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In Britain, as in cricket, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The Lancastrian fast bowler James Anderson took his 300th Test wicket on 17 May. Only three Englishmen have taken more – Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Fred Trueman, the patron saint of all northern fast bowlers. Before we indulge familiar clichés about down-to-earth, northern grit, it’s worth remembering that the highly skilled Anderson is the face of a vitamins brand and once dyed his hair with red streaks.

Ten years ago, when Anderson made his England debut, I remember another Lancastrian stating firmly in the commentary box: “You won’t have any difficulties with Jimmy. He’s from Burnley.” Geographical determinismis one of the curious aspects of northern self-image; it’s as though such a fine and sturdy tree could not possibly bear false fruit.

According to this theory, it is impossible to disentangle northernness from character. That the batting prodigy Joe Root is a) from Sheffield and b) phlegmatic and deeply impressive under pressure are not presented as independent facts. The former must lead to the latter. You can, apparently, see the Sheffield in his back defence.

Given that my mother is from Yorkshire, my father is from Wales and I grew up in the south-east, I feel able to assess such claims reasonably fairly. Commentating for Test Match Special recently, I teased Michael Vaughan – of Sheffield, Yorkshire and England – that southerners do not have the same sense of predestination about accidents of birth. We are generally happy to accept that the town in which you are born is poorly correlated with your moral virtues and psychological resilience.

When Andrew Strauss played his 100th Test, people did not rise up as one around the Home Counties, raising china cups filled with lightly infused herbal tea, and shout, “Of course he’s a tough lad – he’s from Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.” When Alastair Cook becomes the leading English run-scorer of all time, as he surely will, I do not expect the good folk of East Anglia to patronise northerners in the local pub about the moral superiority of Bedford, where the young Cook was a chorister. When the languid David Gower eased the ball effortlessly through the off-side, there were few hushed whispers over wine glasses in east Kent that the young Gower had learned about beauty in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral.

Cricket has a gift for exposing national stereotypes. I used to think that the schism between amateurs and professionals was the most revealing fault line. However, the northsouth divide, which overlaps with the fascination with class, runs deeper still. When it comes to indulging regional stereotypes, there is no limit to our appetite or our patience. George Orwell captured this in his spark - ling essay “North and South” (1937):

There exists in England a curious cult of northernness, a sort of northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the south will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the north that life is “real” life . . . that the north is inhabited by “real” people, the south merely by rentiers and their parasites. The northerner has “grit”, he is grim, “dour”, plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic; the southerner is snobbish, effeminate,
and lazy – that at any rate is the theory.

The most remarkable thing about Orwell’s insights is that he arrived at them without having met Trueman.

Orwell’s essay belongs to a great literary tradition that explores the qualities and tensions of north and south. Elizabeth Gaskell’s fine novel of that title, published in 1855, ends with John Thornton, a northern industrialist, achieving the author’s approval when he decides to learn Greek. Once the rough, northern edges are polished, the reader is allowed to like him more unreservedly. David Lodge’s comic novel Nice Work (1988) explicitly draws on Gaskell’s themes, juxtaposing industry with academia.

The surprising aspect of the north-south divide is that it is more relevant today than when Gaskell, Orwell or even Lodge wrote about it. That makes it different from the familiar argument about gentlemen and players. An increasing proportion of top-flight sportsmen now come from the educational elite (Anderson is a rare state-school product) and yet the language of professionalism and meritocracy has triumphed. The old cliché about gentlemen and players, in other words, obscures a much more surprising and uncomfortable reality.

The north-south stereotype, in contrast, is reinforced by political and economic trends. Look at the electoral map of Britain and you will see that it is becoming strikingly divided into three bands: the Scottish National Party at the top, the Tories in the south and Labour in between.

According to polls, voting intentions suggest that the next election will be even more divided between a Conservative south and a Labour north.

Gordon Brown argued relentlessly that the Tories had “attacked the north” and “systematically destroyed” its economy. But during the New Labour years, the divide widened – Yorkshire’s economic output went from 10 per cent behind the UK average to 17 per cent behind.

The economic output of financial services alone in London now exceeds the entire economy of the north-east.

That imbalance, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, fuels the old tensions. Critics of the south semi-deliberately blur distinctions, as though London was really the City and the south was really London. This isn’t entirely true – many areas of the south retain an independent character, separate from London, let alone finance – but it revives Orwell’s idea that northerners view southerners as “rentiers and parasites”.

In the cricket commentary box, the analysis of the north-south divide might be lighthearted. However, in the country, I suspect that the old cliché has more bite and sting than ever.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.