I’ve been home only once since Christmas 2019. Home with a capital ‘H’ is the North-East of England, where I grew up and where my parents still live. The government’s most unambiguous message during Covid – ‘Stay at Home’ – contains, for a lot of people, an ambiguity: staying at home has often meant staying away from Home. In truth, I’m not used to seeing my parents very often, even though they’re only a two-and-a-half-hour train journey away. Since I left for university, going home has always seemed too much of a disruption to the smooth course of life – because it takes me away from my friends and my work, but also because returning feels like a reversion, like being forced to wear old clothes that don’t fit. This isn’t unusual, of course. I don’t think I’m interesting for having moved away from home, or for finding it complicated to go back. What’s interesting isn’t the sort of person who moves away, but the sorts of place they move away from.
I was born in Middlesbrough (like my mother and her parents) at the tail-end of Thatcherism. We lived at first in the next-door borough, Stockton-on-Tees, where I went to school until I was sixteen. In 1997, I was playing by our front gate when an election car, tannoy mounted on the roof, drove up the street. A man got out and handed me a New Labour badge. Labour won our constituency – Stockton North – in that election with a majority of more than 21,000. A year later, we moved twelve miles east to Hurworth-on-Tees, a village just outside Darlington. Hurworth, by some electoral freak, isn’t included in the Darlington constituency but in Sedgefield (a town fifteen miles north), and as a consequence Tony Blair was our MP. I don’t remember there being any kudos attached to this, apart from the time George W. Bush visited in the autumn of 2003 and Blair took him for a pint at a nearby pub. In 2007, a few months after Blair resigned as prime minister, I went to Cambridge to start my degree, the first in my family to go straight from school to university. I wasn’t escaping. I didn’t feel oppressed by where I came from, saw no narrowness in it and had no particular wish to leave. But I haven’t lived in the North again.
Until that moment, I’d not spent more than a few days in the South of England. By contrast, I’d often gone up to Edinburgh (though it takes about the same time to get to London by train) and most of our family holidays were in Scotland. One of the things that often surprises friends from the South is how much more familiar many people in the North are with Scotland than with their bit of England. The only people I knew who didn’t speak with flat vowels were outlandishly posh. I didn’t think of myself as ‘northern’ – the first time I was described that way was at Cambridge. It was also at Cambridge that it was first pointed out to me that I have a northern accent. I remember listening to my mum’s voice on the phone and suddenly being moved by the fact that I had never heard her accent before – it was something only separation could have taught me.
This isn’t a sob story. I liked Cambridge, and then I moved to London and I like it here too. Edmund Wilson described Washington DC as ‘a hollow shell’ – ‘no trouble to clean it out every night and put something else in [its] place’ – and that’s the way I think of London: a hollow shell in which each person makes their own city, over and over. London has always been a city of immigrants, of people moving in and moving on (one in six English people born around 1700 lived in London at some point in their lives). Almost all my friends from Darlington, as well as family members of my generation, live in London; the few who don’t live here did until recently (none of them has returned home). Two or three years ago I was making lunch when I realised the voices on the radio belonged to students at my old sixth-form college. It was A-Level results day and some of those who’d just received their grades were asked whether they would return to Darlington after university. They all said they liked the area and would like to be able to live there, but no, it was impossible, they couldn’t come back. What would they do?
In his LRB Winter Lecture about not going home, James Wood coined a nice word: ‘homelooseness’. ‘Exile is acute, massive, transformative,’ he said, ‘but homelooseness … can be banal, welcome, necessary, continuous.’ I agree that if home is only a train away, exile is too strong a word. It might very well be ‘necessary’ for you to live somewhere else, somewhere you are needed or want to be. But it might also be necessary in the sense that you see no good alternative – it might be necessitated. Darlington isn’t a black hole. Like lots of places, it used to be somewhere: a prosperous Quaker town, well served by the railways, with impressive Victorian suburbs. Now it’s just lacking – in opportunities, mostly. When I heard those sixth-formers on the radio, I knew how they felt. I also felt something they couldn’t know yet: a nagging sense of guilt that I had left the North-East behind.
When I last went home in the normal way, in December 2019, there had just been a general election, won handsomely by the Conservatives. Labour hung on in Stockton North, but the 1997 majority of 21,000 was down to 1027; in the neighbouring constituency of Hartlepool, a 1997 majority of more than 17,000 was down to 3595. Stockton South, Labour between 1997 and 2010, had swung back in 2017 with a majority of 888 – now the Tories had retaken it with a majority of 5260. Middlesbrough South, a Labour seat between 1997 and 2017, not only kept its new Tory MP but increased his majority by more than ten thousand. Sedgefield, Blair’s old seat (majority of 25,143 in 1997), held continuously by Labour since 1935, went to the Tories with a majority of 4513. Darlington, Labour from 1964 until 1983 and again from 1992, went Tory with a majority of 3294. A swathe of seats with similar profiles were lost in the old industrial ‘heartlands’ of the North. I hadn’t realised that I’d grown up behind something called the ‘Red Wall’, but I’d always taken as given that my area was Labour territory. So there was something especially bitter in the election result, as in the Brexit result (Darlington, like most of the North-East, backed Leave in 2016). Home had voted determinedly against my own inclination. Shortly after the exit poll was released, I sent my mum a WhatsApp message that said: ‘Utterly ashamed of the north.’ Not having it, she replied: ‘Strong.’
