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Telling the Tale of England’s North Country Blues

England’s North-South divide lies at the heart of Britain’s recent political disputes, from Brexit to the fate of the Labour Party. There’s a long and fascinating history behind that regional chasm, from the Norman conquest to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

Workington, a coastal town in Northern England and one of Labour's traditional heartlands, went Conservative in last December's elections. (Flickr)

Last December’s British general election, like the Brexit vote of 2016, brought the North of England suddenly to the forefront of the country’s political discussion. The Labour Party was routed in many of its former Northern heartlands, with the Brexit question having proved pivotal in smashing the “red wall.” Substantial Labour majorities across the postindustrial North vanished in a puff of smoke.

For many, it was a sad and perplexing sight: after all, the North had once led the world in industry (textiles, coal mining, steel, shipbuilding), and had long prided itself on its radical heritage, having been the hotbed of Luddism and Chartism, the birthplace of the modern labor movement and of early suffragism. Its left-field cultural sensibilities — from the pathbreaking new wave of British social-realist cinema of the 1950s and ’60s, through the Beatles and Merseybeat, to the idiosyncratic post-punk music scenes of Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield — have likewise been much celebrated in the region and beyond it.

The North was never homogeneously Labour, but last December saw Northern constituencies which had returned Labour MPs for many years, in some cases the best part of a century, go Conservative. This had Tory pundits in raptures. The North — for so long given nary a second thought by most London-based commentators — found itself the recipient of patronizing pats on the head, flattered as the repository of earthy common sense and hard-bitten wisdom. True, this is how the North has often seen itself, but it was hard to escape the feeling that it was being congratulated for finally knowing its place.

A narrow focus on the Labour Party’s misfortune, however, sheds little light on the situation in Northern England today. A valuable corrective to such myopia comes from Tom Hazeldine’s compelling, rigorous, and ambitious book The Northern Question, which traces the history of the English North over the longue durée, from the medieval period to the Brexit conjuncture. In doing so, it reminds us that last year’s seemingly seismic political shift, far from coming entirely out of nowhere, represented a culmination of much longer trends.

What Is the North?

As Hazeldine observes, one of the problems facing us in our efforts to better understand the North of England today is that few people appear able to agree on precisely what it is. There is no clear definition of its boundaries because the highly centralized, unitary British state has not seen fit to settle on one. With state power concentrated in a small corner of London, the question has never unduly troubled it. Nor have the North’s own residents managed to decide the matter, which has been interminably debated, to their own satisfaction.

If we define the North, as Hazeldine does, as encompassing three official regions — North East England, North West England, and Yorkshire and the Humber — it has a population around two and a half times that of Scotland. But as Scotland and the Holyrood parliament edge ever closer to the Union’s exit door, there is, predictably, no appetite for regional devolution in England either at Westminster or among senior mandarins at Whitehall, lest the North start to get funny ideas of its own.

The belated implementation of devolution at Edinburgh and Cardiff in the late 1990s by Tony Blair’s government was not designed to facilitate the departure of Scotland and Wales from the Union (should that ultimately prove to be the democratic will of their peoples). Rather, the goal was to shore up British rule — something the devolution settlement has signally failed to do. There was a bid to introduce a toothless regional assembly in North East England under New Labour. However, its rejection in a 2004 referendum allowed Tony Blair, never evangelical about devolution, to drop the idea altogether.

Nor has there been any popular pressure for Northern devolution in the years since. There is, as Hazeldine notes, a nebulous feeling of “cultural belonging” among Northerners, but with few institutions that might sharpen this into a clearer regional identity. There are no major region-wide media in the North; the BBC might have relocated some of its operations to Salford, but its orientation remains firmly toward London.

Interregional rivalries further complicate any attempt to form a Northern united front: Manchester against Liverpool, Lancashire against Yorkshire, Newcastle against Sunderland, among others. Non-regional forms of identification instead take precedence.

