Why We Remain A Divided Nation

Great Britain

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.

30 comments on “Why We Remain A Divided Nation”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    Actually I think it’s even more fundamental. Don’t want to get hideously enmeshed in psycho-geography, but almost all long and thin countries have a conceptual N/S split. It’s true in Scotland – lowlanders are soft and pampered and highlanders are hard, dour, mean. It works in Italy, New Zealand, Norway, even in France and Germany. Maybe Mr F, you know about Spain? And in many instances it also works in cities. And cities almost universally have an east/west split, with the west end being the best end, more prosperous, better housing, transport etc. And these positional stereotypes are held on both sides of the divide, and serve as territory markers, so any attempt to break through is usually seen as an invasion of outsiders (gentrification a good example) and is met with resistance.

  2. davem says:

    That north/south divide relates to London too, with the Thames being the dividing line – South East London (your ‘native soil’) has always been treated as bandit country … no surprise it is packed full of council estates, although ‘posh’ enclaves still exist, Blackheath, Dulwich, etc.

    In a survey a few years ago, ITV described London as a tale of four cities: The West is posh, the East is poor, the South is rough and the North is intellectual.

  3. Brooke says:

    What Marting said. However, not just long, thin countries. The USA is a confirming example. I can certainly see the dynamic in cities where I’ve lived, e.g. New York, Chicago. And reinforcing the geographic divide, and sometimes masking it, are the intertwined snakes of economic, religious, class interests. Mrs. Gaskell got part of it right.

  4. Brooke says:

    It just struck me that your psychographic “north” is the US “south.”

  5. Crprod says:

    In the days before the US Civil War, slave-owning southerners claimed a heritage of Cavaliers and Normans and described northerners as Anglo-Saxon wage slaves. Today it’s more a universal matter of upholding traditional Anglo-Saxon values vs immigrants.

  6. Mary Rutherford says:

    Psychogeography. What about psycholinguistics? It’s not as simple as northern bluntness, it’s people in the south signalling that they’re superior by using lots of adverbs. This also applies to Austria – German people think they sound middle class because of all their adverbs. And as for modal verbs …. what a relief when someone at Newcastle Uni published a paper setting out how Geordies use them differently. I’d been saying that, but the quick response was no, they just can’t speak the language properly.

    When I first moved from Tyneside to London (decades ago), several people said things along the lines of, “Good for you, the brighter ones have enough about them to get out.” How condescending and snobbish was that.

    We waste emotional energy putting each other down for no good reason. Has some economist somewhere ever tried to calculate the cost to us of our class system?

  7. Jan says:

    Interesting what Brooke said.

    It’s not quite as straightforward as you are presenting here Chris. The Romans invade from the south don’t they? They get on well in the south the climate suits (and would have been a good bit warmer back in the day) so southern Britain Cirencester, Bath, Rome even up into Lincoln, Chester, Manchester there they get on ok. Even though they are running out of steam a bit….

    Britain, their Britain, is divided into the major Roman client states of the south and south west a a sort of sub Rome – Brittanica major – then as they proceed into the real north there are more minor client states conquered and appeased but its for them it seems to be the edgier more volatile north (as opposed to the N.W) the resident tribes of what would become Carlisle and Newcastle where Hadrian ‘s wall cuts through and ends in Newcastle well they were never part of the prime Roman real estate. This is Britannica minor. (In fact from about Staffordshire upwards its Brittanica minor.)

    And the Roman forays into Scotland never fare that well at all really. The Antonine wall although created never reached the status of Hadrians wall . The Antonine wall was only truly effective for around 30 years then the Romans withdrew. Odd really the places the Romans truly wanted to exploit for their mineral wealth they never got hold of effectively Cornwall and Wales. (Take a look at all the ancient hill forts in mid Scotland then the Roman forts erected to combat them its really interesting.)

