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I hate agreeing with Andy Burnham – but he’s got a point about Northern ambition

The Greater Manchester mayoral candidate has suggested ambitious Northern children are mocked. It's a generalisation –  but is there a grain of truth in it?

By Stephanie Boland

Do Northerners mock the ambitious more than anyone else? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. For my colleagues, the answer is obviously “no”, with plenty of tales from mocking in Devon, London and the Home Counties to back it up. For some of my Northern friends, the answer would be “yes, and I’m still traumatized”. If I e-mail my Dad, I’m sure the answer I’ll get it is a mocking “yes, and quite rightly”.

I ask because Andy Burnham has been quoted today as saying that “it’s hard growing up in the north: if you say you want to be a doctor, lawyer or MP you get the mickey taken out of you”. Predictably, commentators from the north and south alike are frustrated by this, and, er, taking the mickey out of him.

I’m no fan of Burnham, as my aforementioned, long-suffering colleagues could tell you – and yet I think, on this one, he may have a point worth hearing out. (With some caveats).

Like so many soundbites, Burnham’s comment simultaneously reads like a generalization and rings true. Sure, Northern comic characters like Paul Calf, who complains about students and their pretentious taste in films, are a parody – but they are lampooning something real: the sort of teasing, or even outright hostility, which can arise when worlds collide. When they collide within the classroom, or even within families, things can be even more fraught.

Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the North, although it is a Northern phenomenon. Late last year, data from the Office for National Statistics showed a growing north-south divide in the UK, with the North suffering particularly from a lack of employment growth. (In fact, Liverpool was the only UK city to have a decline in economic growth between 2009 and 2014). More recently, research published in the Guardian suggested trainee teachers from northern England have been told to soften their accents.

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Northern children may not necessarily know all the data points, but they are savvy to the broader trend. And there’s no denying that young people’s sense of their place in the world impacts on their goals. Talking to a group of 23 working-class teenage boys across three London schools, researcher Garth Stahl found the boys were “very aware of social class” and how they appeared to others. They described being unsettled by the “otherness” of elite institutions and the possibility of feeling “like an outsider”. 

It can be awkward to acknowledge these sentiments, which are easily misread as blaming the working class for their own disenfranchisement. Yet not doing so plays into the hands of those who would wish to ignore class as a dynamic in attainment altogether.

It is always a difficult thing to admit to wanting a different life to those around you, whether it be a woman deciding not to have children or the child who decides not to follow their parents’ faith. Most of us feel the pressure to stay “in the herd”, whatever class we’re in, simply because it’s hard to move that far away from the things considered normal in your community. To decide you want to be a historian, an MP or a lawyer when none of your peers hold similar ambitions marks you out. 

It can also potentially be upsetting for others, who can too easily feel your wish is a slight to their choices, however little it’s intended as such. A lot of what people think of as Northern chippiness is actually about the dignity of defending one’s circumstances and worldview as legitimate in a culture which still fails to represent them fairly.

If you hail from a community often denied a fair whack at success, then, ambition can be a fraught thing. As one of the participants in the Guardian’s study said, “I wouldn’t want [teachers] telling everyone I’m the best and rubbing it in their faces”.

Equally, although a lot of the mockery I think of when I think of the North is more fond than discouraging – my Dad calling my undergraduate dissertation “witchcraft”, for instance, was his way of saying it was impressive; or, at least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe – it’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick when you grow up already feeling shut out from a different world to which you’d desperately like to belong.

It’s not surprising, then, that even the most self-assured of my working-class friends have sometimes quietly voiced a fear that they’ve committed an act of betrayal by becoming one of the “them”. In his “Note on the uprooted and anxious” in The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart writes of the “sense of loss” felt by those who have been physically or emotionally uprooted from their upbringing: “this kind of anxiety, he writes, “often seems most to afflict those in the working-classes who have been pulled one stage away from their original culture and yet have not the intellectual equipment which would then cause them to move on to join the ‘declassed’ professionals and experts.” 

Of course, Hoggart’s remarks are based around class, not geography, and however much the statistics suggest the North suffers disproportionately from economic difficulties Burnham’s remarks are surely oversimplified at best  true as they might ring for some. As my London-born colleague Stephen Bush says, it’s always annoying when politicians invoke the north-south divide without acknowledging that a child growing up in Rochdale likely has more in common with one in Bow than in Harrogate. If Burnham does intend to become Mayor of Greater Manchester, he will doubtless have to find a way of engineering a more subtle conversation around the question of ambition and attainment.

But I can’t shake the feeling half the people laughing at this are laughing at it because they don’t want to have the conversation at all.

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