Last Thursday afternoon I received an email from George Jones commenting on an article which I had written for that day’s The MJ. He was impressed The MJ editorial team had published a book review, having told me only two weeks ago (over one of our regular lunches that at times felt more like tutorials, other than for the food and fine wine); ‘they don’t like or appreciate book reviews’. ‘We need to persuade the editor to publish regular reviews of books relevant to local government,’ he continued. George implied he would much enjoy submitting such reviews.
Sadly, he was to have a massive brain haemorrhage within hours of writing this email – and died the next day. Now we shall never have the opportunity to be enlightened by what would have been incisive/insightful reviews.
While George agreed with much of my book review, I knew there would be a follow up email with his LSE tutor’s critique and ‘red ink’ comments, which nearly always happened whenever I wrote a piece. In some ways, it was as if George were still the tutor and I was the LSE undergraduate in 1973/76. The reality was that George expected everyone to write and argue with the intellectual rigour he himself applied over some 60 years. That never changed.
Talking to friends and colleagues these last few days, everyone has expressed the same memory of George being there to listen, to review and to advise – regardless of whether this advice was sought or not. That said, and while he was always interested in the argument, he showed great warmth to the person too, and retained friendships and professional relationships for decades. People mattered to George.
Rigour also mattered because the subjects mattered, no more so than when the subject was local government. George, along with his long time co-author John Stewart, was one of the two foremost local government academics for many decades. They shared the ability to draw on academic theory and analysis to produce articles, lectures and interventions that, however complex the subject, were rigorous yet accessible and sought after by practitioners and policy makers.
Both wrote together for many years – and had regular columns in The MJ from 2006 – arguing from a practical knowledge and understanding of local government, its internal working and its politics, which they respected. Indeed, George’s appreciation and advocacy for local government won him great personal respect across local government and more widely. Countless politicians, policy-makers and senior executives over the years have found themselves persuaded to change course by George’s argument and challenge.
There were few conversations with George or articles or papers from his keyboard which did not refer to his membership of the Layfield Committee on Local Government Finance. Membership of the committee made a lasting impact on George and his thinking about local government. Indeed, he and John wrote about ‘Layfield Forty Years On’ in The MJ last December. He was strongly of the opinion that local government should both be financially independent and able to decide what it should do without central government diktat or restraint. George would always argue with passion, conviction and evidence that local government is government, not administration or an agency of Whitehall, and thus please never expect him to endorse ideas such as ‘earned autonomy’. If it is not too bold a suggestion, if and when local government gets the right to raise local income tax, it would be a fitting tribute to call it the George Jones Tax!
And at a time when many are calling for a national social care service, at The MJ contributors’ lunch earlier this year, George called for a local health service under the control of accountable local authorities – not a Secretary of State. I expect that George’s health service accountability will one day be realised.
Of course, there was much more to George than local government. He wrote many books including the official biography of Herbert Morrison, which he co-authored with Bernard Donoghue.
George was fond of saying how he rated Morrison ahead of Atlee, and the former could have been a better prime minister. Actually, I suspect that Morrison might well have created an NHS closer to George’s ideal than Bevan or Atlee! And George was a leading expert on the role of prime ministers.
As professor of government (latterly emeritus professor) at LSE, George was author or co-author of many books, papers and lectures, which are always worth reading. One of his finest books, which still speaks to local government today, was Borough politics: a study of the Wolverhampton Town Council, 1888-1964, published in 1969. I commend it as a great tribute to local government – and to George.
I and many across local government and beyond will miss a great friend, a fine intellectual champion of local government, excellent The MJ columns and quite simply, a lovely man.
John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator on public services and public policy