Say what you like about Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (and plenty of people do). But there’s no doubt that his tubthumping speeches attacking the Conservative government this October marked a watershed moment for English regionalism, in a year when “The North” loomed somewhere behind almost every major political debate.
Looking like a well-preserved member of a lesser ’90s indie band (Northern Uproar perhaps), Burnham appeared in a series of press conferences widely celebrated for their passionate invectives against Tory mishandling of Covid-19 and its impact on northern cities. “People are fed up of being treated in this way,” railed Burnham, giving voice to a simmering mood of collective anger in the North of England. “The North is fed up of being pushed around. We aren’t going to be pushed around anymore.”
It’s important to be subtle when invoking mega-regions like the English North and South. But Burnham was right to emphasise the geographical sub-plot of 2020’s main narrative. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately ravaged Britain’s larger cities, most of which, it so happens, are in the post-industrial North. Meanwhile, the mainly suburban and rural South has been relatively lightly affected (London is the great exception here, of course, but even it faced fewer restrictions than most northern cities for much of the year).
In responding to the short-term events of 2020, Burnham was drawing on a more deep-seated view that the North has been a victim of the political trends of recent decades. The reluctance of the current Tory government to provide financial aid for virus-hit Manchester this autumn struck many northerners as unfair – apparently yet another example of ill-treatment by a London-centric political establishment which has been turbo-charging the South to the detriment of northern regions since the 1980s.
In a country like England, where the vast majority of political and cultural institutions have been based in London for hundreds of years, the North-South divide has a scarily long history. But neoliberalism, the dominant political ideology of the last few decades, has made existing inequalities between different parts of the country even more entrenched. Since the late 20th century decline of the northern economy’s heavy industries (mining, shipbuilding, textiles, steel), successive governments have been unable or unwilling to find viable replacements for northern workers.
Meanwhile, politicians have increasingly restructured British society around the service and finance industries of London and the south-east. To be sure, the picture is complicated by local nuances. Southern enclaves like the ungentrified parts of East London and much of Cornwall, for example, are hardly hotbeds of affluence, and even within apparently mega-rich postcodes like Kensington and Chelsea, as the 2017 Grenfell tragedy highlighted, the wealth gap can be shockingly steep. But over time the overall pattern has been an unmistakable “levelling down” of England’s northern half, while the South now contains some of the most extravagantly wealthy areas in Europe.
The net result is a harrowing set of statistics, which offer some context for Andy Burnham’s claim that contemporary northerners are sick of being pushed around. People born in the North of England tend to live on average a couple of years fewer than their southern counterparts. They are significantly less likely to attend university (especially elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge), and even if they do, when they graduate they are likely to earn far less money than southern graduates and have much less disposable income (even allowing for the greater cost of living in a city like London).
More anecdotally, there are countless examples of people with northern backgrounds encountering what might be called regional prejudice in educational and professional settings. In the same week as Burnham took his stand against Westminster, Lauren White, a young woman from Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, published a report which compiled evidence of widespread discrimination against students with northern accents among her peers at Durham University.
In one especially disturbing example, the report relayed details of a practice called “rolling in the muck”. This involved middle-class southern students attempting to sleep with working-class northerners in the course of what appeared to be a kind of elaborate hazing ritual. Such examples seem to confirm a general sense that northern people are often patronised and looked-down on by members of a privileged elite hailing from (parts of) the English South.
So what is to be done about all this? Tinkering with the surface of the North-South divide is unlikely to be very effective. In the wake of the 2019 General Election, which saw Boris Johnson’s Conservatives win a large number of previously Labour-held northern seats, there was talk for a short while about a new “levelling up” agenda for the North. Vague gestures were made at channelling investment away from the hyper-developed south-east in order to boost the economies of the English regions.
However, even before Covid-19 struck, this Tory campaign was shown up to be little more than hollow rhetoric. In February, confirmation arrived that construction work would finally begin on the High Speed 2 rail link connecting London and Manchester – alongside a more disappointing admission that it would not, in its first phase, extend any further northward than Birmingham.
Grander schemes like Northern Powerhouse Rail – which has the potential to improve transport links for the whole North rather than just create a commuting corridor between London and the near North West – now seem unlikely to fare too well, since the pandemic has forced the government to grudgingly spend billions on furlough schemes and salvage packages for businesses large and small.
Instead of waiting for investment and infrastructure to “trickle down” from benevolent Westminster politicians, a far better course of action for the neglected North would be to follow Andy Burnham’s lead and take history into its own hands. One way of doing this would be to revive the sidelined cause of regional devolution, put on hold for the last 15 years or so. Back in 2004, Tony Blair’s tragically flawed New Labour government made a decent attempt at redistributing power throughout the English regions, culminating in a referendum for a North East “regional assembly” which was heavily defeated.
In spite of the failure of such schemes, there is no reason why a campaign for devolving more power to the North should not take root again in the more radical climate of the 2020s. As in so many walks of twenty-first-century life, it is the younger generations of “millennials” and “zoomers” who have suffered most from the effects of austerity and now Covid-19. But the flipside of this is that these demographics have built up a good deal of anger and energy, qualities that can and must be put to good use when it comes to dreaming ambitious new ways of creating fairer, more equal societies.
As the foundation this year of the dynamic, media-savvy Northern Independence Party shows, the North’s millennial and zoomer communities are making increasingly loud demands – that more political representation should be provided for northern areas, that more cultural institutions should be relocated to northern cities and towns, and that the North’s dilapidated civic buildings and transport systems should derive more tangible benefits from being part of one of the world’s richest economies.
It should be possible for every child born in the North of England to have at least as much of a shot at life as someone born in any other part of the country. For all the suffering and despair of 2020, at least over the last 12 months, this urgent, fundamentally righteous demand became a little more difficult to ignore.