The Cult of Stupid
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The Cult of Stupid

Review: The Northern Question

… it’s not about mushy peas

NO. IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT THESE ARE CALLED EITHER (Source: Christopher Jones/Alamy via BBC)

I picked up Tom Hazeldine’s book on a whim while browsing in Waterstones in Newcastle, a city which crops up a fair amount on the course of his discussions about the fractious and complex relationship between the UK’s regions. Let’s be clear from the outset, it’s not exactly a light read, and is sometimes couched in the stilted and abstruse style of those used to writing for political journals, but it’s worth the effort for someone who’s not explicitly a political scientist¹ or an economic historian, I think.

Early on he picks at an idea that has long vexed me: the idea that from the metropolitan “centre”, the north has often been seen as a problem, a thorny issue to be addressed, something fundamentally other which is to be viewed with mistrust and suspicion.

That the north should also see itself partly through that lens is not a surprise, because it has almost always been presented that way, even to itself. These fissures have gone back many centuries, from the creation of the Danelaw, the Harrying of the North, the origins of the Barons’ Revolt against John that led to Magna Carta. Even in our literature we endure mentions of the “dark satanic mills” and see many of the poets held up as most symbolic of our national character cleaving to the south as the epitome of a bucolic English identity². It’s quite ironic really, given that much of the foundation of modern English culture rests on the northern shoulders of Bede, Caedmon³, and its monasteries, cathedrals and abbeys.

Lots of planets have a north

By the author’s own admission, part of the inspiration for this book is Gramsci’s The Southern Question, and his discussion of the divisions in the Italian polity in the 19th Century. As a result, the book draws parallels with industrial development in northern Italy during this period. Given his CV it shouldn’t be much of a shock how he triangulates his analysis, but he often has little time for either political wing in their social and political stewardship of the region. He also, not unsurprisingly, has a centre of gravity that sits squarely in the north west; he has a high regard for Manchester, and doesn’t let us forget it. Most of his sharpest criticism however is focused on the left, who he says have done little to overturn a Conservative agenda over decades that has sought to consolidate the advantages and the power base of its traditional heartlands.

The book charts the ongoing tension between a north rich in natural resources, and a south keen to exploit and co-opt the wealth it produced. It was no coincidence that many of the more radical political movements, such as Chartism, or Luddism, began in the northern cities, or that attempts to gain more autonomy were bitterly opposed by an establishment based further south. At the same time, many who grew wealthy in the north felt the need to ingratiate and assimilate into a culture based around the manners and conventions of court and polite society. Hazeldine also charts the ongoing ability of those in power to mobilise the weapons of populism to maintain control. He points out that anti-immigrant and protectionist rhetoric were being deployed even back in the 19th Century by the likes of Disraeli, as the mill towns and industrial centres of the north came up against the gold standard and the competitiveness of their exports. Undercutting this tension was a history of chronic underinvestment in those regions. By the 1950s this situation had got so bad that northern resentment was a principal trigger for Macmillian’s infamous “Night of the Long Knives”, following a number of disastrous by-elections for the Government. If his tone with the continued indifference and apathy in Central government is cool, by the time he gets to Thatcher the icicles have properly formed. His contempt for Thatcherism and its works is implacably frigid. This is particulary apparent as he describes the recession of the early 80s, Keith Joseph’s abortive attempts to turn Merseyside into a neo-liberal Petri dish⁴, and the build up to (and aftermath of) the Toxteth riots. It’s interesting to note that the response in Whitehall to Michael Heseltine’s request to set up a task force to investigate mitigation against the causes was alarm, principally because they realised that other northern regions would need (and ask for) exactly the same things⁵.

However, if his contempt for Thatcher and her works is palpable, his opinion of Blair is even lower. While she was at least honest for her distaste of the north, given her own background, he reserves a particular scorn for Blair’s two-facedness, simultaneously trying to claim to his own base in the north that the North-South divide was real (and serious), while trying to play the issue down nationally. It wasn’t helped by disquiet within Labour’s own northern base that the relatively few jobs that were being created, replacing skilled trades, were in lower-paid service jobs. Call centres were a popular choice for the north east especially, and even at the time there was concern about the type of economy that was creating in the region. At the same time financial service sector jobs in London and the south east saw money pouring in. But a reckoning was coming. When Labour lost the 2010 election in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, its vote in the north had fallen by almost a third from 1997.

As austerity bit, it was clear that any kind of pretence at regional equity or at least balance was going to be dropped. As cuts were imposed the poorest areas of the country suffered the worst. Talk of the “Northern Powerhouse” to emanating from the Treasury shore up support was as empty as it was dissembling, and most in the north knew it. There was a buffer though, as European funding did help to prop things up a little. That too would not last forever, and the north would in fact vote to cut its own throat on that score, partly as a revolt against the very austerity imposed upon it by a metropolitan cabal it despised. The voting patterns triangulated for income and education level told their own story: the poorest were angry and mutinous. They wanted to signal to an establishment that had deserted them, but had encouraged them to vote remain. Certain people⁶ rode on that wave, and made the very most of it. The current political landscape is hugely volatile, and the aftermath of both COVID and the realities of EU withdrawal have yet to be fully felt. But there is little sense that the government in Westminster has any real care for the nation’s regions; they are, as ever they were the creation, and the servants of their southern homelands. For now they hold on to seats in the north that they took in 2019, but one wonders how long that state of affairs might continue.

In the medium term it is very likely that questions of both Scottish independence and Irish reunification will rise again. If those things happen, and the UK fractures, the question of the relationship between north and south will be thrown into even sharper relief than they are now. That conversation is not going to be pretty, though there is little appetite for them in any quarter. The pressure on London in the post-Brexit landscape to not lose ground to our one-time European colleagues & allies will concentrate Westminster minds on circling those wagons, but the northern question will not go away.

¹ I’m not hugely keen on the term, but it will have to do.

² Wordsworth is an exception, rather than the rule.

³ Caedmon is widely regarded as the first recorded vernacular English poet.

⁴ He petitioned Thatcher to create an incubator area in Liverpool to test some of the ideas he’d been most interested in. Her response was cool, which was surprising given how much infludence he seemed to exert on her economic thinking.

⁵ The use of the words “managed decline” was apparently forbidden, even though everyone knew that’s what was going on.

⁶ We know who they are, there’s no need to summon them here.

No, I distinctly said, “CULT”

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Darren Stephens

Darren Stephens

A northern man

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