Why We Remain A Divided Nation
How The Trent Became England’s Border
London is not Britain and Central London is not London; it has always been obvious to me that I lead a rarified life in the middle of what has now become the doughnut hole – London is empty at the centre, dense at the edges. The population is moving out from urban centres to coastal towns, and a good thing too. British resorts are in shocking disrepair after generations of mismanagement and neglect led to falling and severely ageing population.
The pandemic has driven this home; walking from my home to St Paul’s yesterday I barely passed another human being or saw a shop open. The lockdown tiers have been hardest on the North-West of England, where a combination of inherited factors has pushed infection rates up. But it has also reiterated a millennia-old problem; the North-South divide.
The South does not understand the North, or want to. There was a famous road sign you passed on the way up the M1 that simply read; ‘Hatfield and The North’, drawing this island-wide area together into one entity. Northerners seemed to be a different race; blunt, roughened, crude, artless – how easy it was to create a stereotype of them. And some places are, for refined Southerners, unvisitable, like Blackpool, whose promenade was once memorably described as ‘like wading through the contents of someone’s stomach.’ In general, Northerners live five years less than Southerners.
How it got there is a complex story, but can be simplified if you think of who invaded our nation and how far they got. Our early history is a fight for control, the Romans, Danes, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, but the last left a remarkable problem. The invasions occurred on the South side of the dividing River Trent, with the Scots and Welsh tending to join battles from the far side, and the division hardened across the centuries. The Trent barrier remained because while the South holds the seat of power the North is closer to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, making the line geographically equidistant, a territorial end zone on both sides.
The Norman leaders had communicated only in French, so that 90% of the country became disenfranchised from its own government. In the 13th century the peasantry became empowered and the French-speaking king, who could not gain control over his English-speaking subjects, was forced to parlay with them in order to hang on to his property. What began as a Norman Frenchified elite VS Anglo-Celtic peasantry remains to this day.
The hereditary entitlement of the South was cemented by making money that allowed for a specific kind of education, increasing the separation of North and South. For much of Britain’s history, the South could not understand a word the North said, and were far closer to French; hardly surprising when one can see France from the English coast. For a long time nobody got around to defining what this new subdivided country was called because nobody was too bothered.
The South-driven separation was increased when manufacturing went to the North and the invisible commodities (finance, property) stayed South. Southerners failed to meet sophisticated wealthy Northerners because the class divide was so solidified that they never went there.
When manufacturing ceased to be a major source of income, Margaret Thatcher’s only solution was to let the North collapse in ‘managed decline’. Grants and subsidies were slashed and thriving communities withered away. Now the plan is to reverse the trend, especially after COVID has proven that living in crowded Southern cities is not for everyone. History, though, is against the plan’s success.
A Border of Class
I bumped into a neighbour who needed to find a chemist. I gave her the address of the nearest one. ‘Good lord, I couldn’t go there,’ said Jane, looking at the address. ‘It’s bandit country.’
The shop was on a street where private property switches to a council estate. She’s a lovely lady but I thought of her as a living example of class prejudice. Then, two nights ago, I needed something from a corner store on the edge of the estate. After trying to squeeze past an enormously fat bloke with headphones on, I tapped him on the shoulder and was hit with a torrent of vile abuse. My reaction (I take no pride in saying this) was ‘Bloody council’. This had been drummed into my through my childhood; ‘Don’t go near the estates – their kids are dangerous.’ The estate remains one of the highest spots of teen mortality in the city.
The estates are still as separate from private home owners as the North of England, and there’s no way of removing those divides except by individually dismantling one’s prejudices. The trouble is that the North is hardwired into Southern brains as poor, ignorant, council, ignoring the sophisticated, wealthy Northern manufacturing base that once drove the country economically.
We have been taught to believe that heading North requires sherpas and a sniper at your back. What if they head the ignorant, superior-acting South? Why, then they become Southern because we’ve been taught that RP and a good education is required for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. Perhaps the pandemic will shake out that idea, but so far it has failed to do so. Despite everyone’s good intentions we remain a nation of two halves, riven by class, split by hardening North-South attitudes.