas Group in 1984.  The Group began when the two church leaders invited a group of senior managers from Merseyside businesses to meet in the Archbishop’s House on Michaelmas Day.  At that meeting, it was agreed that “those of us on the spot needed to see our responsibility and possibilities that lay with us, before asking outsiders to come and rescue us”[i].  

After that, the Michaelmas Group met over breakfast each month bringing together senior managers from the private and public sectors.  Nicholas Barber, senior Merseyside director of Ocean Transport and Trading, was a founder member of the Group.  He offered the services of Roger Morris as a secondee to be a (very part-time) secretary.  Early members included people intimately concerned with regeneration in the city, such as the Managing Director of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and a member of the Merseyside development Corporation. 

Although some initial consideration was given to mounting a ‘Made in Merseyside’ exhibition, the Group decided against such ventures, focusing instead on sharing information and having full and franks exchanges of views under Chatham House rules. 

Between the members of the Group, we could feed positive ideas for the regeneration of the city into strategic places.  When Derek and I spoke to government ministers, we were well briefed.”[ii] 

Littlewoods gave a lot of support, providing the meeting room, continental breakfasts and other resources.  Roger Morris took the minutes of meetings and carried out other tasks to enable the Group to run smoothly.  It was important to keep up the frequency and regularity of meetings because the Group was essentially about relationships and trust. 

The membership fluctuated but was around 20-25 at any one time. Usually individuals were invited to join; perhaps initially they were asked for one meeting and then approached to remain.  Only one person – the then Chief Constable - asked to join and he subsequently proved to be a very good and loyal member. Some people stayed for a long time; some moved on out of the city.   Latterly, a few perhaps stayed too long, after ceasing to have their original role and, therefore, no longer having access to the right information or contacts.   Indirectly, there was a route into government because senior officials from the then Government Office for Merseyside participated. There was always a measure of (understandable) ambivalence about having politicians as members.  However, when Harry Rimmer was Leader of the Council, he briefly attended. It was only towards the end that there were any women on the group when, for example, the Director of Public Health joined. There had not been any question of excluding women earlier: it says more about their absence from the positions from which the Group members were drawn. 

Learning and serving

From the Bishops’ point of view, the Michaelmas Group was something they wanted to have to give them a better insight into the commercial and public sectors.  It was clear to the Secretary[iii] that they both did some advance preparation for meetings and later discussed between themselves what had come out of them. There was probably an element of ‘ministry’ in having the Group; that is, it was a visible sign of their pastoral concern. However, it also seemed to be an arena in which they could ‘let their hair down’ a bit, speaking on a level to other managing directors as MDs of their own organisations.  However, it was clear the Bishops were the linchpin around which it all revolved.  This was evident at the one meeting that neither Bishop could attend: it did not work because the other members “couldn’t get their minds around being without the Bishops”. 

The usual pattern was that Bishop David chaired with Archbishop Derek sitting beside him and very often opening the discussion on a pre-planned topic. A trawl through the minutes would show that many of the subjects discussed – such as the Airport or the proposal for a Mersey barrage – went nowhere. However, there were issues, such as the employment dispute involving the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, on which the Bishops could use both their own standing and the added credibility of the Group’s backing.  The strike was a particularly bitter one.  In this instance, the two Church leaders tried to mediate with both sides behind-the–scenes.     

Having the authority to speak for the city

There were also occasions when they could be a vital conduit with central government. The two Bishops met Margaret Thatcher on three occasions and each time they were briefed by the Michaelmas Group.  Although it was usually difficult to tell whether the arguments for Liverpool resulted in any change of policy, on one occasion, at least, they seemed to yield positive results.  

“We had been briefed to make the case for Liverpool to be allocated one of the Freeports that the Government had decided should be placed in a limited number of seaports.  Mrs Thatcher took careful notes of what we said. As we left 10 Downing Street that day, we saw ministers entering for a meeting that we were told would decide where the Freeports were to be.  Later that day we read the announcement that Liverpool was on the list.  We were also told that when a senior civil servant heard this, he refused to believe it, because he knew that Liverpool was not on the recommended list at all.  The Prime Minister’s intervention in this case had positive effect, because Liverpool has been the most successful of all the Freeports in Britain.”[iv]

The Michaelmas Group was especially active during the period that Militant was in power on Liverpool Council.  “The two Bishops are said to have been the only ones to have had the Cabinet phone number during this time.”[v]  A huge amount of work was done over a ten day period when Liverpool councillors were disqualified for refusing to set a budget for 1985/6.

“During the time of the city’s financial crisis, when the city came to the verge of bankruptcy and power was divided up, Bishop David and Archbishop Derek worked through the Michaelmas Group to bring in advisers to see what could be done.  In a well-publicized letter to The Times, headed ‘The tragedy of our city’, they wrote: ‘Before the eyes of the rest of the nation, Liverpool is tearing itself to pieces . . . .  a city renowned for its spirit and solidarity in face of danger.”[vi] 

Later in the day on which The Times letter was published, 1st October 1985, in his address to the Labour Party conference, Neil Kinnock attacked the far left, and principally Liverpool City Council:

“I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council -- a Labour council -- hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers . . .I am telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos -- you can't play politics with people's jobs and with people's services or with their homes.”

