“I had to get up in the morning at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah”.
So goes the Monty Python ”Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, a timeless satire of life up in t’north for those lucky enough to not reside on the bleak and dismal swathes of land above the lower end of the M6. But, as it turns out, it seems that dancing on people’s graves isn’t actually too far from the truth: a damning report released earlier this week suggested that dying early is 20 per cent more likely for those who live in the northern areas of the country. The statistics revealed that while the mortality rates in England have improved overall, there is a clear distinction between the statistics from the north and south of the country: those aged 35 to 44, for example, are a whopping 49 per cent more likely to die suddenly if they reside in the north. And crucially, the report doesn’t actually specify the cause of these disparate figures – which makes living up north, in effect, a death sentence.
Well, maybe – or, maybe not. The problem with this kind of research is that it fails to take into account the complex nature of the north-south divide; with latent similarities between both sectors rejected in favour of an archaic us vs them dichotomy. The team based their findings on a physical barrier, on a “geography [which] divides the English population into two approximately equal halves”, using the traditional “line drawn between the Wash and the Severn Estuary” to demarcate north and south; a strategy which is all well and good if this dividing line was not as frequently and fiercely contested as reality has it. There is a dividing line based on branches of Greggs per head of population; a boundary mapped in GCSE results; and a map split using rates of obesity. In truth, to concur with anyone about the precise coordinates of the north-south divide is like asking Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to settle their beef with the flip of a coin.
It ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.
This may, at least, be of some comfort to those of us living in northern areas – but we can’t wholly disregard the statistics of the report either. Nuances must be taken into account when we consider the north-south boundary; which, though elusive and mercurial, does exist in some form – making efforts to reduce the divide difficult to manage. Take transport, for example. According to figures released last week, “the north of England has seen £59bn less in transport spending compared to London over the last 10 years”. For those of us stranded up here, with a seemingly-endless convoy of tractors lying between our homes and blessed civilisation, this may seem terribly unjust; a case of yet more anti-northern discrimination.
But the real state of affairs lies somewhere between these statistics and those spoken by Chancellor Philip Hammond during his maiden Budget, in which he made clear that “investments [will] back our work to build a Northern Powerhouse with a significant cash boost for local transport... while our major commitments on skills, health, education and social care will benefit those right across the North”. Though the quality of transport is still unequal across the country, at least someone is attempting to make things better.
But haven’t we heard all this before? The north-south divide has existed since the 19th century at least, and still, no vast improvements have been made to reset the balance. Though government spending across the country is relatively equal, private-sector growth has historically been centred on London, meaning underlying economic inequalities remain. Even earlier this year, Theresa May’s announcement of a £556m investment for the Northern Powerhouse came just before the proposal of a £1bn inheritance tax cut which looks to benefit southern constituencies the most. And while the policy remains founded on mixed messages, nothing can be fixed. Quality of life statistics may show the north-south divide as of minimal significance, but the reality of day-to-day life up here continues to be, in a word, grim; reinforcing a social privilege – or lack of it – which takes hold from the moment of birth.
Babies are less likely to be breastfed by their mothers if they live in the north. Schools in northern areas receive less funding that their southern counterparts, while schoolchildren in the north have fallen behind by the age of five. Schools in the south-east are also sending nearly 50 per cent more students to Oxbridge than the national average. The disparity in arts funding is also considerable, with £700m needed to bridge the division. And the wage gap, too, is alarming: the average wage of a working woman in Camden is £560 a week, while Hartlepool has an average of £252. Though house prices may be lower in the north, research has suggested that “the same number of new homes are being built in London as every city region in the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ combined”. Then there is the charity study based on inspections taken by the Quality Care Commission which revealed 15 of the 20 worst areas for social care were in the north. And finally, there are the reports which suggest those in the north-west have the lowest life expectancy of 77.9 years, while those in the south-east have the highest at 80.5.
But this is a division we are all guilty of reinforcing. Question any university student on their future plans and the dream is always London, never Blackpool. Internships are often available only in the city; and the flow of graduates is always north-to-south, never the other way round. It’s London or nothing.
“But I love the north!” A friend from Hammersmith sighs. “It’s so quiet!”
Maybe that’s because everyone up here is stuck indoors for want of public transport; or trying to find better wages; or in a month-long queue for a GP appointment. Or dead.
You see, it’s not enough to see the north as that quiet, distant collection of fields, where you go for walking holidays sometimes and have a bacon bap (not, I might add, a roll). It’s also not enough to implement minimal and selective improvements to northern life; nor to try and keep us all quiet with the promise of a Northern Powerhouse, while statistics are still clearly showing divisions between north and south at a foundational level.
Yes, further reductions to the north-south divide are to be welcomed – and believe me, we do welcome them – but the damage is still being done. The boundary between north and south may not be clear to mark, but it remains pervasive in every aspect of life: social, economic, psychological; and while these barriers remain in place, it is a schism that is only getting deeper.
There’s trouble at t’mill – and it’s not going anywhere.
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