All quiet on the Midlands front
Disagreements between north and south sound more attuned to the goings-on in HBO hit series Game of Thrones than they do the real world.
Yet the idea still persists that, in the 21st century United Kingdom, there is an invisible line somewhere around the Midlands which divides the Sheffielders from the Southamptoners, the Geordies from the Cockneys and, after one of the more passionate referendums in living memory, the Scots from everyone else.
Such notions vary drastically in their claims as to what constitutes this divide. Some will argue along economic lines, stressing the disparities between job prospects, social advancement and investment between the likes of London and the north-east. Others turn their attention more to political allegiances. Although the more astute observers will point out that the two can rarely be separated, let’s try and do just that anyway.
It’s one of the fascinating intricacies of British history that the bulk of job opportunities have shifted monumentally from one-half of the country to the other in a matter of decades. Hark back to the Industrial Revolution and as recently as the 1980s, and the manufacturing, textiles, coal mining and steel working industries of the north were pulling the unemployed to Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle.
Yet jump forward a few more decades, and the service-based, digital economy of this century has centred mainly on the South-East. The fact that London is one of the world’s main financial capitals and property speculation centres has certainly helped this. Recent initiatives such as the “Northern Powerhouse” and the eternally controversial HS2 project have also highlighted the largely unspoken reality that the country’s investment eye has been mainly focused on the south ever since the early 1980s, with one-off exceptions such as North Sea oil exploration and the Trident nuclear missile system on the west coast of Scotland.
Of course, such sweeping generalisations have to be taken into context. Edinburgh, at the opposite side of the isles to the English capital, also plays host to thriving technology and financial sectors. Media City in Salford is pulling more digital businesses towards the north-west, whereas Leeds city centre could rival many European capitals for its density of business activity.
The cost of living is also a highly important factor to take into account, and certainly when comparing the likes of London’s inner zones with anywhere north of Buckinghamshire. The capital has gained notoriety for having ludicrously high rents, alongside generally higher transport costs, and there’s a reason why the Living Wage Foundation sets a different rate for Londoners compared to the rest of the country. Whereas most of the nation’s main businesses – alongside their job prospects and inflated wages – can be found in the vicinity of Hyde Park and Oxford Street, whether you’d be left with more income as a result of being there is by no means guaranteed.
The presumed benefits of being born in the south-east also come under scrutiny when you take into consideration that staple feature of many a tabloid article: house prices. Put simply, the nearer you are to London, the more your house – or, in some cases, garage, parking lot or shed – is going to be worth. And while that’s great if you already own one, getting on to the property ladder carries a price tag which can sometimes be hundreds of thousands of pounds more expensive than for your counterparts in the northern regions.
Some say this reflects a disparity in wealth which, when it comes to election time, results in diverse outcomes at the ballot box. Or to put it another way, the south votes Tory, the north for Labour. This is of course rubbish, and can be disproved with a map and two red and blue marker pens.
For starters, the capital itself is divided between the two parties, as Labour tend to appeal to heavily urbanised areas, regardless of where they’re located. Equally, rural constituencies across the country tend to lean further towards more conservative social values, which aids their political namesake.
And that’s before we even get on to the rise of today’s resurgent competitors. The whitewashing of Scotland by the SNP proved that class, wealth and other historical ideologies can be supplanted by nationalist ones under the right circumstances. UKIP’s immigration and EU-based rhetoric has also garnered support from southern, right-wing, rich farmers and northern, disgruntled, inner-city voters alike, both of whom would’ve originally been in opposite trenches. On a smaller level, the variety of environmental and socially conscious principles of the Green Party has allowed them to reach out to rural countryside-lovers and the metropolitan middle-class simultaneously.
In short, political divisions can be explained by alternative factors far easier than by some mythical north-south dividing line. The fact that the hottest topics on the agenda – from immigration to the NHS and EU membership – have widespread impacts across the nation only serves to highlight this reality.
The divide is, therefore, sometimes partially accurate and sometimes imaginary. Where it becomes a nuisance is when such debates suggest that there is an animosity between the “peoples” of both halves. This has never been the case and, with more young people than ever before migrating across the nation for university education and job transfers, it’s entirely normal to know and live near others with slightly different accents to your own.
For a country that shows unusually high levels of tolerance to people from other nations, cultures and established religions, it’s not surprising that we hold little quarrel against each other. Just don’t start any arguments about how to pronounce “bath”.
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