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Rotten, Divided and Disillusioned Britain

‘UK divided by wealth, not geography’

The file photo shows an impoverished area in Gorton, Manchester, the UK.

The file photo shows an impoverished area in Gorton, Manchester, the UK.
Mon May 5, 2014 9:31AM GMT
By Owen Jones, The Guardian


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

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