England's House Divided

by Josh Mcloughlin

Tom Hazeldine, The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country
Verso 304pp ISBN 9781786634061 £20.00

With uncanny timing, Tom Hazeldine’s The Northern Question appeared just as the Tory government adopted a novel strategy to contain the coronavirus: a three-tier lockdown system that stoked long-simmering regional grievances into a blaze of intranational conflict, centred on a standoff between Manchester and Westminster. The North-South divide, back centre-stage, entered the political lexicon on 20 November 1980, when Lancashire Conservative MP John Lee told the Commons:

Those of us who represent the regions are increasingly aware of the North–South divide, as twenty-first-century industry is increasingly sucked towards the South-East. [. . .] Unless that trend is positively corrected, we shall in future years need a United Kingdom version of the Brandt report.

Hazeldine’s brilliant book, however, shows how this divide, far from an inevitable after-effect of deindustrialisation, has a protracted history. ‘The North of England may not have Scotland’s power of secession’, he writes, ‘but it’s always exerted pressure, from a subaltern position, on the affairs of state, in ways particular to the historical moment’.

For Hazeldine the North-South divide cannot be resolved by the current state because it is itself an expression and function of the prevailing political economy. The North is England’s collateral, bearing the brunt of recessions for 200 years while London and the South enjoy unbroken prosperity. Where regional development geography is concerned, the UK’s international peers are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. As the economist Philip McCann put it in 2016: ‘the economic geography of the UK nowadays increasingly reflects patterns typically observed in developing or former-transition economies rather than in other advanced economies.’ According to Hazeldine, successive Westminster governments — of all stripes — have thrown the North under the bus to protect and advance the interests of the Square Mile and the stockbroker belt.

Hazeldine is mainly concerned with modern North-South relations but he astutely recounts the early history of England’s ‘Badlands’ following Roman withdrawal, lamenting the once-proud Kingdom of Northumbria (653 - 954) and proceeding through viking invasions to the Normans’ brutal Harrying of the North (1069 - 70). The establishment of Oxford (1096), Cambridge (1209), and the Inns of Court (1320s) inaugurated the South’s 500-year monopoly on learning, ensuring the North remained benighted, underpopulated, and underproductive. The Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) and the Northern Rising (1569) failed to check Tudor centralisation. When James I unified the crowns (1603), the North lost what marginal importance it enjoyed as a bulwark against Scotland. The region would miss out on parliamentary representation following the Civil War when John Lambert’s Instrument of Government (1653) was superseded by the avowedly south-facing Humble Petition and Advice (1657), relegating the North to an irrelevance until the rise of industry.

Hazeldine consciously positions his study in relation to Antonio Gramsci’s thinking on Italy’s ‘Southern Question’, noting the parallels between ‘the chauvinist disparagement of the Mezzogiorno and the condescension of London intellectuals towards unfashionable outlying stretches of the UK.’ Ultimately, however, Hazeldine takes his cue from George Orwell’s argument that industrialisation ‘gave the North-South antithesis its particular slant’. But whereas The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) offers evocative description and human interest (‘For climatic reasons the parasitic dividend-drawing class tend to settle in the South [. . .]. There is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of southern England as one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards’), Hazeldine is in thrall to the numbers. He quotes a dizzying range of economic and political sources, at times barely drawing breath to reflect, gloss, or offer an authorial perspective. The people and events of this — admittedly gripping — narration are often left to speak for themselves. I wanted a touch more salience, authorially refined from the ore of statistics, data, and parliamentary arithmetic. But these quibbles aren’t enough to vitiate the force and importance of the book.

Chapter three examines Lancashire’s transformation from ‘an obscure, ill-cultivated swamp’, as Engels so beautifully put it, into an industrial giant. Hazeldine rightly points out how the North-West was deeply implicated in the slave trade and the British empire. Liverpool merchants sailed to West Africa and exchanged Lancashire textiles for slaves then shipped to America. Meanwhile, the largest overseas market for Lancashire cotton was India: the world’s largest cotton producer until Britain suffocated its economy. This is a useful corrective to the view, common among misty-eyed northerners of a certain vintage, that the region built itself up solely with the blood, sweat, and tears of the English working-class.

The enduring theme, however, is Westminster’s contempt for the northern workforce. The government brutally put down Luddite demonstrations (1811) and perpetrated the Peterloo Massacre (1819) whilst industrialists peddled propaganda insisting factory work had no adverse health effects. Elizabeth Gaskell’s depiction in North and South (1845) of a young worker dying from cotton dust on the lungs was no fiction, yet ‘statutory compensation for byssinosis, a disabling and life-limiting respiratory disease, would not be awarded until the Second World War.’ The 1832 Reform Act, for Hazeldine, was simply the first in a long line of broken promises: ‘Factory workers were left out, shopkeepers ushered in’ and ‘the Whigs cauterised the general unrest by admitting the middle classes into the Constitution’. After the Second Reform Act (1867), the newly enfranchised working-class, according to Engels, ‘disgraced itself terribly’ by supporting the Tories. To their shame, the Chartists and the Reform League refused to support women’s suffrage, forcing the Pankhursts to take the Women’s Social and Political Union down south in search of greater visibility.

