Mark Burns-Williamson’s election as the first ever West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner marked the end of an unlikely journey. Sam Casey reports.
Having a double-barrelled surname wouldn’t have gone down at all well on the no-nonsense working class streets of Castleford.
As a child, Mark Burns-Williamson’s parents therefore took the decision to drop the first half of his last name to protect him from playground taunts and worse.
It was only when he left school at 16 that the new West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, who up until that point had laboured under the misapprehension that his full name was Mark Williamson, found out about the white lie.
The revelation coincided with the start of a journey of self-discovery that culminated with his successful campaign to become one of the region’s most influential crime-fighting figures.
Reflecting on his early years as Mark Williamson, he says: “My parents, for obvious reasons, had wanted to protect me. A double-barrelled name was seen as an upper class thing.
“They wanted to shield us from jibes, I think they did it for the right reasons.
“If people wanted to make an issue of the name that was up to them.
“People that know me know I’m straightforward and down to earth.”
There are several factors that should perhaps have counted against Mr Burns-Williamson’s rise to the £100,000-a-year position of far-reaching influence he now holds.
His contented, but far from privileged, upbringing in Castleford, where he still lives, is one.
The son of a painter and decorator and a full-time mum of three and occasional shop worker, he was educated at the local primary and secondary schools.
He recalls how students at Castleford High School were streamed according to ability. Lower achievers were known as the ‘Castle’ group. Their more able peers were the ‘Ford’ set.
Despite being included in the latter group, Mr Burns-Williamson left school without a single qualification.
“While by and large I enjoyed my time there, when I look back now I didn’t do myself justice,” he said.
“I wanted to be a journalist. I blame myself, but the school was quite lax in terms of its standards.
“Because I didn’t get the grades my dad said, ‘Right lad, you’re going out and getting a job’. It was a tough time and there weren’t a lot of jobs so I just took what was available.”
He would later take steps to right the wrong of his disappointing academic record, but in the meantime he kept working at Castleford Market, where he had a Saturday job.
He also took a job as a labourer on a construction site, before completing an apprenticeship in stone masonry.
Based in Castleford and later Ferrybridge, he worked on the highways around West Yorkshire and later gained his heavy goods licence and spent time gritting roads during bad weather.
A desire to fight inequality had already been sparked by a friendship he forged with an Indian girl at Castleford Market who resented the arranged marriage she was being pushed into.
Now, in a depot of about 150 blue collar workers for whom Margaret Thatcher was the arch-enemy, he started to take an interest in politics and the trade union movement and was elected a shop steward.
Coming from a community that was built on coal mining, he was well aware of the need for solidarity as thousands of families faced hardship in the 1980s.
“I was quite unusual in that most of my friends on leaving school went straight down the pit,” he said.
“That’s what was expected in a lot of cases. My mum and dad never wanted me or my brother to do that, they saw it as a health risk. They’d seen people suffer with coal-related diseases and they didn’t want that for us.”
The fact that he risked direct confrontation with police as he led his colleagues out on strike is another factor that should, perhaps, have lengthened the odds against him one day becoming the man responsible for overseeing the force. It’s an irony that’s not lost on him.
“There was a great sense of solidarity,” he said. “Given that we were very closely linked to the miners, we felt that we were all under attack.
“I’d heard the stories of the perceived injustice of police being brought in from outside West Yorkshire and miners being stopped from travelling between picket lines. There was a feeling of police and government oppression of working class communities.
“It seems ironic now, but I had no inkling of what my future would hold.”
A trip across Europe as a national youth representative for the trade union movement in 1987, including a stop-off in Germany when the Berlin Wall was still dividing east from west, reinforced his sense of the injustice of inequality.
“I came back and got on a plane to New York to visit a friend. The contrast between what I had seen and New York was amazing. The experience was great, but seeing the excess compared with where I’d just been annoyed me.”
Having done an access course at Park Lane College in Leeds, Mr Burns-Williamson went to Bradford University to study history and politics in 1991. Graduating with a 2:2 three years later, he then job-hopped for several years before, in 1998, he became a councillor representing Castleford and Glasshoughton.
“I had reached a point where I wanted to represent my community and a lot of people had approached me to ask if I would stand,” he said.
A year later, in a move that was more by accident by design, but one that would shape his future, he accepted a position on the West Yorkshire Police Authority – the body that oversaw the work of the police force.
Replacing the previous Labour member on the authority who had fallen seriously ill, it was his first official involvement with the police.
He admits that until that point he “knew nothing about the police at all”.
“It took me at least 18 months to start to fully understand what policing was about,” he said.
Later elected chairman, he sat on the authority until it was scrapped last year when the Government introduced police and crime commissioners.
In perhaps the biggest irony of all, as a Labour politician, Mr Burns-Williamson fought to the last to persuade the Government to ditch the idea.
“The Conservatives had in mind a radical policy of elected police and crime commissioners that essentially had a lot to do with American thinking. We tried very hard to oppose that – I’m on public record saying that – but I did say that, if we lost that battle, as someone with my background and experience, I would put myself forward for selection.
“We ended up with a dog’s breakfast of legislation – an election in November and candidates who couldn’t send out leaflets.
“The Government consigned it, despite the efforts of the candidates, to one of the lowest turnouts ever.”
Only 13 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote. Mr Burns-Williamson admits many people still don’t understand what he does.
“In terms of the public understanding of the role there’s still a way to go. There’s a difference between operational day-to-day decision making and my strategic role, but in the public mind I’m not sure they get that.”
Essentially, Mr Burns-Williamson is responsible for scrutinising the work of the police, setting the budget and determining police priorities.
He can also hire and fire the chief constable, a task he was immediately faced with following the resignation of Sir Norman Bettison last October.
He admits being surprised at the amount of work the job entailed and says he has had to come to terms with being under the spotlight.
But he allows himself a wry smile when asked what his 16-year-old self would have said if told he would be where he is today.
“I just wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “But I think, if people from my sort of background can get into these positions then anyone can.
“That’s a key message I give to students – you can achieve a lot if you put your mind to it.”