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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era