The Forgotten Land: A Look at Northern England

Clara Browne-Amorim
Matthew Lynes
MIDDLESBOROUGH, UNITED KINGDOM – JULY 21: Locals and children play on the surf at high tide on Redcar beach in the shadow of the Corus Steelworks in Teeside, on July 21, 2008, in Middlesborough, England. The giant iron and steel works on the south bank of the River Tees produces 3.4 million tonnes of slab steel a year. Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

The debate between the North and South has long been a contentious topic in England, much like it has in countries across the globe. The divide across the country is one that permeates through England’s history, and as much as this divide carries salient social considerations, it also offers economic, health, transport, and educational discrepancies, which have led to the UK Office for National Statistics reporting an 18.6-year difference in life expectancy between the two regions (71.9 years in Richmond-Upon-Thames compared to 53.3 years in Blackpool, 2016-18).

The predominant reason for the North’s current depreciation is its industrial roots, which, during the Industrial Revolution, made it the primary powerhouse of the UK, with factories and smog lining its cities and countryside. A return to these more prosperous days has been used as political fodder by many including Former UK Chancellor and Conservative MP George Osborne, whose constituency Tatton is in North-West England, promising of northern powerhouse under the coalition government.

These plans, however, seem to have stagnated, and the North has remained mostly unchanged. There are also areas within the South that have seen the same decline since their industrial days, especially in mining and industrial centres in the South-West. All of these areas, however, remain a world away from the glitz and glamour of the South-East, which is home to London and its luxuries.

A SHORT HISTORY

Whilst the stereotype of smog juxtaposed against the glitz of the Ritz seems centuries old, it is, in fact, only relevant since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Pre-1760, the common people of the North functioned much like their counterparts across the rest of the country, primarily garnering a living from agriculture in the countryside, with towns being focal points for artisan crafts. Living conditions were far lower, and life was not stable; income from pre-industrialised agriculture was at the whim of good weather, and annual plagues and illnesses stagnated population growth.

However, the economic layout of the country was very different from today’s layout. Towns such as Nottingham, Norwich, and many others were important landmarks, colonised by the Anglo Saxons, then occupied by Norman Kings. Cloth and textile production (possible because of England’s abundance of sheep) allowed Tudor monarchs to secure trade deals with far wealthier European nations such as the Netherlands. While London has always been more populous than other towns in England and served as a centre for mercantile and commercial operations due to the fact that it houses the Crown, the inequality we see today between the capital and the North is far more recent.

INDUSTRIALIZATION

File:Widnes Smoke.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Widnes in the late 19th century showing the effects of industrial pollution. Source: Hardie, D. W. F., A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes, Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, 1950.

Due to the explosion of wealth in England during the days of the British Empire, the UK is now a prominent player on the international stage. Industrialisation and colonialism, whilst leading the UK to this position, also led to the UK’s increasing centralisation, which worsened the economic fallout from the decline of post-revolution industrial work.

Industrialisation revolutionised the world, starting with the UK, and the transition to mechanised production across industries and manufacturing led to a period of unprecedented sustained growth in average income and population. This unparalleled growth lasted an entire century, and the industrial landscape transformed from agricultural to factories, assembly lines, dedicated to primary, e.g. mining, and manufacturing, e.g. textile, industries. The North was home to a great number of these industries with regional economies and job markets becoming dependent on one factory, mine, or other public service.

However, beginning in the 1980s, the UK entered a period of deindustrialisation with severe declines in its primary and manufacturing industries due to the abundance of affordable alternatives overseas, combined with cheaper transportation costs leading to mass outsourcing. Jobs in these industries disappeared overnight as demand fell, whilst demand for services grew, a sector mainly based in the South and in particular in London.

