Is the North pulling away from the UK?

After an extraordinary 3 weeks inter-railing I’m hastily scrambling together a first draft for next term’s Isis, the glossy termly publication of OSPL, on the North-South divide.

The notion of a rich South and a destitute North is beaten about so much as to be caricatured. I remember playing off the lazy stereotype for most of Michaelmas term. Still, as the academic Danny Dorling is quoted in this Economist article, there is an understanding – more or less reflected in the facts – that in the North ‘there are islands of affluence in a sea of poverty’ whereas in the South the sea is of affluence.

I was keen to speak to John Micklethwait, the Editor of The Economist, the world’s most globalised publication. Last month I did. When I challenged him that London’s runaway success had promoted it into the league of prosperous metropolises at the expense of the rest of the UK, he was civilly boisterous in a fashion so characteristic of the magazine he edits. ‘The problem for London’ he told me is that ‘the rest of Britain doesn’t realise how lucky it is.’ He is surely accurate in describing the capital as ‘an engine which keeps pumping more and more money back into the system.’

Even with CrossRail, the Olympics and a generously maintained public transport system London remains a net contributor to the Exchequer whilst the Northern regions fail to return all the money to the Westminster Piggy Bank that they spend. Despite this, ‘the rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful about it and the danger comes that you may at some time have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.’ For Micklethwait the capital is to be cherished, not maligned: ‘every other country in the world would love to have a London’. And whilst ‘yes, you get steeper inequality [in relation to the rest of the country]….overall it’s an incredible bonus’.

Micklethwait notes that, unlike competitor cities such as Mayor Bloomberg’s fiefdom of New York, ‘London is totally embedded into the rest of the country’. Institutionally this is true but institutions alone cannot suppress powerful and unhealthy economic trends. Back in 2006 when the next Conservative government would ‘share the proceeds of growth’ rather than striving desperately simply to find some of it, David Cameron was very fond of an analogy described by Polly Toynbee in her book, Hard Work: Life in Low Pay BritainIf society is a caravan moving through the desert then how far do the members at the back – the allegorical poor – have to fall before we are left with two caravans, not one?

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hall, previously the stock market of the Industrial Age – now a hotbed of Northern theatre

Personally I prefer the melted cheese analogy, which I’ve ripped off from someone somewhere, about two slices of pizza pulled further and further apart – admittedly it gets low marks for poetic flair.

In Manchester at least, times are a-changin’. One of my favourite comedy-drama shows is Cold FeetSky’s helpful cataloguing of all five series on Anytime robbed a significant portion of my productive summer. Starring James Nesbitt the show was set on location in and around the city, taking in the regenerated and gentrified districts of central Manchester and Salford – now home to MediaCity – as well as the suburbs around Didsbury and Trafford. Now over a decade old, the show’s characters personified the city Manchester has become in the wake of deindustrilaisation: cosmopolitan, educated and fun.

Living here, walking around town, I get one impression of what is going on in Manchester – and by a more tenuous extrapolation, the North. But the statistics, as well as the evident global, not national, character of Greater London, suggests to me that Northern England is becomes slowly disconnected from the rest of the UK: from Scotland and Wales by political devolution, and from the South-East by economic disaffiliation.

I would really welcome any thoughts in aid of my piece…


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