Contrary to old stereotypes, the North is highly diverse, economically and culturally as well as politically. Parts of the region have never fully recovered from Thatcherism and the demolition of the industries which once sustained them. Manchester, by contrast, has reinvented itself as a lodestar of municipal neoliberalism. Its Blairite Labour council leadership has stoked a local property boom as if the 1990s had never ended, rendering large areas of the city increasingly inhospitable to working-class residents in the process. Perhaps Liverpool remains the North’s last bastion of a dissident and radical local political culture.

Hazeldine takes his cue (and the title of his book) from Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the “Southern Question,” the historic chasm separating Italy’s industrialized North from its poor, agricultural South. But, he argues, a “contrastive reflection” may tell us more than the superficial parallels between English North and Italian South. Not only is Northern England’s regional identity much weaker than that of Southern Italy; the latter has also played a more prominent role in its country’s political life (and its state apparatus) than the former.

Although Southern Italy was never an economic power comparable to Northern England at the peak of its influence, it — like the other Italian regions — has at least been able to enjoy “considerable regional autonomies,” while Britain remains “a hyper-centralized administration set within a pre-modern, composite kingdom.” Nevertheless, both are today relatively poor regions generally overshadowed and either ignored or condescended to by a more affluent and powerful neighbor.

The Northern Bourgeoisie

The thoroughness of the North’s subordination to London and the South East, and its enduring lack of political power, has had much to do with historic defeats of its ruling classes. For all the economic power they wielded in the nineteenth century, even the titans of Northern industry did not translate this into any meaningful and lasting national political influence. Hazeldine traces the roots of this seemingly puzzling failure even further back.

Subjugation came early and brutally to the North: a rebellion of Northumbrian earls against William the Conqueror was put down savagely in the quasi-genocidal, scorched-earth campaign of 1069–70, known as the Harrying of the North. Writing half a century later, Anglo-Saxon chronicler Orderic Vitalis put the death toll in excess of a hundred thousand.

While there was periodic tumult thereafter, by the late twelfth century, Northern nobles were clearly subservient to their Southern counterparts; they would be amply compensated for their loss of political prestige by the accumulation of “estates and offices at the Crown’s pleasure.”

Centuries later, the Industrial Revolution transformed the North from backwater to world leader, but the Northern “millocrats” remained on the political margins. High society was rooted in London, as was the seat of British imperial, state, and class power. Southern landowners and financiers thus continued to dominate national political life, while the Northern bourgeoisie “lacked the social lubricant of a public-school and Oxbridge education.” Rich Southerners dominated intellectually, too: with “much more leisure time on their hands” and being “situated at international crossing points,” their horizons were broader.

Northern industrialists numbered the pioneering liberal Richard Cobden among their champions — the Anti-Corn Law League had its first base in Manchester — but he was an isolated figure, exceptional both in his intellectual prowess and in his hostility to the Southern ruling elite. Despite securing a famous victory over landed interests with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the mill owners — hated for their tyrannical treatment of their workers — were otherwise content, having secured a foothold in a reformed House of Commons, to play second fiddle to the Southern landowners in a common front against the working class.

By the 1920s, the heyday of Northern industry was over, and its predicament was increasingly apparent. It was in this period that the notion of a North-South divide first gained purchase. Hazeldine notes that Northern industrial areas were far worse affected by the Great Depression and its resulting unemployment than most of the South: the renewed pursuit of the gold standard and balanced budgets (at the behest of London-based financial capital) did immense damage to heavy industry. The defeat of the General Strike in 1926 had ensured that organized labor was in no real position to force a change of policy.

Rearmament provided a temporary palliative for the North as the onset of World War II loomed, but once the war was out of the way, Northern industries again faced an uncertain future. Advanced modern industry was located predominantly in the South East, while Whitehall and the City had no particular need for heavy industry in order to retain a prominent position in global affairs: they now had nuclear weapons for that. Their priority, therefore, was “keeping the pound strong and British imperialism intact,” and the problems of the North were only ever “small beer” by comparison.

