29 October 2015

Is this the death of the North-South divide?


I’m proud to have been born in Manchester. Not because of the football, although, admittedly, my family are big Man United fans. You certainly never saw me dressed in baby pink as a child – it was red all the way. In fact, looking back at my baby photos, you might presume I was a boy. I sometimes think that’s why I grew my hair long from such a young age, all to subconsciously counter my worry that people might mistake me for a boy. That hair is now over six foot in length – you could say that Man United are single-handedly responsible. Perhaps I should send them the Pantene bill.

Whilst Manchester is known internationally for its football, it is, in fact, something else for which it truly deserves fame. This was, as most Brits know, the city that helped to give birth to the British Industrial Revolution, an event which marked the start of the modern age, and which took Britain to the top of the international league table – at least until the Americans began their own march upwards. Whilst I myself was born too late to see the city at its peak, growing up in the post-industrial grime, with cotton factories teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and escalating social deprivation, my grandparents were keen to make me aware of just how great Manchester once was. As far as they were concerned, Manchester put the “great” in Great Britain. The modern day prosperity of the nation had been built on the backs of generations of cotton mill workers, miners and foundry employees. It wasn’t so long ago that, as a nation, we used to chant that “Britain’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread”.

Not only did the north create wealth, it was also, as I soon realised as a girl, a leading player in the social and political scene, having been home to suffragettes, having inspired labour movements and having made its mark in the music and art world, including with the bands that provided the backdrop of my youth. My own political freedoms as both a member of the working class and, of course, as a woman, my expectation that I would live a long life (hopefully to the age of eighty or even ninety), and my free state school education, one which opened up endless opportunities, would not have been possible without the hard graft of my ancestors – the people who worked long hours and in bad conditions in days gone by.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the north was a hotbed of dynamism, progress and prosperity. London stagnated. In the twentieth century, however, this all changed. The 1920s and 1930s were, perhaps, the turning point, bringing dole queues and industrial unrest to the north, a bleakness that can only really be captured by books like Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. In the south, by contrast, excitement was all around. Poirot style art deco was all the rage. The skies were filled with the products of the new aerospace industry, with airplanes flying over the new suburbs with their fancy lidos and past the new fangled motor cars which whizzed along country lanes, taking Bright Young Things from one party to the next.

By the end of the twentieth century, the south’s lead seemed firm. The north had been eclipsed. The rise of finance, particularly after the Big Bang, turned London into a global city. Even the last vestiges of northern success – the fashion industry, itself an outgrowth of northern textile manufacturing – seemed to be migrating southwards. The Manchester I experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s was an industrial wasteland. It was only when I moved south to study at the University of Cambridge that my eyes were opened to the stark differences between the north and south. Whilst I introduced my friends to Vimto and vintage 1950s dresses (which could, at the time, be bought for £5 a piece from Manchester’s Afflecks “palace”), I was introduced to roast duck, goats’ cheese, mozzarella and real champagne – and the idea of shopping in Marks and Spencers on a weekly basis.

By now, the north-south divide seems to have become well rooted. And, with all of the talk of creating a “northern powerhouse”, it is clear that politicians are aware of the need to do something about it. However, as a northerner who has moved south, I sometimes wonder if all the talk of north versus south masks other equally important divisions. That’s something that the Legatum Institute’s latest research , out this week, can cast light on, and it makes for some rather interesting reading.

You could say move over the north-south divide. London is, it seems, just as divided. Whilst the capital is home to four out of five of the most prosperous regions in Britain, including Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, where people earn an average of £133,000 a year, five times the national average, London also houses three of the ten least prosperous areas in the country: Croydon, Brent and Bexley, and Greenwich. And, unlike the traditional division between the north and the south, in the capital the rich and the poor are literally living on each other’s doorsteps. It seems that for London, diversity isn’t always a good word, it is also a word which sums up gaping disparities.

Not only is there a lot of “poverty” in the south, and not just in London but also, for example, in declining coastal regions, certain areas in the north seem to be doing much better than we might imagine. As well as looking at the level of individual regions, the Legatum Institute’s research also groups regions into England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And, doing so reveals that the most prosperous part of the Isles is, wait for it, Northern Ireland – followed, next in line, by Scotland. England is eclipsed by both of these northern regions – only Wales lags behind.

The north-south divide is the story of my life – and it’s a story that certainly encouraged me to become an economist in the hope of better understanding rise and decline. However, it’s also a story that deserves to be more flexibly interpreted. We cannot ignore the gaping divisions within the south, and must not assume that it’s all bleak up north. Prosperity and poverty can surface in the most – and least – likely places. The north-south divide does not compel the north to poverty or the south to riches. The future is still for the taking.

Dr Victoria Bateman is Fellow in Economics, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and Fellow of the Legatum Institute.