    Anyroad around 350-400 years after the Roman invasion the Anglo Saxons begin to settle here along with other Germanic tribes moving in as the Roman empire fades the invasion is largely from the east coast. Lincolnshire, East Anglia, Kent and London plus a few forays from the s. coast.

    Following these guys the Vikings come out to play attacking from all sides (often via the local monastery they have just looted)

    The real strength of the Vikings though comes down from the N.E. the north East coast down into York and down through Lincolnshire. There’s a long fight back between the Anglo Saxons( who history has come to regard as the true victors of this tussle ) and the Viking invaders. These Vikings being guys from Denmark largely, they are the ones to invade Britain. This victory though the survival of the “English” in the form of Alfred the Gr8 and his descendants again is a bit more complicated. Alfs descendants are in the S and S.W up into Staffordshire and a chunk of Cheshire and S. Lancs. The rest of England has different masters.

    To come to a relatively peaceful solution much of the N.E. of Britain (of England rather) becomes the “Danelaw” now we tend to not give the Danelaw its due in many ways but the Dane law was a powerful place in itself. Someone’s Phd thesis concentrated on the penalties and arrest rates for public order, assault and public drunkenness and affray offences both historically and up into the present era. Records kept prior to modern police forces by parishes. The frequency of arrest for these offences and the fines and imprisonment for them are still EVEN NOW far harsher within the area of the old Danelaw then elsewhere in England. Now I think that is very, very interesting in itself. I think this old idea of the “Danelaw” + the admin of its justice and the responses to its people are the root of many southern perceptions of the character of the north. The perceived excesses of the wild men from northern Europe who required tougher penalties and rougher justice sort of filters through.

    There are many other factors at play here industrialisation, the arrival of Irish immigrants into the North West, religious differences Catholic v Protestant but I think the old Danelaw state is very important. (Anyway that’s the opinion of someone from a council house up north! )

    The old Danelaw this older less recognised state is also a factor in William the Conqueror’s treatment ” the harrowing of the North” a truly awful imposition of Norman power on the population of Northern England. Something W the C repents on his death bed.

    Now I am sorry to have rattled on for SO LONG its just interesting this topic.

  8. Brooke says:

    Jan, it is an interesting topic, indeed. I agree with your point that the English geographic and cultural dividing lines evolved in a more complex way than Mr. Fowler is describing. Some areas on his map should be purple.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    The arguments are fairly specious. The difference between London and the rest of the country is just money. If you live outside of the capital then everything is working within the boundaries of austerity.
    All communities need a level of finance, infrastructure and job security to get to the point where the local, or regional, economy takes off. The north struggles because people have very little disposable income to spend on the ‘nice’ things that happen in the south. A visit to the cinema for a family of 4, including transport to an out of town multiplex (because towns don’t have cinemas anymore) is likely to cost over £60. For a lot of families £60 is their weekly budget for everything, including heating and electricity.
    The lovely Lady Thatcher divided the country because of her hatred of trade unions – the only means for the working classes to get proper renumeration and working conditions for their members. What took 150 years of struggle was wiped out by Thatcher and, sadly, was continued by Tony Blair who shat upon the working class who trusted him to ‘balance up’ the country.
    The cost of 150 feet of some pointless transport tunnel under London could regenerate a city in the north, but who gives a stuff?

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Sorry, the word should be ‘remuneration’ on line 9.

  11. Brooke says:

    Norman and Cavalier? I think not. I grew up in the US “deep South,” hearing people brag about being “English,” and having English values. Yes, via out-imigration as a result of enclosure laws, clearances, famine, work houses, etc., and in steerage class.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    And don’t forget all those Catholic Scots after 1745.
    My family used to joke about the Nova Scotians. Those with brains came west was the comment. Interesting that the family concerned had been coal miners in northern Ireland, moved to the Glasgow area mines and when those mines gave out they moved to Nova Scotia for the new mines there. Then they came west and what did my “ones with brains do” in the west? They went to Vancouver Island and the Nanaimo coal mines. After the labour wars there they came to Vancouver to work for the electric railway company where they helped create the labour unions that still exist. That last move was an eastward one. I say “they” because there were five or six brothers at any given time from 1900 onward working for the BC Electric – which created its own power and became the provincial supplier.

