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14 June 2021

From the NS archive: The north-south divide

28 July 1989: What does “south-easternisation” have to do with Scottish independence?

By Tom Nairn

In this article from 1989, the political theorist, academic and Scottish independence supporter Tom Nairn decries the language of “south-easternisation”: the conversion of England to the attitudes considered typical of the south-east. Other such terms should also be used with caution, he writes. “In the case of the ‘north-south divide’, we should be specially on guard, for the ease with which it imposed itself suggest a prime example of new regime-speak”. And what does such a divide mean further north – for Scotland? Since the independence referendum of 1979, “Old Ukania turned suddenly into two, three, or more intriguingly distinct places, and what had been no real problem at all turned abruptly into the vitally urgent matter of keeping Britain in one piece.” The existence of such a “north-south divide”, writes Nairn, is “neither social fate not economic misfortune”. Rather, “it signals the political degeneracy of a united state and ideology, and hints at the starker, more authoritarian assimilation which has arisen to counter this fall”.

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The first official record of “south-easternisation” came in the Longman/Guardian New Words of 1986:

Noun, the conversion (of England) to the relative prosperity and bourgeois attitudes considered typical of the south-eastern region of the country – Moving to the altogether more agreeable topic of Manchester, Alf Morris MP (speaking in the House of Commons) denounced what he memorably called “the creeping south-easternisation of this country”.

The volume’s glossary proceeds sniffily to note that ever since 1979 it had been “a cliche of opposition commentary that the country is divided clearly and dramatically into the (impoverished) north and the (prosperous) south… This polarisation has a certain crude appeal to those who are dissatisfied with the government’s philosophy.” But fortunately such crudity is “contradicted by pockets of opposite conditions, such as poverty in the Medway Towns and Cornwall”, and the occasional millionaire north of Birmingham.

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This is cliche superimposed upon cliche: no platitude can be at home without the herd which makes it feel comfortable. In the case of the “north-south divide” we should be specially on guard, for the ease with which it imposed itself suggests a prime example of new regime-speak.

A principle of the latter is the occlusion of all politics beyond the court. Division between north and south is depicted territorially and economically – a sad regional tragedy of uneven development, always “greatly exaggerated” by the government’s enemies: just another of socialism’s failures, leaving an “abyss” to be filled. But happily it can be, “given time”. This legacy of interfering political sin will be cured by the purely socio-economic elixir of capitalism, enterprise undistorted by irrelevant rantings about self-rule or autonomy.

[See also: From the NS archive: Mr Nice Guy]

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There is nothing whatever new about such north-south disparities, considered in the discrete terms of income, employment, infrastructure facilities or styles of living. JA Hobson’s Imperialism (1901) contains a far more eloquent portrait of the contrasts between northern and southern Britain than anything in recent years.

What is new since 1979 is the relatively brusque intrusion of these differences upon common sense, and hence speech. But that alteration is a by-product of political changes, not social ones. The higher register of regionalism corresponds exactly to the lower one of class over the same period. Thatcher’s victory and transformation into an “-ism” comes from the final political victory which Hobson foresaw so early in the century. He believed even then that the pernicious influence of empire was bringing about a final capitulation of the southern lower classes to Toryism. In fact this triumph would be long delayed, occurring only with the counter-revolution which followed the end of imperialism.

Until then, “class” remained stuck in the front parlour of Queen’s English, as a supposedly homogenising force whose politics effaced all regional and national differences. Its assurance was always that, in the end – once the right family members were in control – a paternal central power would uplift the underdeveloped. Such benevolent Gleichschaltung also made provincial or national minority unrest a matter for irrelevant rantings (“narrow parochialism”, etc).

However, the grounds for this complacency depended upon the southern-heartland working class. As Hobson understood, if it defected then familial homogeneity would disperse with it, and “class” would evaporate into folklore. This is what has happened since 1979. A few mummified remains are left to commemorate it in and around the Labour Party, and English intellectuals have been deprived of their pet obsession.

Almost at once, the long-repressed disparities of Great Britain rushed in to fill the ideological vacuum. Old Ukania (“This small country of ours”, etc) turned suddenly into two, three, or more intriguingly distinct places, and what had been no real problem at all turned abruptly into the vitally urgent matter of keeping Britain in one piece.

[See also: From the NS archive: A Streetcar Named Desire]

But ideology and speech are never neutral. The new consciousness has to assume the clothes of the moment – those rags mentioned already, the policies which now aim at multiplying “pockets of opposite conditions” until a healthier equilibrium between southern paupers and northern yuppies has been attained. Queen Canute almost daily urges on the new tide of progress. What links the old British delusion to this new one is the exorcism of political democracy.

Politically, what happened was that the old British north never defeated the southern oligarchy. In Gramscian terminology, it never came near establishing a counter-hegemony over the state value-system of Home County and City: commercial and propertied but anti-industrial, parliamentarist but anti-democratic, post-feudal yet anti-modern. Labourism had fallen under its ideological sway and betrayed the north, long before “south-easternisation” betrayed it in turn. It substituted a corporate, distributivist creed for the popular sovereignty which (after the Industrial Revolution) could have been realised only through subjugation of the free-trade south and the destruction of its state. The desolate end of that betrayal came with Callaghan in the “winter of discontent”. Kinnock is its posthumous echo in the cruel spring which has followed.

[See also: From the NS archive: The reign of anti-Semitism]

Thus, the “north-south divide” is neither social fate nor economic misfortune. It signals the political degeneracy of a united state and ideology, and hints at the starker, more authoritarian assimilationism which has arisen to counter this fall. It echoes past battles, lost because not politically driven, and points straight at the blind spot of the Ukanian left: backwards at its failures, and forward to the new radical-democratic ones which must compensate for these, as a condition of left-wing recovery.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)