A general view over Tower Bridge and the River Thames from the reception of the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Of course there is a north-south divide – and of course it matters

The claim that the only divide that matters is between the rich and the poor ignores the unequal distribution of political power. 

Writing in the Guardian on Monday, Owen Jones attacked the idea that English politics is split along north-south lines as a "myth" and a "distraction". Given rates of poverty and inequality in the south of England are as high as they are in the north (higher, in some cases), "how much really divides the call centre worker in Hull [from] the supermarket shelf-stacker in Chelmsford?", Jones asked.

It’s a legitimate point, and one familiar to anyone involved in the debate over Scottish independence. One of the clichés of Scottish unionism - particularly Scottish Labour unionism - is that a worker on minimum wage in Dundee has more in common with another minimum wage worker in Manchester than he or she does with a top-rate tax-payer in Edinburgh.

The premise of this argument - that working people across Britain share a basic set of interests - is sound. But the conclusion Jones and others tend to reach for - that "soft" constitutional issues are irrelevant when set against "hard" political and economic ones - isn’t. There seems to me to be a fairly obvious relationship between the structure of the British state (sclerotic and heavily centralised) and the structure of the British economy (sclerotic and heavily centralised).

To begin with, a wealth of evidence confirms that London and the south east benefit disproportionately from the spending decisions of the UK government.

Last year, analysis by IPPR North showed that the coalition’s planned 2015/16 departmental cuts would reduce public expenditure by £57 per person in the north east of England compared to £43 per person in London and £39 per person in the south east. (It stands to reason that areas with high levels of public sector employment will suffer more from austerity than areas with lower levels of public sector employment.) IPPR North has also warned that UK transport expenditure is dangerously skewed in London’s favour. In 2011, it found that upward of 80 per cent of all planned transport spending was earmarked for projects in the capital and its surrounding areas. In addition, London gets an excessively large slice of UK arts and culture funding - 15 times more than other English regions, according to one recent estimate.

Westminster’s obsession with London reflects the broader trajectory of UK economic policy over the last 35 years. Since the 1980s, efforts by successive UK governments to control inflation and protect the value of the pound have squeezed British manufacturing, the bulk of which is (or was) located in northern England and Scotland, at the same time as boosting London-based financial services. In 1998, Eddie George, Mervyn King’s predecessor as Governor of the Bank of England, basically admitted as much when he said job losses in the north were a "price worth paying" for curbing inflation in the south.

The consequences of this financialised, London-led growth strategy are plain to see: with just 13 per cent of the UK’s population, London now accounts for almost a quarter (22.4 per cent) of the UK’s total economic output  - more than the north west (9.4 per cent), Yorkshire and Humber (6.7 per cent) and the north east (3 per cent) combined. Despite the financial crisis, there is no sign of this trend changing anytime soon. As the Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliot, has written: "In the three years from 2010 to 2012 - a period marked by weak growth and austerity - London accounted for 10 times as many private sector jobs as any other [British] city."

Jones acknowledges that the UK economy is imbalanced but then fails to connect the dots. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (more so, in fact), the English regions are powerless to pursue any economic strategy that deviates from the turbo-charged, free-market model championed by Westminster. But by devolving power away from London, other parts of the UK could begin to tackle the disparities created by the uneven distribution of British growth.

More to the point, the disproportionate attention the south receives from British policy-makers is one of the driving forces behind the UK’s present constitutional crisis. I doubt there would be the same appetite for independence among low-income Scots if the UK economy still looked capable of providing decent, secure, properly paid jobs for Scottish workers.

Jones is, of course, right to say the real dividing line in British politics is between "those who have wealth and power, and those who do not". I think everyone’s pretty much agreed on that. But it’s hardly a coincidence that so much of Britain’s wealth and power is concentrated in one place. 

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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