Industrial firms which had initially prospered in the North were increasingly drawn south, toward the center of power: “The more that companies scaled up their operations, the stronger the pull became to transact their affairs close to Westminster and the City.” A similar pattern was visible in the working-class movement; organizations that had themselves been founded in the North gradually recalibrated their own focus toward London. With the later collapse of Northern industry, the labor movement would only become more London-centric, leaving behind a growing political void in the North.

The Long Death of Northern Labourism

Though the breakneck industrialization of the North (particularly Manchester) and its harsh social consequences had done much to inform the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism had only a modest reach among the early working-class movement of Northern England. Instead, out of the Northern labor movement emerged an ethical socialism, as documented by Paul Salveson’s Socialism With a Northern Accent. It produced an intricate network of institutions — including socialist choirs, cycling clubs, and even the Labour Church — but developed relatively little in the way of political strategy.

In his 1964 essay, “The Nature of the Labour Party,” Tom Nairn argued that while Labourism had produced numerous fine agitators, it supplied few, if any, socialist theorists of real significance. The ethical bent of Northern socialism was consistent with this: neither Marxism nor Fabianism held much sway among socialists in the North, but the region’s brand of ethical socialism, for all its moral force, was not an adequate ideological basis for an aspiring party of government. Instead, it fell to the Fabians to supply the nascent Labour Party with a cadre of technocratic, centralizing policy intellectuals and strategists.

The Fabians held that a Labour government, once equipped with a House of Commons majority, would be able to legislate a new society into being through the steady extension of state ownership from above. It was simply assumed that the existing machinery of the British state would be quite adequate to the task, and that a Labour government would be able to wield this machinery as it wished.

However, the historical record of successive Labour administrations when it came to the North has hardly vindicated these rather otherworldly hopes. Hazeldine subjects this record to an unsparing postmortem.

Labour governments have come to office and repeatedly found, faced with the combined might of the Treasury and the City of London, that real power resided elsewhere. The Labour administration of 1929–1931 stuck doggedly to free-trade, balanced-budget dogma; an attempt to cut unemployment benefits in the midst of the Depression (as demanded by the City) destroyed it. Even the postwar Attlee government, to this day Labour’s high-water mark, made only tepid efforts to bolster Northern industry, which paled in comparison to its expenditure on rearmament and the burgeoning Cold War.

The rise of the US dollar to global reserve currency status weakened the position of sterling, always seen as an important symbol of British national virility. Yet Treasury orthodoxy maintained that a strong pound was vital to preserve the City’s position as a top global financial center. Government support for struggling regions was sacrificed, while the uncertainty created by “stop-go” economic policies — periodically paring back government investment to help counteract runs on the pound — also hit Northern industries.

Wilson to Blair

The Labour leader Harold Wilson was a Yorkshireman who played up his Northern roots, but one who had been educated at Oxford. He became prime minister in 1964, pledging to set up a Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) to weaken the Treasury’s overweening influence and promising a “Plan for the Regions” to revitalize industry.

Once in government, however, Labour was forced by capital flight — with underhand encouragement from the Bank of England’s governor — to capitulate again to City interests and drop its more ambitious economic policies. Meanwhile, the DEA was DOA, and the attempt to sideline the Treasury proved to be a total failure.

Wilson tried instead to reinvigorate struggling industries with tax incentives, subsidies, and corporate mergers — all ineffective. His first government also ran down coal mining, accelerating pit closures while coalfield MPs and the miners’ union, then under a right-wing leadership, sat on their hands.

By the 1970s, regional assistance was a very low priority for James Callaghan’s crisis-stricken administration, which made the initial turn toward neoliberalism with the IMF bailout of 1976. Thatcherite monetarism greatly escalated the destruction of Northern industry, but Labour had prepared the groundwork.

