There was one of those spluttering chatterspikes recently on Guardian Twitter about Britain’s new non-binary political landscape. What’s this — Labour fastnesses in the north-east falling to Tories? And posh progressives in the South disdainfully nudging constituencies from blue to red?
Summary: older social conservatives living in the North, younger social liberals in the South. “Howay, plus ça change bonny lad” as they say in Hartlepool. It’s just culture subsidence and resettling. Party allegiances are changing, not people’s attitudes. The North’s always been more old-fashioned, the South’s always been more trendy-bendy.
Endless pieces on “The Problem For Labour” like to rummage around in the debris of a party destroyed first by a Tory Parliamentary majority, then by murderous national opinion polls. Whoever it is leading the Labour party at the moment keeps telling interviewers that it’s a national issue — how can Labour win back the trust of Britain’s voters? But maybe the big picture is itself the problem.
All this hyphenated North-South/Left-Right jive is so last-cench, daddio. It’s useful journalistic shorthand, but I wonder how many voters in our new atomised electorate think in those terms. We elect our MPs to represent us in Westminster, of course. But they increasingly seem more valuable to us as constituency activists — save the hospital, stop the fracking, help the homeless, amplify local voices. I know, I know #NotAllMPs — the useless clump of nothing in my neighbouring constituency firmly believes that food-bank dependence is a lifestyle choice. Shock reveal: he’s a Tory MP.
There’s a lot of huffing and puffing about how humbled, chastened Labour won’t get back in for years, and how a party can’t do anything unless it’s in government. But can’t it? Until Andy Burnham became mayor of Manchester he was known chiefly as the runner-up to Corbyn in the Labour leadership election of 2015, and before that as a hapless yet versatile shadow cabinet plug-in. Now look at him. He’s King of the North, defying the Johnson government so theatrically he should be wearing a pelt cloak. Right now he could ride a stallion into St Peter’s Square, declare war on Bollinger Politics and march a Manc army down the M6 singing Is This The Way To Amarillo.
One of the few genuinely brilliant things to somehow swerve out of the path of the Government’s lethal, careening coronavirus clown car was the power of local authorities and NHS Trusts to work together efficiently in an emergency. The infrastructure somehow survives, like a World War Two operations bunker. As the private sector profited, dithered and wilted in the Great British Covid Call-Up, teams of local volunteers pitched in for a remarkable community effort of civic and public sector can-doery.
Westminster seems more remote from ordinary lives than ever. Food poverty and NHS waiting lists may be national talking points but they’re local problems. You feel that the new slogan for Labour, with its unique network of constituency activists, ought to be Think Local, Act Local. It’s national issues versus local issues, and Labour should build on its grassroots base.
I say national versus local but let’s be honest, it’s London vs the Rest. “London” is shorthand for England in the same way that “Pyongyang” is North Korea, except London obviously has more Korean restaurants. London is Britain. London is Great Britain. Most of all, Great Britain is London. The M25 might as well be a moat of fire.
As someone who moved from London to “The North” in 1988 — passing a lot of people going the other way, incidentally — I can confirm that there’s no such thing as “The North”. Lancaster, where I’ve lived for 33 years, has little in common with Middlesbrough or Berwick or Blackpool. My adopted home — a university city with a Green council leader — is quite different from the seaside town of Morecambe six miles away, the setting for ITV’s gritty drama The Bay. Which is, trivia fans, created and written by Lancaster’s Daragh Carville. Yet another example of northern “trickle-up” cultural economics.
I’m not saying there aren’t some comically enduring tribal rivalries up here. On this side of the Pennines we’re required by folklore to pretend all Yorkshiremen are tight, humourless narcissistic bastards. This apparently caused the Wars of the Roses, ruining lives as recently as the 15th Century. People in the border town of Carlisle can be ultra-English or secretly Scottish, which is why it’s safer to avoid eye-contact with anyone there. Liverpool is a very special, deeply emotional place to be for Liverpudlians.
“What’s London even for these days?” I wheeze to myself. Lunch, obviously. Nothing beats a long, boozy Soho lunch. Meetings of course, until you tell people you actually live 250 miles north of London — then it’s either a Zoom or they’re paying for lunch.
People work there still, but fewer than before Covid’s WFH-variant. People live there too obviously, but as far as I can make out the rental sector seems to function as a tenanted version of an apple press for venal cyborg landlords.
God, even looking at London’s cluttered skyline depresses me. It used to inspire, now it merely laughs drunkenly at us, all leering and aggressive. Goethe said that architecture was “frozen music”, a phrase architects themselves elevated to “petrified music”. Art captured in stone and glass. A lot of what we see on the London skyline now is more what you’d call “concretised overseas investment” or “honeycombed tax dodge” or “commodified drug money”. Once the church built landmarks; now gangsters do.
We couldn’t have moved North in the Eighties without the fax machine, my liberation. Our first one cost a grand and a half, which in those days was an arm and a leg. However, it allowed me, a freelance writer and journalist, to fax my drivel in from anywhere. “But everything’s HERE,” our London friends mewled. I mean, everything was there if you were a childless double-earning couple in your twenties. We had two young children and it felt like the right time to resettle. Had some family in the north-west, drifted into living in Lancaster, where we’ve been ever since. “Once you leave London you’ll never be able to move back” people said, with an almost undetectable satisfaction in their voice. That seemed fine at the time and feels positively reassuring now.
My 35-year-old lungs seemed untroubled by all the poisonous Marlboro fags and the poisonous London fugs. Now, with 68 year-old bagpipes compromised by years of abuse, I’m very grateful to live somewhere with clean, sparkling air. Children have flourished here, as grandchildren flourish now. In Lancaster there’s a green space round every corner. It’s a weird city; where we live you can hear trains on one side and cows on the other.
We’re conditioned to think of London as the future, as the place to be. It’s been a bellwether for so long, apparently charting our wellness and confidence through rising house prices. While conditions for the poor deteriorate, in every property hotspot the Foxtons equity monitor whizzes silently round and round and round, like a gas meter in winter. Oh look, that three-bed’s gone up a grand since the start of this sentence.
And yet, in the mid-20th Century, as in the Eighties, London was the past — a place to escape from. The Dan Dare vision of 21st-Century London was exciting to see as a child of the Fifties: the very air was a road busy with futuristic bubble cars, and every building looked like a Hilton hotel. But the London I was born into — austerity, overcrowding, bomb sites, poisonous air — was a dead end. As young families moved out of the Smoke, skint singles moved in.
Imagine. Once upon a time you could run away to London and live cheaply. Every struggling artist and musician I knew in the Seventies was on the dole. Good luck getting any goal-assistance now. Perhaps today’s hostile environment for piss-takers with the nerve to be poor, unverified or working class might, over the coming decade, create new centres of creative and economic gravity in the North, and expand existing ones. Why not?
When we moved up in ’88, Lancaster-Euston by train often took the best part of four hours. These days it’s two and a half and you can work on a laptop, stroll into town for a meeting and a lunch and still be home for dinner. London for a visitor is bloody GREAT. Also, with global warming, the summers up here in a generation or so will be as hot as summers are in London now. Bask up here, or boil down there? Now that IS a North-South divide.