I WAS watching a programme on the BBC called Digging for Britain, presented by Professor Alice Roberts. “In this episode”, she said ,“we are in the north of the British Isles” and she went on to list the places they would be visiting: Orkney, Hadrian’s Wall, York, and Leicester.
Hang on a minute, Leicester? Leicester, a mere two hours’ drive from London, is in the Midlands by anyone’s definition – anyone living north of Watford that is.
Alice Roberts was born and raised in Bristol so maybe we have to make allowances for her skewed geography, but surely somebody at the BBC should have picked up on that? Or maybe that’s the London-oriented Beeb for you?
It was recently reported in this newspaper that a “State of the North 2019” report claimed “the United Kingdom is more regionally divided than any comparable advanced economy”. The article quoted Greater Manchester metro mayor, Andy Burnham, as saying “the London-centric parliament is the root cause of the deep North-South divide that scars our country”.
It is often said in jest, but is nonetheless true, that the Watford Gap is taken by those living in the South as the point where northern England begins and on their maps it probably says “here be dragons” north of the Watford Gap, as it used to say on ancient mariners’ maps to indicate dangerous or unexplored territories, usually at the very edges of the known world.
When you look at a country the size of Russia – 6,600,000 square miles in area and 5,600 miles from east to west – it is almost incredible that Moscow, a mere 350 miles or so inside its western border, can effectively administer the remaining 5,250 miles of the country to the east – not that I would advocate for a moment, of course, the political system by which the Communist, now the Russian Federal, government has managed to do that.
By comparison England is some 70 times smaller at only 94,000 square miles, and it is a mere 390 miles from the Scottish border to the south coast. In 1936 the Jarrow Miners walked from the North-East to London – a considerable achievement of course, but do-able given the size of the country.
People walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats for fun all the time and that is 320 miles more than just walking the length of England. And yet successive governments have been incapable of treating it as a single country, a single national community. Instead they targeted policy-making and finances on the South or, even more specifically, on the “Home Counties”, a rather pejorative term at the best of times, and on London itself.
Moving on, the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” was a government proposal to boost economic growth in the North of England, particularly in the core cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle.
In itself it was an admission by Government that historically the North had been neglected, and I suppose we should be glad that there was such an admission at all.
However, so far there seems to be more talking than doing. And when you look at a map it’s difficult to see how the imbalance to date will be redressed when the country is basically a tall, thin pyramid shape with most of it, therefore, in the South and getting narrower, and of correspondingly decreasing interest to Government, the further north you go and where “there be dragons”.
Could I suggest to the Government a very simple exercise: turn the map of the United Kingdom upside down? It’s a very different picture. Try it for yourself. London is no longer the focal point with everything else west and north of it; now one’s attention is drawn to all of the United Kingdom first – especially the North of England – and London takes a little more locating.
From this new point of view, it would seem more natural and logical that political and financial investment and provision would now flow away from London and the South under force of gravity if nothing else, just as it has always flowed to the South if you look at the UK from a more traditional perspective.
When Mount St Helen’s in Washington State erupted in 1980 and a vast ash cloud drifted east, someone said “Don’t go to Washington – Washington is coming to you”.
Maybe one day soon we’ll be able to say the same about London, government, and national investment, but, contrary to being in that ash cloud, don’t hold your breath.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm