Two months ago, two different bits of Britain’s much-loved privatised rail network fell over. Passengers on Thameslink and Northern rail were victims of a timetable overhaul, which was intended to increase the frequency and reliability of train services but instead led to delays and cancellations.
There were, however, some important differences between the two cases. For one thing, Northern’s problems weren’t new – the timetable changes made things worse, but passengers in the north had already been putting up with a disrupted service for months.
For another, most Thameslink stations now get several new trains per hour, often formed of 12 cars. Whereas for much of the north, a good service still means only two trains an hour – comprised of two or three carriages made of modified buses on rails.
And then, as if that weren’t enough of a symbol of the social and economic chasm that runs down the middle of this country, a moor outside Manchester spent three weeks on fire. The London media initially ignored that, too.
The economic divide between the affluent south-east and the rest of England has become such an accepted part of our national life that we’ve stopped being shocked by it – but we shouldn’t have. A 2014 report from Eurostat found that England accounted for seven of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe; two more were elsewhere in the UK. Most post-industrial English cities now have productivity levels comparable to those of eastern Germany, which spent half a century under communist rule.
Another crucial and related fact is that England remains one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. In Germany, Italy, Australia and the US, political, financial and cultural power is dispersed among several cities. In England, London dominates all three. Other cities are not even allowed to raise their own money: in a bid to build a tram network, Leeds had to go cap in hand to Whitehall. Whitehall said no in 2016.
There is, however, a policy that would unambiguously break London’s stranglehold on the country: moving the capital city.
The banks are unlikely to move en masse to the north (Frankfurt or Amsterdam are stronger contenders, sadly). The BBC’s partial relocation to Salford Quays has been a success, but a limited one: most commissioning power in the media industry has stayed stubbornly in the capital. But moving out of London is something the government could decide to do, and the industries that cluster close to political power would follow.
Such is its status as a major world city that London’s economy would barely skip a beat. It might even benefit: spreading jobs and power to another city would take some steam out of the capital’s overheated housing market, making it easier for those industries that remain to recruit and retain staff.
There’d be other benefits. A new capital would allow parliament to move to a new site that isn’t falling down. (The Palace of Westminster would make excellent yuppie flats.) Increasing the distance between financial and political elites would break the 40-year habit of running the entire British economy for the benefit of the City of London. And dispersing power would soon disperse investment: upgrading Northern’s modified buses might seem as important as Crossrail 2.
As to where the new capital should be, there is an obvious candidate, whose central location would spread benefits to other nearby cities: Manchester could be Washington to London’s New York. But I’m agnostic: perhaps we should hold an auction.
It would take time to move parliament and the civil service without incurring a catastrophic loss of expertise. But in Brexit, the political class is already committed to one expensive project that will take decades to complete. At least this one might actually benefit the country – spreading jobs, rebalancing the housing market and ending the internal brain drain in which graduates of northern universities head immediately for the south. At the very least, it would finally force ministers to sort out those trains.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special