  13. Peter T says:

    Cities seem to be able to change region. When I was young, Oxford was in the Midlands, now it’s moved into the South-East.

  14. Ben M says:

    We humans love putting things into boxes don’t we? North/South, East/West, the divides are everywhere to see in whichever form you wish to choose, money/class/diet. You mentioned Blackpool Mr F. I lived for a year in a town immediately south of Blackpool, it was the complete opposite of Blackpool and amazingly it kept that way, no-one from Blackpool seemed to visit it and visa versa. A divide can be seen everywhere if you choose to look.

    I feel like Bryant going off on one of his rambling subjects, I’ll stop now.

  15. admin says:

    Coming up in my Christmas book round-up you’ll find out why the subject interested me. The North/South divide isn’t an arbitrarily chosen division but a 2,000 year-old one that had recurred significantly in every century. Once you dig into the story the history colours your perceptions in hundreds of ways.

  16. Jan says:

    Oddly enough I picked up a post this morning outlining how William the Conqueror’s invasion was sanctioned by Rome and Harold was the last true “Orthodox” King of England.

    Now this is disputable in many ways but there is an element of truth there.

    The Celtic church sort of falls to one side becoming less relevant and this is followed by the fall of the amalgam of Christian belief followed by the Anglo Saxons plus a certain amount of imput/buy in from.The Vikings. Mind you the Vikings were essentially Pagan for a long old time + it seems to me they rather took to Christianity because the Divine Right of Kings essentially added more power to their guvnors elbow!

    The Anglo Saxon church was a good bit different not in just the statuary and the shape of these churches but there are some different story interpretations from that of Rome. The stuff that was big to them seems less relevant to Rome. Their beliefs are at some variance it seems. That the Anglo Saxons) put lots of emphasis on men like St Boniface who are essentially Christian missionaries fighting pagan belief systems amongst the Germanic tribes. Boniface supposedly being historically one of the most influential men in Europe and certainly amongst the most influential Brits in Europe.

    Oh and being a leading numpty I added a comment yesterday tea time ‘re this thread but because of said numptiness it’s on the end if the preceding topic. ( I know just pitiful I’m off to work now)

  17. Paul C says:

    A very enjoyable book which touches on this topic is ‘All Points North’ by Simon Armitage. Available for peanuts on Amazon.

  18. John Griffin says:

    Just this morning was teaching ethnicity to Sociology Yr 12 (16 yr olds), and did some background ‘education’ on DNA analyses and historical genetic/geographical evidence. The division in the country in AD500 (largely AngloSaxon east, Briton west) was shown in the early 2010s to be almost exactly the same. The only real difference has been the disappearance of the Picts and the arrival of the Normans (‘Norsemen’ who left little distinguishable DNA, certainly less than Niall of the Nine Hostages in West Lancs, with its plethora of Irish roots).
    Cumbria was once known as Rheged (weirdly, modern Welsh verb ‘to run’) and talked a varietal of Brythonic (similar to Welsh, Cornish, Breton and hence the ‘yan, tan’ counting system still used there for sheep). There are many interesting anomalies within that (Spanish DNA around Llandudno, odd enclaves in Derbyshire etc). So really it’s the “Palimpsest Geography of the British Isles” where you overlay all these historical layers.

  19. Brooke says:

    Jan, I think the Synod of Whitby did for the Celtic Christian tradition; the Roman tradition (date for Easter, liturgy, etc.) won. Typical Rome–after all the hard work of conversion is done, step in and take over, riding on the coat tails of the latest king.

    Geography, genes, with some social history mixed in….love this blog.