It was cheaper to outsource primary and manufacturing industries, however the loss of these industries was not replaced by new jobs for the hundreds of thousands they had previously supported, and this was most hard hit in the North. Manufacturing and mining industries, as well as the UK economy, underwent another revolution: where they had previously contributed 40% of the UK’s GDP in 1979, this fell to just 34% in 1990 – and has since fallen more dramatically still to just under 22%. This was coupled with an unemployment rate of 11.9% in 1984, and as such income inequality increased: where the poorest 10% had a weekly income of £151 in 1979, this increased by only 4.6% to £158 in 1990.

For the top 10%, a weekly income was £472.98 in 1979 and £694.83 in 1990. In 2019, the average high-wage earners earned £1448 a week, whilst the lowest-paid earn £306.

THE POLITICAL PRESENT

With the industrial, public-service focused nature of its past, the North has long been a beacon of left-wing politics, socialism, and unionism, proving to be fertile ground for the Labour party garnering a reputation of being ‘the red wall’. In recent years, however, this red wall has started to crumble, and in 2019, it turned blue when, across Northern England, there was an overwhelming amount of votes for Conservatives for the first time in over 100 years.

“The results of the 2017 and 2019 general elections, showing blocks of Labour support (in red) in the West Midlands, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and North East England.” Source: Wiki

Many believed that after years of neglect, this event would finally prompt the North to be properly recognised by the government in Westminster, especially with the Conservative MPs loyal to the government. However, the North was once again the victim of neglect and ignorance.

This division is clearer than ever when exploring the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK undertook a national approach in which the whole of England went into lockdown. As the virus numbers decreased, Prime Minister Johnson started to ease measures in certain areas where the numbers were reducing. This tier system offered a chance for well-performing areas to reap the benefits of a relative return to normality however, this return, according to some, was skewed.

As numbers decreased in London and the hospitality industry reopened, in Manchester (and across much of the North), lockdown measures continued and workers were left out of jobs and out of pocket. This was despite the fact that the R rate across Manchester was 0.8-1 and cases were falling at 3% a day compared to 1-1.2% and cases increasing by 3.3% per day in the South.

When decision-makers in Westminster decided to impose restrictions on much of the North, Northern leaders decided that it was time to act. Following the announcement of these strict measures, the Labour party elected-mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham, who retaliated against the government and their decision to pressure the North into providing support for workers. Mayor Andy Burnham tweeted a story from the Daily Mail in which cabinet member Michael Gove requested that London remained in lockdown, saying:

“So it would seem the Government added an extra point to their five criteria – just for London. Obviously, jobs everywhere else don’t matter as much.”

The elite in Westminster were less than impressed with Burnham’s newfound status as “King of the North” and embarked upon days of talks with leaders across the region. Requesting a £90m relief package to support workers and businesses that had been shut up due to the new restrictions, Mr. Burnham settled on £65m as the very minimum he could accept. Prime Minister Johnson refused to go above £60m because he did not want to be seen giving Greater Manchester a better settlement than others he had handed out across the nation. Subsequently, Johnson refused to verbally honour his commitment to give £60m to workers and business five times, saying instead that it was a matter of negotiation, and instead, invited Mr Burnham back for further discussion.

Grouping the country into tiers was widely interpreted as a way of dividing the country, and the long-term effects of this debate are yet to be seen with the country now back in full lockdown. Upcoming local elections in May will likely serve as a referendum on the success of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will be interesting to see how councils across the North react.

  1. Does the impact of its’ industrial history count against the North?
  2. What actions should the government take in order to address the divide in life quality between the North and the South?
  3. Was the UK Government right to split the country in its’ response to the second wave of COVID-19?

Further Readings

Daily Mail, Michael Gove was told 500,000 could lose jobs if he got his wish to shut London in fraught Cabinet meeting to discuss the new tiering system

Manchester Evening News, Andy Burnham attacks government over reports London avoided Tier 3 ‘because of potential job losses’

Sky News, Coronavirus: Andy Burnham is the ‘King of the North’ – a crown the PM believed he’d won

Sky News, Coronavirus: Greater Manchester to move into Tier 3, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirms

The Guardian, The Thatcher effect: what changed and what stayed the same

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