When Brian Simpson says of himself “You can take the lad out of Wigan, but you can’t take Wigan out of the lad”, it is a proud boast, without a trace of self-criticism. The chairman of the European Parliament’s transport and tourism committee has travelled a long way from his working-class roots in the industrial north-west of England of the 1950s, but his tribal attachments – including his marked regional accent and his devotion to the local rugby-league club – are still clear.
Along the way, he has won respect from a wide range of colleagues and contacts – even if his resolute northern bluffness can ruffle some feathers. The patrician boss of a European trade association recalls Simpson turning up to deliver a keynote address “dressed for a darts match”. But this long-standing socialist is no caricature: he has for years deftly managed the inevitable tensions of embracing local interests and a European vision, trade-union sympathies and the search for efficiency, and – famously – an enthusiasm for heritage with an admiration for high-technology. His love of historic railways is legendary, and this champion of cross-border high-speed rail interoperability has also qualified to drive preserved steam locomotives.
His upbringing in a close-knit mining community – “before Thatcher came along and shut down all the pits” – provoked a sense of injustice at what he saw as pigeonholing people in the village as suitable only for the cotton mill or the coal mine from the age of 15. Had it not been for his early prowess at sports – rugby league, in particular – he would have followed most of his family down the mines. Instead, he became a teacher in inner-city Liverpool, and an active member of the local Labour Party. “My parents saw I had some talent, and made sacrifices so I could stay on at school,” he says.
Now, more than 20 years after he was first elected to the European Parliament, he sees some “big strides” in remedying injustice, through gains in equal rights and political rights in the UK and in the EU. But “there is still injustice, partic-ularly for poorer people, and particularly in the lack of education opportunities”. In transport policy, his focus for more than 20 years, he also sees progress, including in passenger rights, but he admits to “great frustrations” at member states’ resistance to co-operation. “They defend their own patch rather than take an EU perspective,” he says. Instead, they should be working on how to get a train “from Wigan to Milan without it being shunted into sidings” or on how to create a real ‘single sky’ in Europe.
Simpson sees the current UK government retreating once again from the EU, after years when ministers in the Labour government “became more keen to see MEPs”. For a time, he himself served as a European parliamentary private secretary to former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who “was keen to know what was going on in Brussels”. Simpson blames Whitehall-based civil servants for what he calls the “UK psyche problem” of reactivity rather than proactivity. “They have not got a clue about how the EU works”, he says, and the UK “pays a penalty for that”.
He insists on a local focus for his work as an MEP in the Socialists and Democrats group. “I have no loyalty to London. I’m here to represent the people and constituents of north-west England,” he says, “and I believe they are best served by adopting an EU perspective, and working with other regions”. When back in his constituency, he says he tries to present the EU’s work through a local perspective. “The EU has often failed to explain itself” and national governments “have a vested interest not to do that”, he says, so MEPs should “get out into local communities and talk to the people there”. He is dismissive both of Westminster and of the “Brussels bubble”.
His criticisms extend to the Parliament. “We spend an inordinate amount of time discussing things we have no control over,” he says. “One of my frustrations as chairman is to get members to focus.” He is particularly concerned that “the great and the good of the foreign affairs committee” receive prime-time coverage for resolutions on “obscure issues” over which the EU has little influence or on “the ins and outs of treaties”, while debates on legislation are relegated to late-night sessions.
“On the streets of Wigan, the Lisbon treaty is not mentioned – but they do say ‘I like your passenger rights’ or welcome what we did on part-time workers’ rights. We don’t do enough about that in the Parliament,” he laments. “For me politics is about real issues for real people.” He sums himself up bluntly: “I don’t go much on this philosophy crap.”
1953: Born, Leigh
1974: Certificate in Education, West Midlands College
1974-89: Secondary-school teacher, Liverpool
1981-89: Local government councillor, Liverpool and Warrington
1989-2004: Member of the European Parliament, Socialist group’s spokesperson on transport and tourism
1997-2004: European Parliamentary private secretary to the UK deputy prime minister
2004-06: Director, North West Rail Campaign
2006-: MEP, group co-ordinator on transport and tourism
2009-: Chairman of the Parliament’s transport and tourism committee
The self-portrait is reflected in many colleagues’ perceptions: “a down-to-earth guy”, “a people’s man with his feet firmly on the ground”, “a good sense of humour”, and “plenty of common sense” are typical of the comments from those who have worked with him. There are many stories of Simpson leading the committee on site-visits and holding up the party while he chatted comfortably with local employees.
He has successfully combined earthiness with effectiveness: Antonio Tajani, the European Commission’s vice-president and a former commissioner for transport, remembers him “as somebody who always kept his word, which made negotiations with the Parliament easier and fruitful”.
The current commissioner for transport, Siim Kallas, speaks cheerfully of Simpson’s “genuine European perspective on transport” and his “straightforward manner”, which make him “an outstanding parliamentary chair” who is “ready to co-operate”.
Georg Jarzembowski, a former centre-right German MEP who was for years Simpson’s principal political opponent on the committee, recalls his commitment and fairness, as well as his deep know-ledge of the sector. Even Michael Nielsen, head of the Brussels office of the powerful road transport lobby, IRU, and as such hardly a natural ally, salutes him as “fair and committed” as a “cross-party deal-breaker remaining true to his values”.
It has not all been plain sailing. Simpson admits it was “traumatic” when he lost his seat because of boundary changes in 2004, but he bounced back after two years, taking over from a retiring colleague, and in due course become a popular choice as committee chairman. He pays tribute to the support of his wife and three children, who have remained in Wigan (he boasts that his daughter now works for his beloved rugby-league club), and insists that co-operation explains much of what he has been able to do: “I was brought up on the team ethos, and I’ve tried to promote that in the committee and more widely in politics.” Even in the contentious atmosphere of the EU, there are plenty who are happy to be on his team.