  20. Peter Dixon says:

    So no Marxist discourse here?
    Okay, Robin Hood is a symbol of Englishness, yet he was a (made up) Anglo Saxon with a socialist working people’s agenda of taking from the rich (Normans) and giving back to the poor. He had to live in a forest in the north because there weren’t any council houses (sorry, council hovels).
    King Arthur might have lived in Cornwall, or maybe the north west, or near Hadrian’s Wall. He may be a tribal leader who fought English tribes after the Romans had left the country. Or maybe not.
    Most of his story comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth who is the biggest maker of dubious fiction until Jeffrey Archer. He just makes shit up.
    The Vikings mostly took over Dublin and the Isle of Man as well as a lump of Yorkshire, principally what is now the City of York – (earlier a Roman city) their language still exists in place names, surnames and descriptive terms.It doesn’t exist in the north east where linguists suggest we are closer to Shakespeare and Elizabethan speech.
    It could well have been that York became the major city of England, but the connection through the easily accessible Thames and London from the continent made London the winner in terms of trade and influence.
    I’m not going to say anything about Brexit because I am on strict medication and have been told by my neighbours to stop yelling “wankers” when I read the news online every morning.

  21. Peter Dixon says:

    Ps. The reason why most peop[le in the north still live within 20 miles of where their forefathers lived is because they can’t afford the bus fare to travel any further, and the buses stop at 9pm.

  22. John Griffin says:

    As a still professional Northerner born by the Manchester/Salford border post, may I point out even where the last buses left Manchester at 11 pm (and necessitated an 8 mile walk into Saddleworth, having inhaled at the Magic Village) most of my peers still live or died within a 10 mile radius of their forefathers. The fact I haven’t done either is due to my parents not really being my parents, plus going to Nottingham Uni back when actual real Labour were around.

  23. Jan says:

    Brooke the skids were under the Celtic Christian tradition long before Whitby. Really all Whitby did was put the official seal on the deal

  24. Helen Martin says:

    Jan and Brooke agree with each other more than they realize. I wish I had been in your year 12 class, John. That sounds more interesting than the capes and bays geography we got at that point.

  25. Ed DesCamp says:

    To one and all – Peter, Jan, Brooke, snowy, etc. – thank you for the education and entertainment. The first thing I do in the evening is check the “Fowler” blog. Admin – you’re great, but this gang you’ve acquired is the best thing on Al Gore’s internet! Rave on!

  26. David Ronaldson says:

    I was once asked by a Mancunian Radio crew, on Whitehall, what is biggest difference between Northerners and Southerners. My response was that only Northerners (I refrained from saying “Northcountrymen”) ever ask or care about that question.

  27. John Griffin says:

    A further note on division – seems we’re now all in the same boat, and Mr F more than most, since EU travel ban on Brits to come in force January 1st. Farewell Barca for a while!

  28. admin says:

    I haven’t been to my flat in over a year, John, because of BCN’s own problems, but I have faith that the EU will sort out my dilemma because I am a Frenchified Norman Southerner!

  29. SteveB says:

    Gravity in the UK works towards London
    In Europe people only know about London and Scotland, and maybe Manchester because of ManU.
    In the days of UK being in Europe, UK was only cared about in terms of Financial Services. So when these famous trade deals were done by the EU they would say to the UK, right that’s your financial services bit taken care of, now we take care of ourselves for all the rest. And that was the North screwed, like always.
    In the same way gravity in Europe works towards Germany (and a bit Switzerland which is like Florida for rich Europeans). So more and more the hotels and factories in East Europe are German owned and the politicians almost like puppet regimes. They do all these weird things for show but they do what (in the case of Hungary for instance) Audi-Volkswagen tells them. I see this in Sofia too. All German-owned now.

  30. SteveB says:

    By the way, was Admin trying to draw a parallel to that history of Germany which tries to explain everything in terms of a north-south boundary, where the Carolingians reached to back in 800AD or whatever?

Comments are closed.