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.
Show Hide image

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: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496