In November 1985, a budget was set with a £30m loan. Over the next 12 months or so, there was a succession of court cases over the district auditor’s actions in relation to the councillors and various District Labour Party members were expelled from the Labour Party. 

The culmination was that the Bishops went to London on a Sunday evening, 7th March 1988, ready to meet all three party leaders. They were speaking as Church Leaders, but they had with them a briefing note on which they had consulted the Group.  The original draft was done by someone else, possibly Roger Morris, but “then a nun appeared in the India Buildings with an envelope marked ‘for Roger Morris’ eyes only’”[vii]. This was Derek Worlock’s annotated version, “which served to demonstrate his brilliance at drafting”[viii].  On the Saturday night, Roger Morris walked to Derek Worlock’s house in the snow and they sat on the floor together with all the versions around them to complete the task. 

“He was obviously a spiritual person and able to present needs and long-term objectives in a most balanced way.  He could always see what was politically possible and was one of the best draughtsmen I have ever seen.  He prepared well, could summarize what had been said and was a master of detail.  He didn’t just take everything in – he was nearly in a class by himself!”[ix]

The councillors’ appeal to the Law Lords was dismissed on 12th March and they were charged costs on top of the original surcharge. They were then dismissed from office. A Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition briefly took control of the Council, but Labour was returned to power in the May elections. 

Mutual influence

A recurrent theme in discussions was that of the image of Merseyside.  Members brought very different perspectives and private sector people, in particular, feared that persistent emphasis on the poverty of the city would deter investors and exacerbate the downward spiral.  As a result, they wanted to ‘talk up’ the area.

“. . . we tried to explain that while we shared the common desire of the members to publicise a more positive account of our city, we could not be party to a policy which silenced the most disadvantaged sector of our fellow-citizens.  To do so would be almost to encourage the development of a ghetto, whose members would be inaudible and possibly invisible.  Telling the truth about Liverpool – and indeed about most large cities – must mean telling a Tale of Two Cities, Enterprise City and Hurt City.  In making any evaluation it was necessary to look at the whole picture.”[x] 

There was learning on both sides.  The extent and depth of poverty and its implications was conveyed and it became less easy for members to ignore. But the Bishops also “both realised that they couldn’t just articulate the needs of the poor because if they did, those trying to turn Liverpool around couldn’t get any traction”[xi].  Thus David Sheppard started to talk about the ‘two cities’ and, around 1990, Derek Worlock reported a conversation with former dock workers in which he had asked whether they could see any prospect of work for themselves, say in the tourist industry.  They had been sceptical but thought it possible. Even though trade through the docks thrived, mechanisation and containerisation meant that on a small fraction of the former labour force was required. There was a need for all to come to terms with new economic realities rather than continue to hanker after the past.   

A significant arena

“Some commented that the Bishops spent too much time on public affairs and not enough on the pastoral needs of their own churches.  Roger Morris believes the pair worked hard both in a national and local setting, but did not always get the credit for what was achieved locally”[xii]. 

The importance of the Michaelmas Group lay in its role as “a forum where senior decision-makers in the city could meet and talk about the Merseyside agenda in trust and security”.[xiii] Then, when the broader scope for strategic discussion was curtailed, for example, by the abolition of Merseyside County Council, “it became more of an enabling group working behind the scenes”.[xiv]    In other words, it was an appropriate vehicle for the times that spanned critical moments in the city’s history.  Its hallmarks were trust and discretion.  Members brought knowledge and expertise, but it was perhaps the presence of the two leaders - rooted in the area and certainly identifying closely with it, but to some extent above the fray – that was its distinctive ingredient.

[i] David Sheppard, Steps Along Hope Street: My life in Cricket, the Church and the Inner City, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002, p.225

[ii] Sheppard, op cit, p.225 

[iii] I am grateful to Roger Morris for sharing his recollections with me.

[iv] Sheppard, op cit, p.255

[v] John Furnival and Ann Knowles, Archbishop Derek Worlock: His Personal Journey, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, p.200

[vi] Furnival and Knowles op cit. p.200

[vii] Interview with Roger Morris

[viii] Interview with Roger Morris

[ix] Roger Morris quoted in Furnival and Knowles, op cit. p.200

[x] David Sheppard and Derek Worlock, With Hope in Our Hearts: God’s reconciling love reflected in a unique partnership, Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.

[xi] Interview with Roger Morris

[xii] Furnival and Knowles op cit. p.201

[xiii] Furnival and Knowles op cit. p.199

[xiv] Furnival and Knowles op cit. p.200

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