We are divided by much more than mere geography

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The Independent Online

One of the clips shown recently during the television tributes to Sir Robin Day came from a 1983 episode of Question Time. The questioner asked the panel, comprising the likes of Michael Foot and David Owen, about "Mrs Thatcher's north-south divide" and what they proposed to do about it. The urge to "do something" about differential rates of economic growth goes back a long way. Indeed the first legislation to deal with the problems of the "distressed areas"was passed in 1936. It may also be true, as the Oxford Economic Forecasting Group argue in their latest study, that the disparities are becoming more stark. But such an analysis can lead us to some dangerously simplistic conclusions.

One of the clips shown recently during the television tributes to Sir Robin Day came from a 1983 episode of Question Time. The questioner asked the panel, comprising the likes of Michael Foot and David Owen, about "Mrs Thatcher's north-south divide" and what they proposed to do about it. The urge to "do something" about differential rates of economic growth goes back a long way. Indeed the first legislation to deal with the problems of the "distressed areas"was passed in 1936. It may also be true, as the Oxford Economic Forecasting Group argue in their latest study, that the disparities are becoming more stark. But such an analysis can lead us to some dangerously simplistic conclusions.

Let us be clear: there is hardship in the north. It has seen its old staples and newer manufacturing concerns decline in the recession of the early Eighties and struggle under the weight of today's overvalued pound. Certainly, the impressive economic growth of the past few years has been concentrated in the south-east of England and London. But it is also true that Newham is much poorer than Macclesfield; that Cornwall has not seen the boom Berkshire has; and that even in Surrey you will find families struggling on benefits. The caricature of rich south/poor north is just that, and a vaguely insulting one at that. Perhaps the best way to make sense of such a variegated economic landscape is to be found in the words of one northern businessman: "In the south they have pockets of poverty; in the north we have pockets of affluence."

The trouble is that almost every public initiative to "do something" has failed to reverse the trend. Cajoling companies to relocate under regional policies had no great lasting impact. Regional development agencies are a happier experiment, but give the impression that they spend most of their time competing with each other for the same inward investment projects. Restoring the powers of local government might be a better approach, as cities such as Manchester and Leeds have made progress in placing themselves at the centre of transport hubs, exploiting thriving universities, arts and sports facilities and building partnerships with small firms.

But even if the north-south divide diminished to nothing, the truth is that we would still not be "one nation" in the sense defined by Disraeli when he described the squalor of Victorian England and the divisions that existed between "the privileged and the people", writing: "There are two nations: the rich and the poor." There still are. Geography matters, but not as much as that.

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