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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories