‘Step up El Presidente Pickles’
Scotland is easy enough. Travellers from the south meet it at Gretna, Lamberton Toll or Carter Bar, where in recent years the signs have grown big enough to advertise an international frontier. But where does “the North”, meaning northern England, begin?
For me, it starts when the M6 peels off from the M1, or the train charges through Rugby or Retford. I don’t expect many people agree with these boundaries. This is the north as an idea – a highly idiosyncratic one – that pays no attention to physical geography. The Midlands have gone missing. But then the north has always been hazy and tediously arguable, even when it was more obviously defined to the eye and ear by mills, collieries and accents rather than the social statistics of the north-south divide. More and more it seems easier to think of it as a negative, a not-south, with southern England posing as a norm that needs emulating in terms of lifestyle, wealth and opportunity. What begins at the M6 junction going north is the sense of entering a poorer country, in most other ways not markedly different from the one left behind, which, despite the beautiful, uplifting interruption of the Lake District, stretches all the way to Carlisle.
Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield university, has given this boundary its most detailed expression in a map based on all kinds of social statistics – health inequalities, house prices, mortality rates, voting patterns. As a definition of “the North” it may be ludicrous – Wales is included – and its pernickety line, crossing fields to separate villages from their county towns, reminds you what can happen when difference is assessed purely by human characteristics that are calculable (a head-count of religious identity was the criteria when India was partitioned, splitting Punjab as raggedly as Dorling does Lincolnshire, but with crueller results). But the rough divide looks familiar enough. Above a diagonal line drawn from Bristol to just south of Grimsby, life chances in England are poorer.
In his recent book, So You Think You Know About Britain?, Dorling finds that the difference between north and south in premature death rates was wider in 2010 than it had been in 1921, and that the centre of Britain’s population, the place where in weight it would balance perfectly, is moving steadily south. “What shocked me”, he writes, “was to learn just how relentlessly it had moved south over the course of almost every year of the last century.” Only in the 1970s was the drift briefly halted. Dorling considers England to be split between “on the one hand the outermost commuting suburbs and exclaves of a metropolis [London], and on the other hand the runt of the country that is left over and beyond – the North”.
With one exception, political attempts to change this imbalance are puny. Nothing resembles an industrial strategy. The BBC is moving staff to Salford, whoopee, but in Derby the last train-making factory in Britain has lost a big order to Germany, and may not survive for much longer. The exception, potentially, is the proposed high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, with its later extension to Manchester and Leeds. Arguments flourish over the business case and the £32bn cost, but the loudest opposition comes from the rural suburbs and London “exclaves” of the Chilterns, which fear the ruination of their valuable countryside and property by extensive earthworks and 250mph trains. And all for what? So that 30 minutes can be knocked off the journey to Birmingham, and 48 minutes to Manchester; the same, of course, coming south.
“Your jobs or their lawns?” is how the north has chosen to answer the southern lobby. The slogan, accompanied by images of a country mansion and a man in a bowler hat, appeared for the first time on the sides of Manchester and Liverpool buses this week.
This strayed into territory that advertising recognises as dangerous, as class-based as the Lord Snooty lookalikes that are always alleged to have lost Labour the Crewe byelection. The founder of one of the Chilterns groups called the campaign “absolutely ridiculous” in its suggestion that southern Nimbys were jeopardising northern growth – these were “fast trains for fat cats”. On the BBC News, the boiler-suited owner of a car repair business in Ruislip refuted the idea that opposition to the line comprised only Country Life readers and the now-mythical City gent.
Is this how the north really sees the south? Of course not: advertising deals in caricatures. But what the campaign has presumably divined, and hopes to feed from, is a gathering popular resentment at southern power. North and south may always have enjoyed a theatrical rivalry, neatly encapsulated in what the Australian writer Donald Horne called the Northern and Southern Metaphors (among other things, the north is “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan” and the south “divinely lucky, Anglican, frivolous”). For the north, the south has always had its attractions. “There grows in the North Country a certain kind of youth of whom it may be said that he is born to be a Londoner,” Arnold Bennett wrote in 1898, and the same held true in the 60s when Billy Liar nearly left Yorkshire for the uncertain prospects of scriptwriting in London (very soon, he would have needed to travel no further than Salford). But even in the 1960s, those who stayed behind could feel themselves part of a society that wasn’t beholden to the south. They could even feel that their industry propped up the south.
“Your jobs or their lawns?’ speaks to a different mood, of a helplessness and discontent that has still to find a political voice. There is no regional party – perhaps the north is too amorphous for one, or perhaps that’s what Labour, much against its triangulating will, is becoming.
Northern England lacks a political champion. In London, I often get into a train for Scotland. You leave a prosperous metropolis and cross David Cameron’s England until Rugby. At Carlisle, people are still paying student fees, and for their false teeth.
Before Lockerbie, both are free. You are now in the country with the leader known by local satirists as El Presidente Salmondo. Between Rugby and Carlisle is the country known as “the North”, a tract of worried England with no distinguished political leadership, bookended by the heartlands of Britain’s two most skilful operators and optimists. El Presidente Pickles? The thought in itself shows how desperate the need.
Ian Jack, Guardian.co.uk, Friday 24th June 2011. Full artictle title: ‘The north of England lacks a political champion. Step up El Presidente Pickles’