Everyone needs a Willie – that was Margaret Thatcher’s naive remark about how much she depended on her deputy Willie Whitelaw to keep her government out of trouble. Thirty-odd years later, the word has taken on a new connotation north of the border. A “Willie” is someone who “works in London [but] lives in Edinburgh” and their number is increasing.
The collapse of RBS and HBOS, two large banks headquartered in Edinburgh, as well as the economic downturn, has led to an increase in the numbers of people doing a 400-mile commute twice, or sometimes more, every week. After the takeover of NatWest by RBS in 2000 and the 2001 merger of Halifax and the Bank of Scotland, there was a significant transfer north of high-powered bankers. In 2008, many of them disappeared – some to admire their redundancy cheques; others back to London.
Willies now often make up the bulk of the passengers on the frequent early-morning flights from Edinburgh to London, as well as the East Coast trains that leave Edinburgh Waverley almost every half-hour and do the journey to King’s Cross in as little as four hours. The trains back on Thursday or Friday nights are like parties, the long-distance commuters celebrating the journey home with champagne and smoked salmon. Most have paid £229 for an East Coast Scottish executive return ticket, which gives them first-class travel and food.
Needless to say, it’s easier for single people such as Ed James. He was an RBS IT expert whose job moved from the bank’s Edinburgh headquarters to London in 2012. He began to commute each week from Drem, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. At first, he would take a taxi to Edinburgh Airport and then a flight to London City. As a long-time fan of police thrillers, he began trying his hand at writing them. James would start writing at 5.30am on Mondays in the taxi to the airport and would carry on as soon as he got through airport security; he continued writing all the way to his office as he travelled by plane, DLR and Tube. He says his editor could tell which bits he’d written in the taxi and which on a plane.
After three or four months of commuting by air, James, who describes himself as “comfortably built”, switched to travelling by train, which gave him more room and four hours to focus on writing. His ebooks, featuring DC Scott Cullen, proved so lucrative that he is now a full-time novelist. He says he is delighted with his new life, which he admits would never have begun if it wasn’t for his commute.
Some working mothers are also Willies. Jayne-Anne Gadhia is the chief executive of Virgin Money and one of the most influential people in the British banking sector. She lives in Edinburgh but mostly works in London. Gadhia, who reportedly earned more than £1m last year, regularly gets up at 3am to catch the 5.40am train out of Waverley, arriving at King’s Cross just in time for a 10am meeting. Gadhia is married with a 12-year-old daughter and insists she’d rather live in Edinburgh than commute daily from the Home Counties. She is fortunate that her parents live with her and can help with childcare.
The old Norman Tebbit exhortation to “get on your bike” to find employment works for Willies – but it helps if you can travel first class and have someone at home to hold the fort. I didn’t find any two-Willie households.
Alan Cochrane presents “Rise of the Willies” on BBC Radio 4 on 19 May at 11am