Anthony Sampson: The North-South divide is a failure of politics - not just economics

To reverse the trend, politicians must reassert their crucial role as representatives of their constituents
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The Independent Online

The divide between the North and South is growing still wider, according to new research from Sheffield University, based on the 2001 census. Unprecedented numbers of skilled workers have moved to the South, and northern cities "appear to be sinking demographically, socially and economically"; while London has become still richer, with its wealth spreading through the South.

The split is coming to be seen as inevitable, as the result of the global marketplace, as money from all over the world is attracted to London, with its unique financial services, its sophisticated communications and geographical position, its ring of international airports and its closeness to Europe.

But London is also the capital, the political heart of the country. And much of its attraction for companies and investors comes from their need to be close to the Government. It is not just its economic power, but its political power which has caused it to dominate the rest of the country.

The parliamentary system is supposed to give full representation to the provinces, where the huge majority of the British still live. But London's political clout within Britain has been massively increased by its position in the global marketplace, while the provincial centres have been less and less able to make their voices heard in Westminster and Whitehall, where the real decisions about the future are made.

There is nothing inevitable about the concentration of political power and decisions. If there is one thing elected governments can decide, it is where and how they govern, and how they distribute their favours. The North-South divide reflects, above all, a failure of representative democracy.

For someone who has watched the changing anatomy of the country, the weakening clout of the provinces has been spectacular, and tragic. Forty years ago, the great centres of the North were still constantly making themselves felt in the capital. Vocal northern MPs were constantly heard in Parliament, and Harold Wilson went back to Yorkshire to rediscover his roots. The TUC conferences were loud with rugged provincial voices. Big industrial corporations such as Tube Investments and Guest Keen Nettlefold had their headquarters in the North. Regional newspapers were widely quoted. The new TV companies, such as Granada in Manchester, represented the spirit of their regions. Northern landed families, such as the Stanleys of Lancashire, were powers in the land.

Today, nearly all the big corporations have their headquarters in London. The TUC conferences are diminished and less publicised. The Manchester Guardian is now The Guardian, firmly based in London; and Granada is no longer associated automatically with Lancashire.

The House of Commons, with all its provincial majority, sounds much less like a national arena as it becomes more engrossed in the Westminster bubble. And the life peers in the House of Lords are much more London-based than the old hereditary aristocrats.

There were new hopes that the provinces would increase their political clout when New Labour came to power, with its army of MPs from the North. The North-east (where I was born) was seen as the region most in need of help, and a third of Blair's first cabinet had their constituencies there, including Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool), Alan Milburn (Darlington), Mo Mowlam (Redcar), Nick Brown (Newcastle) and Stephen Byers (Tyneside) - not to mention Tony Blair (Sedgefield).

But the centralisation of power in Whitehall soon overwhelmed the regional interests. Ministers inevitably became preoccupied with their centralised Whitehall departments, while nearly all the north-easterners disappeared in reshuffles. Who now sees Peter Mandelson as our man from Hartlepool? Or Blair from Sedgefield, except when President Bush pays a visit?

The concentration of economic power in London continued to frustrate the efforts at provincial revival, and the consequences could be seen in all kinds of communications which separated the North further from the South. The media were still more controlled from London; the airports in the South-east multiplied; the high-speed trains to Paris took preference over the rumbling railway to Manchester.

It is true that some regional cities have recently shown a cultural revival, with exciting new museums and architecture, but that creative energy has not been matched by financial or political revival. It is in London that the key political decisions are still made south of the Tweed.

The economic pressures, left to themselves, have increased the inequalities between North and South, and they have also weakened the political powers which should be able to countervail them in a healthy democracy. Yvette Cooper, the "minister for regeneration", has insisted that there is nothing inevitable about the divide, and has set up a "northern way" task force to promote growth in the North. But it will require much bolder measures of decentralisation to reverse the economic momentum.

And the economic arguments, as well as the political arguments, for shifting the balance are becoming much stronger as London becomes a less and less practicable city. While it acts as a magnet for foreigners, and becomes still richer in culture and entertainment, it becomes less able to provide a sensible way of life for human beings, except for the wealthy.

It is becoming impossibly expensive, and increasingly difficult to move around in; while its centre causes strains among its inhabitants which compel them to move further into the suburbs, thus overstretching its transport. Much of London is beginning to look more like a third-world city with the deadly combination of "private affluence and public squalor". The new skyscraper palaces rise up from streets and underground stations which look more like Cairo or Mexico City.

Some economists have proposed a simple solution: that London imposes its own property tax, which would both bring down the high prices of offices, and provide a fund which could subsidise services. But this goes against the centralised Treasury thinking, and the prospects of achieving it are minimal.

The only viable way to make London more liveable is for the Government to decentralise its own administration, away from the South. It is not enough to move armies of junior employees of government departments to provincial cities. It is only when they relocate whole departments, including their top people, with all their influence and patronage, that the provinces will began to receive their fair share.

There is no reason why Britain should not provide alternative capitals in order to break the combination of financial and political power which has allowed London to dominate the rest of the country.

It is the failure of the political system, as much as the economic system, which has brought about this dangerous divide. And it is only by politicians reasserting their crucial role, as representatives of their constituents, that we can reverse the trend towards splitting the country in half.