Hazeldine sketches a grim image of ‘the combined tyranny of landowner and cotton lord’ as ‘dependence on colonial markets and concern about the creeping advance of organised labour gave the mill owners solid common ground with fellow businessmen and public-school imperial functionaries’ down South. The South-East developed as ‘a separate growth pole organised around international commercial and financial transactions and a burgeoning consumer economy’, with the result that the Cotton Famine (1861–65) ‘barely exerted any drag on the wider economy.’

In 1911, when Liverpool’s workers triggered a national walkout over pay and conditions, Asquith sent 2,000 soldiers, a battleship and a cruiser to put down the protest, shooting two dead. The working-class continued to shed its blood for the elite, as ‘Lancashire and Yorkshire with their vast stores of industrial manpower provided nearly a quarter of the infantry battalions for the first three of Kitchener’s New Armies.’ Merseyside was bled especially dry by the ‘slaughterhouse stalemates of the Somme, Arras, and Passchendaele’. After the First World War, ‘four years’ worth of pent-up demand carried the basic trades aloft in a fleeting trade boom’, but successive governments failed to plan the transition to a peacetime regional economy. ‘While the affluent Home Counties “danced all night”, the towns and cities of Outer Britain suffered industrial desuetude and political defeat’. Trade union membership reached 8.3 million in 1920 but the first Labour government under Ramsey McDonald was too short-lived to effect change.

When the Tories cut the coal industry adrift in 1926, backing colliery owners’ demands for wage cuts, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a walkout. But a strike that could have established northern influence on national politics was thwarted by Walter Citrine’s loss of nerve, the traditionalist TUC general secretary browbeaten into aborting the strike by Tory propaganda branding it radically unconstitutional. In the 1930s, the Great Depression’s ‘worst and more enduring effects’ were felt not in the stockbroker belt but the North’s ‘industrial monotowns’. Orwell was especially prescient here: ‘the very best the English working class can hope for is an occasional temporary decrease in unemployment when this or that industry is artificially stimulated by, for instance, rearmament.’

Wartime demand evaporated in 1945 but ‘instead of channelling private investment to the North’, Clement Atlee’s Labour allowed private capital to leak overseas into the colonies and dominions. Westminster prioritised huge spending on the military vanity of nuclear weapons development, floundering to preserve Britain’s diminishing place on the global stage.

The post-war boom trickled up-country just enough to kick the Northern Question into the long grass for Churchill’s Conservatives. It is here that Hazeldine briefly opens out his history onto the domain of culture. In the 1950s and 60s,

The spread of secondary education and access — of course, to a far more limited extent — to higher education saw large numbers of writers, directors and artists of popular origin emerge from the north.

But this Northern renaissance was a chimaera. The Beatles fled Liverpool (‘Penny Lane remembered from the comfort of Abbey Road’), the Guardian dropped ‘Manchester’; David Hockney, Ted Hughes, and Alan Bennett were educated down south and settled in London. Hazeldine hastily retreats from this brief foray onto the problematic terrain of ‘Northern’ culture to resume his economic study: ‘for every 1 per cent rise in the UK jobless rate under the Tories, unemployment increased 1.7 per cent in the North West [. . .]; regional manufacturing employment fell by 4 per cent over these years, in stark contrast to an 8 per cent rise in the national total.’

Government support for the City and barefaced betrayal of northern interests continued unabated. Harold MacMillan waited until after polling day in 1955 to announce 240 pit closures in the North East. Harold Wilson, the first northern Labour prime minister, was ‘less of a break with tradition than he pretended’, shelving long-term regional plans in favour of ‘slavish monetary orthodoxy’ to placate the Square Mile.

In the 1970s, as mass redundancies choked the North, ‘public subsidies for industrial innovation were targeted at southern regions’ while an international ‘interpenetration of large-scale financial and industrial capital’ left the City safely ‘insulated from the travails of the domestic industrial base’. Labour chancellor Denis Healey scapegoated the unions for the mid-1970s recessions, cutting 45,000 jobs in the North and investing the £320 million saved straight into ‘a new Selective Investment Scheme favouring southern and eastern regions’. The onslaught of redundancies continued, hitting Merseyside hardest and leading to the Winter of Discontent (1978 - 79). But for Hazeldine, 1970s Labour was a merely a warm-up act for Thatcher’s crusade to smash the unions and put the organised working-class firmly back in its place:

Under Thatcher’s rule, the Conservatives tightened the austerity introduced by Callaghan’s Labour, carries through the industrial shake-out Heath had attempted a decade earlier, broke the back of a labour movement responsible for bringing down the last two administrations, and completed the transformation of the City of London from a British into a freewheeling international oligarchy.

Dispelling the myth that Thatcher simply let economic Darwinism take its course, Hazeldine points out that whilst she dismissed the notion of a North–South divide to her fawning courtier journalists, ‘industry in southern regions was the prime beneficiary of remaining corporate and state investment’. Thatcher responded brutally to the 1981 riots before triggering the 1984–5 miners’ strike by ‘announcing 20,000 redundancies [in] violation of industry consultation procedures'. ‘Collaborationist Nottinghamshire’ miners learned Tory treachery the hard way, seeing ‘its workforce halve in the aftermath of [Arthur] Scargill’s defeat’.

