Grist to the mill

The Northern Powerhouse, levelling up and the Red Wall are new ways to talk about an old problem. Tom Hazeldine's new book takes a long view of the north-south divide

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The idea of a north-south divide generates emotive headlines and inspires dewy-eyed memoirs by prodigal northerners. A rallying cry for post-industrial regions during the Thatcher years, it has resurfaced in discussions about the Northern Powerhouse and HS2. It underlies Conservative calls for “levelling up”, and helped add sizeable splatterings of Tory blue to the so-called Red Wall of hitherto safe Labour constituencies in the 2019 general election.

But, like most handy terms, it hides as much as it reveals – so, is it a media trope or a real thing? Definitely the latter, according to Tom Hazeldine, whose book The Northern Question: A Political History of the North-South Divide is the first serious study of the social and historical fissure to appear in more than 30 years.

Starting with the feudal barons who ruled over the northern borders with Scotland in the Middle Ages and taking us via the Tudors, English Civil War (when the north was broadly conservative and pro-royalist) and Industrial Revolution all the way to recent upheavals such as Thatcher’s battle with the miners and Brexit, it traces the emergence of a northern polity and sensibility.

Given its ambitious scope it’s no wonder the book took Hazeldine 12 years to complete, while also working as an editor at New Left Review.

“I wanted to track the north-south divide through lots of different historical periods,” says Hazeldine. “It felt like every chapter needed a new vocabulary.”

Despite the broad brush, there’s plenty of detail and drama, connecting the convulsions of the past with recent flashpoints such as the 1981 riots in Toxteth, Chapeltown and Moss Side. Down the centuries, the north has had to look south for investment, government and for an opposition. If there is a simple answer to the “Northern Question” of the title, it’s “London” – but the story of how the City, Westminster and St James’s cashed in on every northern boom is complex and illuminating.

Big Issue North talked to Hazeldine about the northern past and the northern future.

The term “north-south divide” seems to slip in and out of fashion. Why?
It’s a structural problem, like other kinds of inequality, and doesn’t fit too well in the news cycle. Plus, really, down here in the South East: who cares? 

What initially prompted your own interest in the subject?
I grew up in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, the long years of Tory reaction. My grandparents had been millworkers, my parents were local government workers. You could say I’m settling scores for decades of political and industrial defeat.

Northerners typically use the expression “north-south divide” to criticise the City, Westminster and snooty southerners. People in the South East, on the other hand, might invoke it to resurrect stereotypes about the grim north. Isn’t it an oversimplification?
Yes, but the averages don’t lie. There’s an entrenched divide in the statistics for poverty, life expectancy, educational qualification, welfare benefits, house prices and so on. We’re beginning to see it in the pandemic, too. 

Scotland punches above its weight politically because it threatens the Union, the integrity of the UK. In a sense the north and the Midlands showed that they could produce a constitutional crisis, too, by voting heavily for Leave in 2016. 

How far back in history do we have to go to see the beginning of a division between the political interests of the north and south?
A century, more or less exactly: to the bumpy economic conditions that followed the First World War. The Lancashire cotton industry fell into recession; the coalfields were in turmoil. But the City of London and the Treasury kept credit tight and government spending as low as possible. That was when the north’s decline really set in. 

Which moments in history played the most defining roles in widening the gap?
The Great Depression of the 1930s, obviously. Less well known is the currency-market turbulence of the 1960s, which pulled the rug from under Harold Wilson’s talk of regional renewal. Then there was the steep manufacturing recession of 1980-81, deliberately intensified by Thatcher, and the New Labour crash of 2008, along with the austerity that followed.  

Plenty of clichés coalesce around the popular idea of the north, but the most enduring is the idea that its soul – as well as its architecture, wealth, sports and culture – were formed during the Industrial Revolution. Does this emphasis distort our understanding of the region’s history?
No, there’s a ring of truth to it. The Industrial Revolution created the northern working class (or perhaps it was the other way around). Pretty much everything changed in that period. Because the region didn’t sufficiently kick on into later waves of industrial development – Detroit-style mass production, the digital revolution – that original Victorian legacy still looms large.

The term “north-south” divide was first used in 1980. What motivated the Thatcher government to fundamentally weaken northern economies and shatter the social fabric of its mining and factory-centred communities?
The miners had brought down the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath, in which Thatcher served; they had to be got rid of. Viewed from London and the south, her programme was a successful counter-offensive to the stagnation and strife of the 1970s. It rolled back union power and the public sector, and allowed a deregulated financial sector to boom as never before. The strategy never really came unstuck until 2008, long after she had left the scene.  

Along with the miners, it was left-wing local authorities that led the resistance to Thatcherism. The Tories have never forgiven them for that, hence the poll tax, and the de facto privatisation of local authority schools as academies, not to mention Boris Johnson’s reluctance to collaborate with town halls in managing the coronavirus. 

Brexit played its part in breaking up the Red Wall, granting Boris Johnson his majority. You note that the Channel Tunnel and closer European relations strengthened London’s position in the 1990s. Could a severing of EU ties benefit the north?
Leave-voting areas seem pretty exposed to any trade disruption, but the City of London also has plenty at stake. It still hasn’t secured the regulatory agreement with Brussels that would allow it to continue to operate as offshore banker for the EU-27. 

Covid-19 turned London, temporarily, into a ghost city. Will the long tail of the coronavirus further the promised levelling up for the north?
Home working complicates the link between social class and geographical area: the elite is more dispersed than it used to be. The urban north seems to be struggling worst with the virus because of the prevalence of insecure work, jobs that can’t be done remotely and poor housing – in other words, because the region is still more working class than the south. 

A recent BBC series called Manctopia* presented Manchester as a mini-London, booming arguably at the expense of the wider region. Isn’t the real divide now between the thrusting metropolises and everywhere else?
I’d emphasise the “mini”. Manchester is one of the few places in the north where economic output per head is above the national average. It stands at 130 per cent, where 100 per cent would be par. The wider Greater Manchester conurbation, however, is at just 85 per cent. That’s ahead of the mill towns, but no great shakes. In contrast the City of London has climbed to 1,200 per cent, way up on where it was in 1997. 

Whither the Northern Powerhouse?
A terrific slogan, I’ll almost miss it.

What could reinvigorate the north – devolution, the relocation of the capital, HS2, a Corbyn-type government, anything? If you were PM what would you do for the region?
Tricky, because regional inequality is hard-wired into the way Britain works. You’d really need a general overhaul. But clearly, things like massive redistributive taxation and labour market regulation would ease a lot of the pain that the last decade of austerity has inflicted.

The Northern Question: A Political History of the North-South Divide is published by Verso, £20. *Read our article on Manctopia in the Features section of

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