Perhaps it is a relic of class deference that the British accept gross overcharging without any complaint

As someone who lives in Somerset and London, I have never been able to understand why the prosperous south of England is supposed to feel guilty whenever somebody announces that the north-south divide is widening. Attempts are constantly made to dramatise this boring fact. This week, we were told of "widespread deprivation and misery" for those living in the poorest regions. "Bill" Midgley, president of the North East Chamber of Commerce, commented: "The region was recovering from the change to the traditional industries. It was then hit by the strength of the pound."

That is one way of looking at events, I suppose. At the same time, we are expected to suffer agonies of guilt when we read about families in places like Newcastle where nobody has worked for three generations. No doubt they live less comfortably than we do, but it seems to me they are making an existential choice. That is one way of life; we have another. The only solution proposed is to give the north more money - obviously a rotten idea. Let us rejoice in the great divide, and pat it on the head.

Curious how the strong pound has become a general excuse for economic inactivity. What do these whingeing northerners suppose makes the pound strong? In normal circumstances, a strong currency has certain advantages, certain disadvantages. Just as a weak currency should make it easier to sell British goods abroad, so a strong currency should enable us to enjoy foreign goods more cheaply. Unfortunately, our entrepreneurs are too greedy and too crooked to allow us to enjoy any of the advantages of a strong currency.

Quite apart from our murderous, government-imposed duty on petrol, alcohol and tobacco, and gross overcharging by established monopolies on our trains, our importers get away with gigantic profit margins through refusing to compete with each other. You can buy six good American tennis balls in the United States for the price of one in England. The same is true of CDs, children's shoes and almost anything you choose to think about. It is only when people in the south of England realise they can save about £2,000 by buying their English cars in France that an awareness is born. The awareness does not seem to lead anywhere, though. Perhaps it is the last relic of the class system and the deference it inspired - which once made Britain great, enabling us to conquer and rule over large areas of the world - that the British public accepts gross overcharging without a word of complaint.

Not many of the New Statesman's exciting young readers can remember the period in the 1960s when it was actually considered smart to come from the north of England. Perhaps it was something to do with Harold Wilson, a prime minister at the time who made a virtue of his northern origins and occasionally affected a Yorkshire accent. After the Beatles, even a Liverpool accent was thought attractive for a time. We heard it in politics and in show business. Its current equivalent is a sort of New York accent with Ulster inflections, which people seem to think is classless, tough and well-informed. It is found chiefly on radio and television news and political comment.

Perhaps it is only in England that a would-be politician is liable to be judged more on his accent than on his political proposals. An upper-class accent is fatal, and even what used to be called BBC - standard or academic English - is risky, in case it is thought to suggest superiority. On the other hand, a Cockney or obviously working-class accent is also disastrous. The only acceptable way for a politician to address us is with a slight south London twang. Yet show business prefers to go American in order to assert its classlessness. I wonder how long it will be before would-be politicians, too, start addressing us in the same way - first, with a slight American intonation, and eventually in rebarbative Bronx or fruity Californian. The new accent is unlikely to make us like or trust them any more than we do already, but the purpose is to keep them happy and make them feel relevant. Then we can all get on with our own affairs.

Depressing as the classless television celebrity culture may be, I dare say it is preferable to the proletarian alternative. People may complain that our newspapers print nothing but pictures of young actresses or models talking about their love lives, but I suppose there is an element of popular choice involved. Just occasionally, one begins to realise that an element of lunacy has crept in, too.

The Times printed recently a huge and rather unattractive colour photograph of the footballer David Beckham on its front page, under the heading: "Beckham tells the Times: Fans sold my hair." The story read: "Beckham, whose every change of look is observed with interest by millions of fans, recently caused a stir by shaving off his blond hair. In an exclusive interview in the Times, the Manchester United and England star revealed that his cast-off locks had become a sought-after property. 'After I had my hair cut, someone went through the bins of Toni and Guy in London,' he said. 'Maybe they were going to sell it'." Perhaps a few readers of the Times are interested in Beckham's change of hairstyle. Even so, it seems rather odd to put it at the top of page one among the day's most important news. Those readers like me who have no curiosity whatever about Beckham, nor an interest in his appearance, will feel patronised by the photograph. I wonder if these new media experts have any understanding of simple, old-fashioned snobbery.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?