The whole of England, including Bristol, suffers from the over-concentration of power in Whitehall and Westminster. Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty

December 3, 2019   4 mins

Seats across the northern ‘Red Wall’ have emerged as central to the general election as the Conservatives attempt to drive into Labour’s former heartland industrial towns. The increased competition is already intensifying the political focus on the region, with both parties making ambitious, even extravagant, promises.

But how important is the North as an idea to UK politics? Is it in some way different from the rest of the country? And is the North-South divide a true or useful concept?

One of the opening salvos of this General Election campaign was the publication of “The Manifesto for the North”. Backed by local papers across Northern England, it was the outcome of much hard work by local authorities, combined authorities and mayors.

Although the Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, was sensitive to the charge of “special pleading” for the region, that, of course, is exactly what it is.

The manifesto makes a powerful case — though one that has been made many times before — for a new settlement, based on devolved powers for the North of England.

Yet the major question for those involved was whether framing the problem as a North-South divide would actually be helpful, either to the North or to the rest of England. Or whether it’s actually an obstacle to the long overdue reform of England’s governance.

Of course the North is different: the economic North is less productive than the South, has lower investment and a less skilled workforce. It is institutionally weaker: its universities, for example, have excellence but not the depth and breadth of excellence found in other parts of the country. Its infrastructure has been chronically under-invested, and connectivity is desperately poor.

While there are many exceptions to this picture, and areas of manufacturing, petrochemical and digital business that meet world standards, the ‘economic North’ is certainly different.

There is a social North, too. On average, despite many exceptions, incomes are lower, health status worst, poverty more entrenched; a Northern working-class white boy may be less likely to enter Oxbridge than a BAME student from London.

Most important, there is a political North, an idea of the region promoted by Northern elites — local authority leaders, businesses and regional media — to demand a better deal for the region.

And there is a Northern identity.

It is actually hard to find any part of the region between the Trent and the Tyne where most people say their local or regional identity is more important than their national English or British identity, as the elites sometime claim. But, nonetheless, being a Northerner, or having one of the distinct Northern regional, county or city identities, is real and important. When the North’s leaders appeal to Northern identities, most Northerners accept the description.

So if the North so clearly exists, what then is the problem with talking about the North-South divide?

One is that the South does not exist, either economically, politically, socially, or in identity. It is a figment created by the Northern advocates to justify their claims.

There is, certainly, the London metropolitan region, an area of great prosperity (and of staggering inequality, the three English councils with the highest levels of child poverty all being in London). The capital also enjoys far more public spending per head than any other English region and a disproportionate share of transport investment.

But it is a stretch too far to claim that the greater London region is “the South”, even though most proponents of the North-South divide cynically use data from London and its hinterland to make this case. If CrossRail is useless for Cumbria, it is pretty useless for Cornwall too. London gets more than its fair share, but the two neighbouring regions have the lowest proportionate share of public spending per head in the entire United Kingdom.

Roughly a quarter of the English population is in the North and a third in the London metropolitan area. The “North-South divide” idea almost pretends that the rest of the English population don’t exist. The poverty coast that runs from Lincolnshire on the North Sea, along the English Channel and up to the River Severn defines the South as much as London does, but it doesn’t feature in the language of the North-South divide.

London’s dominance is a massive problem, but the North-South divide is a caricature. Perhaps this might not matter if it actually delivered for the North, but though the election is producing predictable promises, the claim has yet to translate into anything.

I’ve been in the Labour Party since 1976 and heard Northern English politicians talking about the divide all that time, over a period when, relative to the rest of England, the North has gone backwards. Large parts of its economy were ripped out by Thatcherism, and only partially rebuilt.

For all the talk of Northern Powerhouses under the coalition and the Tories, the region actually suffered disproportionately from austerity and cuts. Yet it was not helped that the previous Labour government had not delivered on the hoped-for devolution.

The deeper problem is that the whole of England suffers from the over-concentration of power in Whitehall and Westminster, itself the lingering legacy of empire. The British Empire has gone but not the empire of the mind. The imperial state mindset — that things are best run from London — is so deeply imbued in the system and the political class that most people in Whitehall aren’t even consciously aware of where their instinctive centralism comes from.

Wales and Scotland, and to some extent Northern Ireland, have substantial devolution. But the governance of England still hangs on the assumption that the UK Government — not even an English government — knows best.

This dominant centralism, unique in Europe’s developed economies, is not going to give up its power easily, and certainly not to please one region. It’s why “devolution deals” turn out simply to be new ways of getting local stakeholders to deliver central priorities and targets.

Every part of England needs to be able to break free from the grip of the union state based in London, with a fair funding system that responds to all the areas of social and economic deprivation.

But presenting the problem as the North needing a special deal from Whitehall actually accepts, legitimises and entrenches the power of the UK central state over England. Some concessions may occasionally be granted, but power will remain where it always has.

Ultimately the politics of North v South makes northern politicians reluctant to find common cause with local leaders across the rest of England, the common cause that is the precondition for any radical change. Until that happens we will never be free of the empire of the mind.

John Denham is a former Labour MP and director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton.