Go to the “industrial north”, wrote George Orwell in 1937, and “you are conscious … of entering a strange
country.” As a northern sellout, I treacherously defected to the south a decade ago and my Stockport accent has
faded into a subtle lilt, but a romanticized northern identity still has its appeal. “The north has more cultural
identity than Wales,” Mancunian comedian Steve Coogan said in BBC2’s The Trip, partly to provoke his Welsh
companion Rob Brydon, but no doubt prompting growls in the Rhondda valley.
The great north-south divide still looms large over English life, and if – as is far from unlikely – Scotland opts for
independence in September, its significance will only grow. We’ve moved on from flat caps and whippets, but the
north still conjures up images of being downtrodden and impoverished; of terraced houses with the Hovis theme
tune in the background. The south, on the other hand, is a prosperous land of leafy suburbs, City slickers and
It’s nonsense, and Labour’s John Denham was right last week to berate party colleagues who “insist on talking
about a north-south divide” which he identified as a key obstacle to Labour winning in the south. Perhaps he was
referring to Michael Dugher, one of Ed Miliband’s key election strategists, who earlier this year assailed David
Cameron for “giving up on the north” and having “written it off economically”. The “north-south divide” is just
another means of deflecting from the real great division: those at the top and the rest of us.
Take London, the great metropolitan capital of the sixth richest country on Earth, where one in four children live
in overcrowded homes, over twice the English average. Of the 20 English local authorities with the highest levels
of child poverty, seven are located in London. According to End Child Poverty, Tower Hamlets has the largest
proportion of children living in poverty in the entire country. This is where the booming financial district of Canary
Wharf is located, meaning there are poorly fed kids growing up in cold, overcrowded homes meters away from
bankers living in luxury apartments with whirlpool baths. Although London has far more rich people than
elsewhere – and, in many cases, the term “rich” is an understatement – 16% of Londoners are in England’s
poorest 10th. This is, by far, a worse record than any other English region.
London is the centre of England’s housing crisis too. A quarter of Londoners claim housing benefit to pay the
rent – many of them in work – and nearly three-quarters of inner London homes are snapped up by foreign
buyers. Unemployment is higher than the national average; while young Londoners tend to be more educated,
they are also more likely to be out of work.
Plenty of southerners belong to the ranks of the working poor. According to TUC research, Kingswood near
Bristol has more workers paid less than the living wage than anywhere else in Britain. Iain Duncan Smith claims
that work is the route out of poverty, and yet his own backyard proves it to be a lie: his constituency of Chingford
and Woodford Green has Britain’s second-highest proportion of low-paid workers. Kent is often regarded as a
leafy playground for affluent commuters, and yet nearly a fifth of its children are poor; further east, in Great
Yarmouth, a quarter of children languish in poverty.
De-industrialization is often seen as a northern trauma, but it is not so. The disappearance of tin mining
impoverished Cornwall, leaving it one of the only regions eligible for special financial assistance from the EU.
Two-thirds of London’s manufacturing vanished between 1960 and 1990, with British Leyland, Ford and Hoover
among companies cutting tens of thousands of jobs.
Neither is the north entirely awash with poverty. The English community with the lowest level of child poverty is
Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s seat and one of England’s richest constituencies. George Osborne, that great
hammer of the poor, represents the booming Cheshire seat of Tatton. Go to Hulme, in inner-city Manchester, and
marvel at luxury penthouses with hi-tech security in case middle-class flat-hunters fear the grinding poverty
around them. I grew up in Stockport’s second poorest ward (to middle-class parents, before I’m accused of any
pretences); but as a paperboy I would deliver newspapers to luxury homes three miles away that could have
been lifted out of Surrey.
Yes, the north-east has England’s highest level of unemployment and child poverty. Our economy is too
dependent on a financial sector concentrated in London, driving the need for an industrial strategy underpinned
by public regional investment banks. But what does the north-south divide mean to a single mum in Cornwall
who has to choose between heating her home and feeding her children? How much really divides the call centre
worker in Hull and the supermarket shelf-stacker in Chelmsford?
It’s like the theory of generation war: the prosperous baby-boomers versus the impoverished youth. It makes no
sense to the elderly woman shivering in a home she is too poor to heat, or the public school-educated young
man buying his first property with his millionaire parents’ cash. Though saying so may seem disloyal to my
northern homeland, the north-south divide is just another dangerous distraction.
There is one division that matters: those who have wealth and power, and those who do not – whether they live
in Carlisle or Land’s End