Some people really need to get over the fact that Owen Jones (a) exists, (b) is probably younger than they are and (c) is entitled to his own opinions. Being a lefty, many of those opinions are naturally wrong, but sometimes he gets it right – as in his latest column in the Guardian.
His topic is the north-south divide:
“The great north-south divide still looms large over English life, and if – as is far from unlikely – Scotland opts for independence in September, its significance will only grow. We’ve moved on from flat caps and whippets, but the north still conjures up images of being downtrodden and impoverished; of terraced houses with the Hovis theme tune in the background. The south, on the other hand, is a prosperous land of leafy suburbs, City slickers and loadsamoney.”
Jones correctly identifies this split image as a grotesque over-simplification, albeit one still beloved of many in the Labour Party:
“Take London, the great metropolitan capital of the sixth richest country on Earth, where one in four children live in overcrowded homes, over twice the English average. Of the 20 English local authorities with the highest levels of child poverty, seven are located in London… Although London has far more rich people than elsewhere – and, in many cases, the term ‘rich’ is an understatement – 16% of Londoners are in England’s poorest 10th. This is, by far, a worse record than any other English region.”
Nor is southern deprivation limited to the capital:
“According to TUC research, Kingswood near Bristol has more workers paid less than the living wage than anywhere else in Britain… Kent is often regarded as a leafy playground for affluent commuters, and yet nearly a fifth of its children are poor; further east, in Great Yarmouth, a quarter of children languish in poverty.”
On the other hand, the “English community with the lowest level of child poverty is Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s seat and one of England’s richest constituencies.”
One could argue that Jones is merely picking out the exceptions that prove the rule – and therefore overlooking the genuine economic and political disparities between north and south. However, most of these differences are a function not of latitude, but the fact that, leaving London aside, the south is much less urban than the north. Thus the deepest divide that runs through our country is between the England of cities and conurbations and the England of towns and villages.
Admittedly, ‘leaving London aside’ is a bit of a cheat. Here we have a city that not only survived de-industrialisation – “two-thirds of London’s manufacturing vanished between 1960 and 1990” – but prospered as never before. Perhaps we need to concede a modified version of the north-south divide, one in which London plays the starring role – with the rest of the south owing its prosperity to the mere luck of proximity.
Then again, why is it that cities like Lyon, Munich and Milan are able to succeed despite their non-proximity to Paris, Berlin and Rome? Could it be that there’s nothing inherently special about London or any other capital city? Perhaps, invention and re-invention is something that all major cities are capable of – the reason why we have them in the first place. If so, then it is Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds that are exceptional – and not in a good way.
Why should our northern cities have so much unrealised potential? We’ve looked at various theories in previous posts at the Deep End. But in concluding his article Owen Jones gets to the heart of the matter:
“There is one division that matters: those who have wealth and power, and those who do not – whether they live in Carlisle or Land’s End.”
Compared to Lyon, Munich and Milan, the thing that’s missing from Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds is power. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the capital is far away, as long as a city can make the decisions it needs to shape and re-shape its future.
Therefore, if we want to bury the north-south divide once and for all, then power must be returned to where it belongs.