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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496