Willies now make up the bulk of the passengers on the East Coast trains that leave Edinburgh Waverley almost every half-hour. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Charting the rise of the new Willies

There are more people than ever who work in London but live in Edinburgh.

Everyone needs a Willie – that was Margaret Thatcher’s naive remark about how much she depended on her deputy Willie Whitelaw to keep her government out of trouble. Thirty-odd years later, the word has taken on a new connotation north of the border. A “Willie” is someone who “works in London [but] lives in Edinburgh” and their number is increasing.

The collapse of RBS and HBOS, two large banks headquartered in Edinburgh, as well as the economic downturn, has led to an increase in the numbers of people doing a 400-mile commute twice, or sometimes more, every week. After the takeover of NatWest by RBS in 2000 and the 2001 merger of Halifax and the Bank of Scotland, there was a significant transfer north of high-powered bankers. In 2008, many of them disappeared – some to admire their redundancy cheques; others back to London.

Willies now often make up the bulk of the passengers on the frequent early-morning flights from Edinburgh to London, as well as the East Coast trains that leave Edinburgh Waverley almost every half-hour and do the journey to King’s Cross in as little as four hours. The trains back on Thursday or Friday nights are like parties, the long-distance commuters celebrating the journey home with champagne and smoked salmon. Most have paid £229 for an East Coast Scottish executive return ticket, which gives them first-class travel and food.

Needless to say, it’s easier for single people such as Ed James. He was an RBS IT expert whose job moved from the bank’s Edinburgh headquarters to London in 2012. He began to commute each week from Drem, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. At first, he would take a taxi to Edinburgh Airport and then a flight to London City. As a long-time fan of police thrillers, he began trying his hand at writing them. James would start writing at 5.30am on Mondays in the taxi to the airport and would carry on as soon as he got through airport security; he continued writing all the way to his office as he travelled by plane, DLR and Tube. He says his editor could tell which bits he’d written in the taxi and which on a plane.

After three or four months of commuting by air, James, who describes himself as “comfortably built”, switched to travelling by train, which gave him more room and four hours to focus on writing. His ebooks, featuring DC Scott Cullen, proved so lucrative that he is now a full-time novelist. He says he is delighted with his new life, which he admits would never have begun if it wasn’t for his commute.

Some working mothers are also Willies. Jayne-Anne Gadhia is the chief executive of Virgin Money and one of the most influential people in the British banking sector. She lives in Edinburgh but mostly works in London. Gadhia, who reportedly earned more than £1m last year, regularly gets up at 3am to catch the 5.40am train out of Waverley, arriving at King’s Cross just in time for a 10am meeting. Gadhia is married with a 12-year-old daughter and insists she’d rather live in Edinburgh than commute daily from the Home Counties. She is fortunate that her parents live with her and can help with childcare.

The old Norman Tebbit exhortation to “get on your bike” to find employment works for Willies – but it helps if you can travel first class and have someone at home to hold the fort. I didn’t find any two-Willie households.

Alan Cochrane presents “Rise of the Willies” on BBC Radio 4 on 19 May at 11am

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Show Hide image

Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.