Somewhere or other in the North. Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

October 14, 2020   5 mins

The Covid epidemic has, we learn from every media outlet this last week, reignited the North-South divide in England, threatening the Prime Minister’s election-winning promise to “level up” the North. There is a danger, said one northern Labour spokesman on Radio 4, that the disease might return us to the “days of Margaret Thatcher and the Miners’ Strike”, she being widely considered the ruthless author of the North-South divide.

But she wasn’t, of course — she merely expressed it. It was especially bitter in her day because a century of political warfare came to a head. For a hundred years, ever since the dawn of democracy with the Third Reform Act, British politics had been all about whether the industrial North (Liberal, then Labour) could forge alliances with the Celts to outgun the almost impregnable Tory bloc of the English South.

On the surface, Thatcher was defeating the miners of Northern England, Wales and Scotland in the name of modernity: what she was really doing was re-establishing the absolute dominance of the English South within England — restoring the way things had always been until the Industrial Revolution muscled up the North. The North-South divide within England wasn’t caused by Thatcher, nor even by the Industrial Revolution itself. It has existed since before England was England.

When the legions of the Emperor Claudius invaded in 43 AD, the limit of the tribes in Britannia who already made their own coins closely follow the line of the Jurassic Divide (marked by the purple line), where the fertile lime and chalk soils of the south-eastern quadrant of Britannia give way to far, far older igneous rocks and shales. At the height of Roman Britannia in around 300 AD, the limits of their villa civilisation also correspond almost exactly to this line.

The fact is that geology (better soils) climate (warmer weather) and location (being closer to the new ideas and great markets of the continent) conspire uniquely in favour of the South. If geography is fate, then it is nowhere more so than in England. And so, when the English themselves conquered and re-named England, they inherited this timeless divide along with everything else.

Our first historian, the Venerable Bede, repeatedly notes that the English are split into northerners and southerners. In 735 AD, the Papacy signed off on the division of the English Church into York and Canterbury. Athelstan briefly united the land in 927AD — but by now much of the North was firmly settled by Scandinavians and unity was only skin-deep: when the Vikings came back at the end of the 10th century, they found (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laments) a ready welcome in the North, crippling English resistance and finally enabling the total annexation of England by Cnut in 1016.

And then came the Normans. Harold was ready to hit William the moment he landed, but when Harald of Norway landed in the North, there was nothing for it but to race up to confront him: the Northerners would (and some did) rise up for a Viking pretender at the drop of a hat, feeling more kinship with Scandinavians than with the Godwins of Wessex. Harold beat Harald, but then had to face William with a hastily-gathered new army. The North-South divide doomed England to centuries of French-speaking rule.

So long as the new elite stayed a French-speaking caste, they gave England its first real cultural and political unity. But as they became Anglicised, so the old divide reappeared. By 1276, chivalric heralds were treating England North by Trent (citra aquam de Trente ex parte boriali) as a separate division, with its own King at Arms. The medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge divided their student bodies into Australes and Boreales,  with the Trent again the border.

By the late 14th century, the elite were all speaking English and acting like good old-fashioned English warlords again: in 1398, at Nottingham, Richard II threatened the men of Londoun, and of xvii shires lyying aboute (in other words, Southern England) that if they didn’t pay him a vast sum, he wolde gadre a greet [h]ost forto destroie thaym.

In 1405 the Percys and the Mortimers seriously proposed dividing England permanently into northern and southern realms. Fifty years later, their descendants were central players in the Wars of the Roses, in which the rules of Anglo-Norman chivalry were permanently abandoned, and whose line-up quickly focussed into Northerners and Welshmen vs Southerners and  Westerners.  At the battle of Towton in 1461, 20,000 Englishmen out of a population of under three million were hacked to death at close quarters on a single afternoon because both Northerners and Southerners (who could barely understand one another’s English) gave battle determined to offer no quarter.

The new Tudor dynasty seemed to settle things because they were able to join the muscle of their native Wales with the power of the South: the North had no chance against this alliance. The Reformation nailed down the political and religious hegemony of the South by brute force against the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) and the Northern Rebellion (1569), when Elizabeth’s Privy Council warned her: “North of Trent men know no other Prince but only a Percy or a Neville”.

But the question was reopened with the accession of James I and the attempt to annex Ireland: now, the North could hope for alliances with the Celts against the overweening Southerners. This was the central motor of the Civil War, the fundamental issue which drove Britons to kill other Britons in greater numbers, proportionately, than the Germans did in the First World War: was the South to rule the British Isles, or would a Royal league of Celts and Northerners be able to defy it? Only by playing the ultimate high-risk game — radicalising ordinary Southerners by announcing that they were God’s agents — was Cromwell able to win the day.

After the Glorious Revolution, Englishmen gratefully abandoned ideology as, once again, the issue seemed settled. First Great Britain, then the United Kingdom, were formed by a united British Isles elite whose cultural identity was centred on the South — or rather, on the right bits of it, i.e. central London, Bath and Brighton, and the rural Home Counties. Then the Industrial Revolution, during which geology for once favoured the North, revived its fortunes: previously the fortress of Catholicism, the North now expressed its non-Southern-ness by embracing the stripped-down Rites and flattened hierarchies of Non-Conformism. At the peak of the United Kingdom’s industrial pre-eminence, the Chartist movement tried one last time to revive Northern political resistance, even attempting to create an alternative Parliament in Manchester. They failed.

But then, in 1884, the masses (who had never been asked about the creation of the United Kingdom) got votes. The Celts immediately began to vote either openly (the Irish) or implicitly (the Scots and Welsh) for nationalist agendas; but so, in their own way did the English. Immediately, the Southern English formed a virtually impregnable Tory bloc, while the Northerners voted otherwise, and looked for alliances (often blatantly tactical or even downright cynical) with the Celts, to outgun them. That is the entire story of our politics in the democratic era, and it merely replicates the sides, and the tactics, of the Civil War itself.

In 2019, Boris Johnson finally embraced the destiny manifest since 1885 by admitting that the UK was a political impossibility in the democratic era and transforming the Conservative and Unionist Party into the English National Party in all but name. It was, by general agreement, his oft-repeated promise to “level up” the North — to treat it, at last, as a genuinely equal part of England — that won him his election. The appeal did what nationalism does: it persuaded people whose lives are actually very different that they somehow share a common interest.

It won’t last. The way in which the Covid-19 epidemic has so swiftly and easily fitted into the age-old language of the North-South divide reveals, once again, that whatever kings may want, or would-be Prime Ministers may promise, England remains as split as in Bede’s day, by forces which, in one way or another, have always seemed beyond anybody’s control.

James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany is out in over 20 countries. The Shortest History of England is just out.