We Scots have got used to London regarding Peterborough as a northern town two stops short of the Arctic Circle. Regular readers may already be bracing themselves for more Union-bashing broadsides. But fear not; it is actually a plea for sympathetic action on behalf of our Northern English cousins, with whom we share much in common—not least exasperation with the Southern English.
Travel beyond commuting distance from the London terminus of your choice and the idea you are still in the same country is hard to sustain. The early church was way ahead of its time when it created two Archbishoprics: Canterbury and York. Leaving aside a couple of brutal civil wars, Plantagenets and Tudors welded together a fairly homogeneous country. But, no sooner were the Scots and Napoleon tamed then empire offered untold riches. Just collect the world’s bountiful raw materials, process them in bulk, then sell then back to said world at huge profit.
That required copious amounts of power. In England, only the northern half had hydri and coal to provide this, so hugely profitable satanic mills built the great industrial cities of the North. Because industry required food and finance, the fertile South did equally well. But this was where social stratification—once evenly spread from Kent to Cumbria–took on geographic dimensions. Manchester and Durham might develop universities second to none but anybody who wanted to become anybody went to Oxbridge, often to study ‘The Greats’ and not some lower-class craft like engineering thatgot your hands dirty.
Success across the Empire was achieved by men (and it was only men) from all corners of Britain. But, governors’ palaces, City boardrooms, Whitehall ministries and the stock exchange rang to me plummy tones of Oxbridge graduate. Northern accents were a rarity. While Britannia ruled the waves, everyone from mil owner to mill worker prospered, sharinga a common sense of purpose from Hampstead to Halifax (although the people of one seldom visited the other).
After World War 2, such cosy consensus started to unravel. Steam locomotives went out of style; Koreams built ships better and cheaper; Australians strip-mined coal cheaper; Germans built better cars with better steel; Americans innovated chips and computers. All England could come up with was Smash and Clive Sinclair. Things were equally dire across the country in the 70s. But Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ put the City on steroids. Which boosted salaries in property, big law firms, big accountancy firms, restaurants—provided that they were within the aforementioned commute distance of the Square Mile. But anywhere above the dividing liner between the Severn and the’t Humber is now lumped in with the Scots as closer to Lapland than to civilisation
For all the hand-wringing about a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the struggling urban centres ringing Manchester, Leeds where jobs are few, wages are low and prospects are dim. All that is compounded by worsening disparities in health (see last August BMJ). People living in the North aged 35 to 44 our 49% more likely to die suddenly then those in the South. Whether it rates of obesity, or GCSE results, or even the density of Gregg’s outlets, the North comes off worse. As The Telegraph puts it:
London and the surrounding area will keep on booming as Britain’s richest corners pull further ahead of the rest of the country with a GVA growing by 2.2% per year, ahead of the UK average of 1.8%.
Successive governments have promised to read dress such imbalance. But investing he promised £500 million in northern transport projects is dwarfed by Crossrail’s £14.8bn or £9bn for the Olympics or £1.5bn for the “super port” in the Thames. As a result, the basic statistic of employment shows and ever widening North/South gap:
The upcoming Brexit will affect manufacturing, on which the North still depends, far more than services, which is the South’s economic flywheel. Unless the North finds a USP such as Scotland’s oil, whisky and tourism to compete with the voracious black hole London has become, this divide will yawn wider. It is already worse than what once split Germany. It is on track to spawn a fifth nations on these islands.—four to the north of the Severn/Humber divide with 45 million people sharing common GVA, common interest with each other and with their once and future EU partners.
For centuries, the 30 million in the Greater London City State that is the South has always regarded foreign languages spoken across the channel as untrustworthy, with the rest of the British Isles has a handy back yard to exploit. Bit in the self imposed isolation on which the South seems so keen, they may regret treating their northern cousins and go the way of narcissistically self-reliant City states like Constantinople or Venice.