After Thatcher’s third victory in 1986, the Conservatives unleashed ‘Big Bang’ deregulation and a ‘remodelled Square Mile [. . .] bid adieu to the sinking ship of British Industry’. Hazeldine, however, reserves most of his bitterness for New Labour, Thatcher’s self-proclaimed ‘greatest achievement’. Tony Blair paid lip service to closing the North-South divide but Gordon Brown’s ‘first act the Treasury was to burnish his credentials with the financial markets by handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England’. Its newly empowered governor Eddie George smugly announced that ‘unemployment in the North East is an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South’. New Labour public spending cushioned the effects of accelerated deindustrialization. But while London enjoyed the absurd wealth of the pre-crash boom decade — bankers’ bonuses peaked at £11.5 billion in 2007 — the North endured a painful ‘shift to low-level service activity’ and minimum-wage jobs in call centres and retail. The disparity did not go unnoticed in the ‘heartlands’: ‘by the time New Labour was ousted’, notes Hazeldine, Labour’s ‘vote in the three northern regions had dropped from 4.1 to 2.6 million’.

And so to Dave. Cameron’s Lib-Con coalition promised to close the regional gap but ‘as a collapsing banking sector received £130 billion in government loans and share purchases, and £1,030 billion in guarantees and indemnities [. . .] Labour-controlled municipalities bore the brunt of swingeing cuts to local government services’. George Osborne’s persecution of benefits claimants, dramatised in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) and spearheaded by ‘the Kafkaesque torments of the capability test and sanctions regime’, was by no means meted out evenly across England: ‘Bradford, Oldham, and the Rhondda were losing twice as much money per working-age adult from curbs to disability and other state benefits as southern market towns like Guildford and Woking’.

London, of course, bounced back. Hundreds of billions in quantitative easing, combined with ‘further rounds of bonds purchases [. . .] pushed up the value of assets held by the richest 10 per cent of households, clustered in and around London, by as much as £322,000 per household.’ Even the Tory Spectator embarrassingly termed it ‘the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich of any government policy in recent documented history’.
For Hazeldine, the North struck back in the EU referendum:

Though the North–South divide is not England’s only fault line, it’s no accident that the deindustrialised periphery ranged itself against the London establishment in the referendum, sealing Remain’s fate.

‘Had England’s three northern regions’, along with the West Midlands, ‘been excluded from the count, Remain would have scraped home by 200,000 votes instead of finishing 1.3 million short’. Seen this way, Brexit becomes the North’s revenge on the South. If ‘much of the Leave rhetoric was anti-immigrant’, says Hazeldine, in reality ‘the anger that powered it to victory came from decline’. ‘The key to Corbyn’s success [in the 2017 election] lay in the platform on which the party ran - a rollback of regionally inflected Conservative-Liberal austerity, to be funded through redistributive taxation falling squarely on the London elite.’ However, as ‘Labour shifted slowly but inexorably towards demanding a second referendum’:

tactical successes in the Commons masked a deep-seated strategic failure to reckon with popular feeling in the party's deindustrialised northern heartland, where voters watched the parliamentary goings-on stony-faced.

Labour’s failure in the 2019 election, for Hazeldine, stemmed from a misreading of the political map. The North punished Westminster for austerity by voting for Brexit, duped by a Leave campaign ‘wrapped [. . .] in social-democratic colours’ and forgetting it was the EU’s Regional Development Fund that invested in the North while it was left to rot by the coalition. As Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings played to the gullible Northern galleries, John McDonnell ‘devoted most of his energy to placating opinion in the City rather than popularising Labour’s economic programme in the regions’. Labour blocking the withdrawal bill was the final straw: the Conservatives gained an unprecedented number of seats in the North, causing the so-called ‘Red Wall’ to crumble.

‘Allowing for period detail’, Hazeldine concludes, there isn’t much to distinguish the record of either party’. But whereas ‘the Conservatives are first and foremost creatures of the South’ and ‘their contribution to the dramatic widening of the regional gap should come as no surprise’, ‘it is Labour’s conduct that has to be accounted for’. Despite the North reminding London and the South East of its influence with a Brexit ‘blow’ to the City, its backing of Tories looks like yet another political and economic shot in the foot for a region plagued by a chronically short political memory.

Johnson and his cronies have blatantly mishandled the pandemic, costing lives by delaying the initial lockdown before bullying the North and reprising their Nasty Party act in the free school meals row. But the fear on the left is that the London-born, Surrey-raised, Oxford postgraduate Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC is simply too slick, too middle-class, above all too southern to win over hearts and minds in the hollowed-out rustbelt of satellite towns and former pit villages of the decimated North. ‘In theory’, says Hazeldine, the north ‘ought to enjoy exceptional prominence ahead of the next election’ given that ‘the strategic calculations of Johnson’s Downing Street pivot[s] on the wants and needs of small-town rustbelt areas previously consigned to the political margins’. Sadly, everything in this gripping, important, infuriating history suggests otherwise.