When Andy Burnham, a former British government minister, won the election to be Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor recently he was probably focused on plans for the region’s transport, policing and housing – and, of course, all the behind the scenes political work that goes on when a new role is created.
And yet just a few weeks after taking on the role, terrorism has proved to be his first major challenge. Following the horrific bomb attack following a concert at one of Manchester’s most popular venues, he quickly has had to rise to the challenge.
It is a sad fact of life that as a senior politician, you will soon have to face – and deal with – a shocking incident of this kind.
These incidents arrive regardless of your long term plans and whatever you are doing. Gordon Brown’s early tenure as UK prime minister, for example, saw the Glasgow terror incident – which involved an attempted car bombing of the city’s airport in June 2007. Just four days into his premiership, Brown was dealing with the worst terrorist incident in Britain since the attacks on London in July 2005. Andy Burnham now finds himself in a similar situation.
Giving Manchester a voice
For Burnham, as the mayor and messenger of Manchester, an attack of this scale needs a response at several levels.
There is the immediately practical – dealing with casualties. There is the short term logistical – dealing with things like transport and closures. And there is the investigation and (hopefully) prevention of any follow ups.
But he will also need a “voice”. People look to particular figures to give a voice to their outrage, to talk about the need for calm, to provide reassurance, and to offer unity and express the sadness overwhelming many.
Part of the thinking behind the UK government’s enthusiasm for elected mayors was a perceived need to provide strong, local leaders. And a strong, local leader’s voice is exactly what is needed in Manchester now.
There is a certain choreography to the response to these events. It tends to go: a brief initial reaction, a visit to the scene, then a longer statement or speech. This is then usually followed by a press conference and interviews, along with visits to those affected.
I say this not to be callous, but to highlight the huge demand the news media places on leading political figures when tragedy strikes. I was peripherally involved in the recent Westminster vehicle and knife attack when some of my Edge Hill students were injured on Westminster Bridge, so I know only too well how voracious the news media becomes.
‘We are strong’
As expected, Burnham made a speech on the morning after the attack. It is probably better described as a statement, in that it was short and to the point. But despite its brevity, in nine paragraphs, he summed up just about every possible line of thought.
The speech covered evil, the shared grieving and the need for the city to carry on. He also praised the work of the emergency services, and highlighted the need for unity and the very human reaction of the local people who provided help to those affected.
Burnham now has the task of bringing people together while there is still doubt about many aspects of what happened. A vigil in the centre of Manchester was rapidly planned for Tuesday evening, and there will be many other potential initiatives to follow.
Incidents like this tend to leave a large and long-lasting footprint. The effects of the bomb will last for years, whether in concrete reality or in people’s awareness and memories. And Burnham must now lead the effort to ensure Manchester emerges from this shocking incident with cohesion and strength.