Following eighteen years out of office, Labour returned to government in 1997 making gestures toward regional economic rebalancing. These soon evaporated into thin air. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ramped up public-sector job creation in the North as a palliative for their wholesale embrace of neoliberalism and globalization, but London’s finance-led growth was the real engine of New Labour’s economic strategy.

Between 1997 and 2010, the party shed 1.5 million Northern votes. The reliance of the postindustrial North on state support would also make it a prime casualty of spending cuts when the Tories returned to government.

After the Crash

Once the financial crisis of 2008 struck, the compensatory gestures made by New Labour to its Northern support could be dropped, “having pump-primed the privatization of core public services.” Northern discontent toward Labour had already been visible for some time: in 2002, for example, its candidate lost a mayoral election in the County Durham town of Hartlepool to the local soccer mascot, H’Angus the Monkey — alias Stuart Drummond, a man in a monkey suit whose election promises had included free bananas for schoolchildren.

After the crash, the clamor from the City (as soon as it had gobbled up enormous government bailouts) was for fiscal retrenchment, and the size of the state in the North made it a target for cuts. Though there was a cross-party consensus at Westminster on the need for austerity, Labour-controlled councils bore the brunt.

The Tory government and its press allies viciously scapegoated benefit recipients, many of them living in postindustrial areas, in order to harden public hearts against them, paving the way for punitive cuts and sanctions. These attacks had, however, been initiated by New Labour while it was in office, actively shifting public opinion to the right.

The banking bailouts served to shore up London-based finance capital in its moment of crisis. Meanwhile, monetary policy — namely ultralow interest rates and quantitative easing — sent asset prices soaring, another windfall for the very richest (at the expense of London’s own working class).

The statistics Hazeldine provides as evidence of the Recession’s uneven regional impact are startling: in London, any economic slowdown was soon shrugged off, as the local economy grew by 17 percent from 2010–14, compared to growth of 3–4 percent in the Northern English regions and 1 percent in Northern Ireland over the same period.

The Brexit Crisis

Before long, there would be a reckoning. Given the disproportionate damage done by austerity in the North, barely noticed by the London media, George Osborne’s warnings of economic doomsday cut little ice with Northern voters in the 2016 European referendum. Vote Leave’s slogan, “Take Back Control,” while on one level an unsubtle dog whistle about immigration, also tapped into a wider feeling of political powerlessness. As a result, it resonated in many onetime industrial heartlands of the North — major Northern cities including Sheffield, Salford, and Sunderland voted Leave — although the ideological driving force behind Brexit originated in the Tory shires and suburbs of the South East.

While the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned against Brexit (albeit not ardently enough for some), it moved quickly to accept the result of the referendum. In time, the Brexit question would become the key wedge issue that resulted in Corbyn’s downfall as Labour leader and the failure of his political project. In the interim, however, he was able to paper over the cracks: in 2017, on the biggest swing to Labour since 1945, the party piled up big majorities in many Northern seats, although a split right-wing vote tended to flatter such performances and disguised a lingering threat.

By the time of the next general election in 2019, Corbyn had bowed to pressure from Labour MPs, party members, and the media to go into the election promising a second referendum on Europe. The policy proved unsurprisingly disastrous in Leave-supporting areas. Of the sixty seats Labour lost last December, fifty-two of them had voted Leave three and a half years earlier. Hazeldine highlights the lopsided nature of the Tory gains: the bulk of them (a regional net gain of forty-four seats) came in the North and Midlands.

Brexit aside, Corbyn’s Labour had displayed an attentiveness to the Northern problem, campaigning on a set of regional manifestos promising substantial investment in the North and other areas afflicted by deindustrialization, the cost covered in part by higher taxes on the City and its chief beneficiaries. But as far as constitutional reform was concerned, it remained timid and conservative, essentially promising to continue in the traditional Labourist vein of dishing out reforms from the Westminster center rather than dispersing democratic power to the people of the English regions.

