Scotland and the break-up of Britain in 2014

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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. 

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

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.