There is no north-south divide over culture – how do MPs expect to win back our trust like this?

Perhaps Jake Berry’s comments were well-meaning, but they are grossly inaccurate and symptomatic of why the government’s relationship with the north is so fragile

Lucinda Borrell
Sunday 15 November 2020 15:05 GMT
Jake Berry mocked after saying northerners like football but southerners prefer highbrow culture

Those in the south of the country prefer ballet and opera, while the north prefers football.

So it is according to MP Jake Berry, whose claims in the House of Commons this week have prompted an uproar among the arts community, with The Northern Ballet accusing the MP of fanning “tropes that culture in the north is of less value than that in London”.

They’re right, of course. Perhaps his comments were well-meaning, but they are grossly inaccurate and symptomatic of why the government’s relationship with the north is so fragile. Our parliament fails to understand the needs of the people it represents.

For years within the upper echelons of the UK establishment, there has been a snobbish perception about the arts. That they are in some way exclusive, reserved only for those with money. As such the “north”, with its pockets of poverty, cannot possibly engage in such cultural pursuits and so instead must spend time on the football fields.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, football is important to northern communities, but so too are the arts. If you head to Gateshead Quayside, the skyline is dominated by buildings dedicated to storytelling, including the Sage and the Baltic, which not only offer affordable access culture but also run outreach educational projects with local communities. 

The culture I personally was exposed to in both these buildings has given my own career as a journalist and writer a pretty solid foundation, for which I will always be grateful.

Head across the water to Newcastle, and you’ve Live Theatre, with a focus on nurturing new writing talent in the region and only a stone’s throw up the road is the Theatre Royal, regularly packed to the rafters, particularly during pantomime season. The northeast has also given the UK a range of arts icons from Rowan Atkinson, of Mr Bean and Blackadder fame, and Sting, to Ant and Dec.

If you head further south, you reach Yorkshire and Leeds, home to Kaiser Chiefs, meanwhile Sheffield gave us The Arctic Monkeys. Manchester gave us Coronation Street, Victoria Wood, Maxine Peak, and Claire Foy, who played the Queen in the first two series of The Crown.

Liverpool gave us our biggest British musical export in the shape of The Beatles and currently houses one of The Tate museums in The Royal Albert Dock. In Leeds, there is Northern Ballet who, quite rightly, were outraged by Berry’s assumptions.

It’s a disappointing remark to be made by a former minister who currently represents the northern constituency of Redcar. Jake Berry was born and raised in the very city that gave us John Lennon and Paul McCartney, some of the biggest British musical cultural exports to date, and went on to study in Sheffield.

It is, however, perhaps unsurprising, given that he was also the man in charge of The Northern Powerhouse, a political project which faced harsh criticism, particularly in the northeast, for just stopping at Leeds and failing to invest in some of the most in-need communities in the region.

The people across our country are not so different. Wherever you go, each person you will meet has a unique set of interests whether that be theatre, football, fashion or even stamp collecting. This is not dependent upon geography, but upon personality.

To suggest anything else is not just irresponsible, it is also downright dangerous. As a country we are living in divided times and increasingly communities, particularly in some areas of “the north”, are feeling overlooked and seen as “less than” by the powers that be, both culturally and economically.

Concerns have been raised about the handling of financial rescue packages post-pandemic, particularly in Manchester. Questions have also been asked about Jake Berry’s involvement in selecting which towns in the region should receive money from The Towns Fund. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said in recent a report that the justifications offered by ministers  (Berry was communities minister at the time) for selecting individual towns were “vague and based on sweeping assumptions”. Although the government rejected the findings saying the process was “robust”.

After a year of political uncertainty and a global pandemic, the last thing this country needs is further division. The people running our country need to stop pitting us against one another.

Trust in our government’s ability to do right by northern towns is at an all-time low. It’s time our MPs rid themselves of the north vs south mentality and start treating us as individuals, rather than making sweeping generalisations about our culture and identity. Otherwise that trust will be gone for good.

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