In any case, as Hazeldine rightly adds, Corbyn’s challenge to forty years of neoliberalism was blunted as “the ideological polarization between the governing Conservatives and Labour opposition was confined to a proxy debate about the technicalities of EU withdrawal.” Fatally, Labour had been seen to line up alongside the hated “London establishment,” wrecking Corbyn’s own antiestablishment credentials, while Boris Johnson could — absurdly perhaps, but effectively — position himself as the champion of the popular will.

A New Regionalism?

Hazeldine concludes with the observation that the Northern problem “isn’t going away any time soon.” The enormity of Britain’s regional inequalities guarantees this; Hazeldine cites a European Commission adviser’s remark that these inequalities more closely resemble those of some post-Soviet states than of an advanced, rich economy. It would take drastic measures to redress these imbalances even partially. Will such measures be forthcoming from a Tory government that enjoys such substantial Northern support?

In a word, no. Hazeldine doubts that Westminster and Whitehall have either the desire or the understanding to resolve the Northern question. Boris Johnson’s Tories have hyped up what they call their “leveling-up agenda” for the regions, but this is unlikely to produce much beyond pork-barrel politics in marginal seats. There remains an assumption that London and the South East have deservedly prospered due to their inherent entrepreneurialism, and not their proximity to capitalist class and state power. This “moral geography,” as Doreen Massey called it, still runs deep on the British right (and among the liberal center).

There is speculation that the Conservatives could move some government departments out of London to the North — including, with grim irony, part of the Treasury — while also shaking up local government structures. But the latter policy looks set to accelerate antidemocratic trends which emerged during the New Labour years, with fewer district councils and more directly elected mayors.

As was the case under New Labour, reforms along these lines are only likely to encourage the growth of personality politics while facilitating the further carving-up and privatization of local government functions, thereby weakening democratic oversight at the local level rather than strengthening it.

Action on the Northern question would have to start with a political groundswell for change within the North itself, demanding large-scale public investment and redistribution of political power. With no sign of any such groundswell, instead the tendency is to lash out in the form of ambiguous protest votes, open to varying and often dubious interpretations.

But it took decades of struggle before the campaigns for Scottish and Welsh devolution succeeded, and without similarly concerted popular pressure, any radical transfer of power and resources to the North is vanishingly unlikely — even more so since Corbynism’s defeat. Almost certainly, COVID-19 and the impending economic crisis will widen Britain’s regional inequalities even further.

Broken Heartlands

In his own book, New Model Island, Alex Niven proposes a radical regionalism both as an alternative to English nationalism and as a stepping stone toward a more decentralized socialist democracy. Attractive as this vision is, with support for regional self-government so marginal, it looks a remote prospect.

Previous efforts to establish Northern political projects have run up against local civic pride (often internecine) and British-English nationalism. As Dave Russell argued in his study, Looking North, to the extent that “Northernness” has existed at all, it has tended to manifest itself more as shared resentment of London and the South than a positive cause.

Although Brexit was the flash point, in a lot of Northern constituencies the break with Labour had been a long time coming. The disappearance of labor movement institutions — termed a “world of labor” by Ralph Miliband — has hurt Labour badly in its former heartlands, where it was once so firmly rooted.

It wasn’t just cooperatives, labor clubs, and trade unions that were lost; it was the set of values that went with them. Together, these values and institutions sustained a practical, class-based solidarity in everyday life. With mass unemployment looming once more, this absence of this solidarity today bodes ill.

However much past Labour governments have disappointed their Northern supporters, without that “world of labor,” a lot of towns and cities in the North are much unhappier places. Many of their inhabitants have been left more receptive to the mendacious appeals of the reactionary, racist right. What turns the stomach is that the Tory Party, which gloried in smashing the North’s working-class movement in the first place, should profit from the atomization and alienation left behind in its absence.