The world we have lost: Britain's moral economy was born in the North, and its death has been felt there first, says Peter Scott

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'SOMETHING'S gone terribly wrong with the North.' It was a casual dinner-table remark and had a specific focus, the alleged failure of the civic universities in the North to keep up with the Oxbridge-London golden triangle in the universities' international struggle for the top academics and the best post-graduate students.

As such, the comment is easy to dismiss as the prejudice of a donnish elite. Universities are too national. Stirling, York, Essex - their geographical locations are almost incidental, despite the rhetoric of local links and civic pride. They are neither Southern nor Northern. Any provincialism is of caste, not place.

But, given more general application, that casual and cruel dinner-table remark is harder to brush aside. As the decade of Thatcherism has been succeeded by the nondescript rule of John Major the images of decay, dissolution, and darker things have accumulated - the Hillsborough tragedy, the Bradford stadium fire and the Yorkshire Ripper have been followed by gun fights in Manchester's Moss Side, ram- raiding in Newcastle, the murder of James Bulger on Merseyside, the Liverpool school at the bottom of John Patten's league table, the media-hyped 'home alone' children of Leeds, the three young children murdered in a house fire at Peterlee, County Durham.

Jumbled images, all different - too different perhaps to be included on a single list as if to insinuate a common provenance. Yet similar enough to suggest precisely that, an accumulation of significance. All these events and phenomena, despite their disconnectedness, seem to 'belong' to a particular region, England's old industrial heartland stretching from the Tyne to the Black Country but centred on the small-town conurbations clinging to the opposing slopes of the Pennines. More than famous capitals, these towns first shaped our modern world in the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

The dissolution of the region's moral economy, therefore, if proved, is of more than local significance. It is rumoured that Mr Major's retreat to 'back to basics' had its origins in some inkling of this dissolution, a personal and felt response to the murder of James Bulger in particular. Who can tell? Not even Mr Major perhaps. Yet, if true, it adds conviction, and stature, to the Prime Minister.

Of course, he has read it wrong - or, rather, read only half the record of history. The moral economy of the industrial North (now the M62 corridor), was about wealth creation, self-reliance, enterprise on a scale that amazed the world then and today shames the amoral ideologues of the 'free market'. The decline of Britain's industrial spirit - chronicled in an influential book by the historian Martin Weiner - did not begin here but in a softer, Southern climate.

But it was also about collectivism, working-class solidarity, the nurturing of self-respect through shared experiences, common action and, above all, Utopian dreaming of a better and fairer society. The Co-op was born in Lancashire; the proletarian consciousness of E P Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class in the West Riding mill towns.

The genius lay in the synergy. The many misuses of Blake's 'Jerusalem', the patriotic and radical hymn, are richly and rightly symbolic of this synergy. The North was both bourgeois and proletarian, far more than mercantile London was, is, or ever can be, in a post-industrial future of round- the-globe round-the-clock markets. Steel plants, wool and cotton mills, coal mines, shipyards are its (blasted) legacy. So, too, are a Welfare State designed to abolish poverty and unemployment, a National Health Service created to banish fear of illness, housing estates which grew up on the ruins of Victorian slums.

Both states, industrial and welfare, have passed into the wind. The plants and mills are derelict, the pits closed, the yards grass-grown. Their configurations of capital and labour have also disappeared, victims of the receiver, the takeover or the buy-out, down-sized to destruction. The social and political institutions created for a mature economy already past its industrial apogee and an immature democracy still hopefully ascending, which was also a Great Power, have been eroded or abandoned.

In their place heritage centres, hypermarkets, high-technology companies, venture capital, private health insurance, the 'lean' state. So great a change cannot be without its moral reverberations. It is these reverberations so many of us have dimly felt. The patterns of meaningfulness offered to both rich and poor, Bounderbys and Blackpools, have been unravelled. Are Hillsborough and Bulger - or, rather, their petty but far more numerous and significant analogues - grim after-shocks of the collapse of a peculiarly English moral economy?

The moral capital laid down by Welfare State reformers has been allowed to waste away even more dangerously than more familiar capital, in cash and plant, during the past 15 years. The stoicism of the poor, the dignity of labour, the respectability of the working class - all rested ultimately on the reassurances offered by social reform. Before reform was the mob. After it, too? The miners' strike, the poll tax riots may have been, in a grim illogic, the political equivalents of drug dealing in Moss Side or ram- raiding on Tyneside.

A threnody for lost virtue, whether of the capitalist, professional or proletarian classes, of course, has no more practical value than Mr Major's sentimental recall of warm beer, church-going and village cricket. The world has turned and will not turn again. The identification of these virtues with the North can also be questioned. What about South Wales, Scotland, Birmingham? But the North is a territory of the imagination where our memories of industrial and urban Britain most powerfully reside.

Equally terrible things happen in London nightly as in Leeds or Liverpool weekly. Hillsborough could have happened at White Hart Lane. Horror videos are for hire in every British city. Gruesome murder is as common in Gloucester as on the moors above Manchester. If these happenings seem worse in the North, if they have been painted in darker shades and seem to coalesce into a pattern, it is for two reasons.

The first is the gap between fondly remembered, and still recognisable and realisable, feelings of community in Northern cities and the negation of those feelings represented by crime, social distress, child neglect. The gap is wider and so more painfully felt. No one expects London to be a warm place, except in Cockney story-books. But the working-class Leeds famously recalled by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy and, more recently, by Keith Waterhouse, was.

The second is the suspicion that the North is prototype as well as archetype. It was here the industrial state was formed. It was here that the moral contours of that state's alter ego, the Welfare State, were shaped. Perhaps it is here, not in London Docklands or along the M4 corridor, the shape of things to come will be determined. The real shape, not the distribution of new factories and out-oftown shopping centres, new motorways and by-passes, but of our response, individually and as a nation, to the need to define again common purpose and rebuild our social institutions.

'Something's gone terribly wrong with the North.' If it has, something's gone, or going, terribly wrong with Britain, too. Any bells tolling away in our, or the Prime Minister's, subconscious are tolling for all of us.

The writer is Professor of Education, Leeds University.

(Photograph omitted)