Comment: Terry Murden
Can Cameron ignore calls for a North Britain alliance?
The political ‘awakening’ that has taken place north of the border is giving rise to a ‘me-too’ phenomenon said to be sweeping the northern territories. From Liverpool to Hull, Newcastle to Nottingham, there is a new ‘count me in’ culture that wants a bit of what Scotland has created.
Northern England wants to be ‘part of’ Scotland, or at least is being prompted into an active campaign by those jealous of its growing self-assertiveness in what is fast becoming a restless United Kingdom.
Is this really the start a rebellion? Are the northern barons about to ride south and demand reinstatement of the old feudal powers?
A petition, titled Allow the north of England to secede from the UK and join Scotland has been signed by 37,000 people, just enough to fill half of Old Trafford, but symbolic enough to have some excitable commentators agitating for a re-drawing of the border.
It has been spurred on, of course, by the domination of the nationalists in Scotland. No longer seen as a fringe movement made up of idealistic enthusiasts, the General Election has proved their credentials to their near neighbours and shown what can be achieved. The SNP has become the third force in British politics and a serious opposition to the ruling Tory majority in the Commons.
This has galvanised the left elsewhere, notably in the urban regions of England which have suffered a similar bruising at the hands of the Tories that will mean UK policy being dictated from the blue corner.
The petitioners call for a new North Britain border from the Humber (Yorkshire) to the Dee (North Wales). However, even this will not be enough for some further south who are demanding they be included.
Actually, there is nothing new in much of this. It was predicted before last year’s referendum that English regions would agitate for powers of their own.
For years I have written that the modern political and economic divide in the UK is not to be found at the Scottish border, which is an accident of history, but in a line drawn roughly north of East Anglia, across the north of Birmingham and down to the New Forest. Anywhere north and west of this line (which includes the West Country, north Midlands and Wales) shares a similar sense of disenfranchisement.
It is not necessarily menacing, but it has grown from a shoulder-shrugging acceptance of a two-nation Britain into a more indignant sense of injustice and a need for things to change.
It is manifested in a belief that the north gets overlooked in industrial policy, that the people are unhealthier, that the best schools and housing exist in the prosperous south which is also home to the top talent in all disciplines. Generations of ambitious young people have headed south in search of fame and fortune. To that extent, the south represents a promised land, the destination for anyone with ability and a desire to get on.
Sadly, this adds to the north’s own lack of self-worth. It has contributed to a belief that northerners are second rate and that simply being in the north is an admission of failure.
The north of England was once the industrial powerhouse of the British Empire but as industry declined it was left for years without an economic purpose. This fall from grace culminated in the collapse of the coal mining industry which created a new front in the battle with the Tories.
Thus the region grew to share Scotland’s lack of confidence and self-belief and replaced it with a culture of dependency on the state, and on the wealthier southeast which is only now being tackled in Scotland by the resurgence of cultural identity and self-determination.
At its worst, this has turned into an ugly display of envy politics, a crass and crude judgmentalism which thrives on a misguided prejudice towards the better-off that is no better than other forms of distasteful discrimination. An attitude of hostility has developed towards “Tory posh boys” who are seen to have been handed undeserved power and privilege. This class division, which is part of British culture, is in danger of turning into class war that reflects badly on the country.
At play is a simplistic form of economics that conveniently overlooks the fact that many in the north and Scotland actually enjoy a higher standard of living and better quality of life than those in the south who are crippled by the pressures of commuting and the high cost of home ownership.
It ignores the economic divisions that exist in the south east as they do elsewhere in Britain. London, in fact, has some of Britain’s worst pockets of poverty. Politically, it is hardly a Tory stronghold, In fact it is a Labour oasis in a sea of blue. Labour won 45 of the capital’s 73 parliamentary seats – that’s more than 61.5% of the total.
Wealth created in the south permeates across the nation. Without it Britain’s GDP would be considerably weakened and welfare measures less generous.
In fact recent history is much brighter than the ‘grim up north’ image that continues to permeate popular culture. In the 30 years since the ending of the miners’ strike a new economy in clean technologies and financial services has created higher levels of prosperity for northerners.
Yet this newly-emerging sense of a North British identity looks like gathering pace, fuelled by the nationalist phenomenon and a collapse of the Labour party which would leave the north of England even more under-represented. Even the trade unions are deserting Labour and throwing in their lot with the SNP.
This is not just about tub-thumping by restless natives in the north of England. An alliance between the region and Scotland could also work to the advantage of the Scottish nationalists. After all, the SNP is unable to get much bigger on home turf and joining with the north would strengthen its hand in Westminster.
Mr Cameron is a committed One Nation Tory, but he has also promised to create a northern powerhouse. The emergence of a political force that would add to pressures on the Union was not what he had in mind. The combination of Scottish nationalists and northern barons could become a bigger test than Mr Cameron’s forthcoming fights with Brussels. Whether or not he believes it threatens the kingdom he can ill-afford to ignore it.