In 1962, Harold Macmillan’s home secretary Henry Brooke warned that if the government did not “prevent two nations developing geographically” – a poor north and a rich south – “our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness”. Ever since, politicians have lamented the north-south divide. Yet England, the largest part of a fragile multinational state, has remained Europe’s most regionally imbalanced country. It contains both northern Europe’s richest region (west London) and six of its poorest (including South Yorkshire and the Tees Valley).
Through its promotion of the “Northern Powerhouse”, David Cameron’s government paid rhetorical tribute to the north of England and achieved some policy successes (such as the establishment of Transport for the North, the UK’s first pan-northern government body). But the north still suffers from a significant democratic deficit.
Analysis by the IPPR North think tank has shown that since 2009/10 public spending has fallen by £6.3bn in real terms in the north of England – more than in any other UK region – but risen by £3.2bn in the south-east and south-west. Average household wealth in the south-east is £381,000, twice as high as the north-east’s £163,000. And London has received twice as much transport spending per head as the north. It is often quicker and cheaper to travel from London to Paris than from London to Newcastle. Or try taking a train from Leeds to Newcastle to understand how frustrated those living in the north are by poor transport infrastructure.
Economic and social inequalities are matched by political ones. While Mayor Sadiq Khan and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon act as advocates for London and Scotland, the north of England has no equivalent politician of national prominence. As the academic Katy Shaw noted in a recent piece for the New Statesman website, “the Northern Powerhouse minister does not have a budget, or a cabinet seat”.
The disaffection of many northern voters was reflected in the region’s decisive support for Leave in the 2016 EU referendum – understood by many as a revolt against Westminster as much as Brussels. But as the government has become mired in the Brexit negotiations, the underlying causes of that Leave vote have been neglected. It was in this context that 33 northern newspapers and websites, including the Manchester Evening News, the Yorkshire Post and the Liverpool Echo, launched the “Power Up the North” campaign on 10 June with simultaneous front pages – a welcome demonstration of regional solidarity.
Their demands include a new cross-region rail line that would transform the north’s transport system; a bespoke industrial strategy; greater investment in higher and further education, digital infrastructure and affordable housing; and the devolution of powers and funding.
The Brexit vote, like the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, was a warning to Westminster. Yet the front-runner for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson, is pursuing an arid agenda of regressive tax cuts – targeted at ageing Tory party members – and a no-deal Brexit, which would devastate what remains of British manufacturing.
For too long, the north of England has been ignored, insulted or patronised. If this continues, the kingdom will become ever more disunited.
Mother of parliaments
In January, the Labour MP Tulip Siddiq delayed her scheduled Caesarean birth – because there was no other way for her to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The resulting publicity hastened a trial of proxy voting for new parents, which already had cross-party support.
Now her fellow MP Stella Creasy has highlighted another injustice: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which regulates pay and expenses, does not “recognise” the need for maternity leave. It will not grant funds for paid cover to take over constituency and campaigning work.
Dr Creasy has written movingly about her two previous miscarriages, during which she continued to work, and her fears for her latest pregnancy. She has previously been trolled for her childlessness by anti-abortion campaigners, and her political opponents have highlighted their own families on campaign literature “to demonstrate how I was deficient”.
In politics, childless women face suggestions that they are inadequate, work-obsessed or emotionally lacking. At the same time, parents – particularly mothers – are not given sufficient support to juggle family life and serve their constituents. We support Dr Creasy’s campaign and wish her well.
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news