Since the Tories came to power in 2010, central funding for local government in the North-East has been cut by 79 per cent (in the South-East it’s 69 per cent). Since 2010, total government spending in the North has decreased by £6.3 billion; it has increased in the South by £3.2 billion. According to the Centre for Cities, seven of the ten British cities hit hardest by austerity are in the North. The average weekly pay in the region has fallen by £21 since 2008. People living in the North die earlier than people living in the South. Of the ten areas in England that currently have the highest Covid-19 rates, six are in the North.
Five years ago I wrote about the inherent unfairness of the cuts: that the areas most dependent on government support – the poorest parts of the country – have been worst affected (LRB, 15 December 2016). It seems a cruel paradox that the region which suffered the brunt of the attack should be the one that awarded the Tories their best election result in decades. Darlington’s Labour council was forced to reduce its spending by £45.4 million and sacked 730 staff. In May 2019, the Conservatives won the local elections, taking power for the first time in forty years. In December, the new council trumpeted that it was setting its ‘most optimistic budget in a decade’ and planned no further ‘significant’ cuts till at least 2024 (it becomes easier the fewer services you provide). The same month, Darlington elected a Conservative MP for the first time since 1987. In March this year, Rishi Sunak announced in his Budget speech that Darlington had been chosen as the location for ‘Treasury North’, a new government ‘campus’ for 750 civil servants which is being billed as part of a reorientation of political decision-making.
Powerlessness can be a very powerful thing. The Brexit slogan – ‘Take back control’ – resonated in the North because so many people there felt they had so little of it. Employment and wages are limited. Much of the economy – much of government – has been privatised and removed from democratic accountability. The decline in the number of people turning out to vote, a trend that disproportionately affected Labour (five million of its voters went missing between 1997 and 2010), was a clear sign of disaffection. Clearest of all was the result of the EU referendum, when many of those non-voters returned to the polling booths, with decisive effect. This wasn’t surprising, and the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’ shouldn’t be surprising either. If voting one way gets you nothing, the only way to exercise any degree of control is to vote the other way.
And voting Tory gets results. Treasury North, if it happens, will probably make a difference to Darlington. The North will – probably – get a better deal over the next few years than it did under previous Conservative governments. But that isn’t saying much. Voters in the North ‘chose’ the Tories, but it wasn’t a free choice, just as my leaving the North wasn’t a free choice. These are choices conditioned by circumstances, dictated by government policies as much as by market forces (not that there is always a difference). Making a choice doesn’t mean you’re in control. Darlington might be better off than it was, but that doesn’t mean it’s as well off as it might have been. Hartlepool is about to make another ‘choice’ in a by-election on 6 May, with the Tories likely to take the seat from Labour. The Centre for Towns reports that, between 1981 and 2011, the number of people in the constituency aged 16-24 declined by 24.5 per cent; the number aged over 65 increased by 26.9 per cent.
Northerners like to complain that the North isn’t anything like the southern stereotype of flat caps, cobbled streets and puttering factory chimneys (I was once on a panel discussing local government cuts with the mayor of Middlesbrough, and he said to me afterwards: ‘Do you really think it’s that depressing, Tom?’). Of course the North is more than a collection of gloomy statistics. As well as the natural beauty, character, sense of humour and so on, there is great wealth and privilege. Money goes further. Norton, where I went to school (a private school, where my dad taught), has a village green with a leaping fountain; the high street has nice houses and smart cafés. Middlesbrough, often described as the most deprived town in Britain, is a few minutes’ drive away. James Wharton, formerly the Tory MP for Stockton South and now in the House of Lords, is the brother of someone I went to school with. Simon Clarke, the Tory MP for Middlesbrough South, went to my school – when I was eight, I knew him as an officious prefect. The Sedgefield constituency, at its Hurworth end, adjoins the Richmond constituency, almost unbrokenly Tory since 1886, whose MP is Rishi Sunak (and was once William Hague, meaning that between 1997 and 2001 the prime minister and the leader of the opposition were neighbours and probably shared the train home from King’s Cross). Inequality doesn’t run cleanly along the north-south divide. The whole country is crazed with it.
The Tories now talk about the ‘left behind’. Some of the people in the North haven’t been left behind; they have stayed grazing happily where the money is. People like me, who can afford the luxury of homelooseness, might feel the necessity of their estrangement while still in some way mourning or resenting it. And then there are the people who might have liked to have lived somewhere else, and haven’t been able to, or the people who don’t want to leave, who accept the limitations of a place while still wanting better for it. In all of this there is something Labour should be talking about, something the Tories can’t lay claim to: a narrative about the way the country works and fails to work that is capable of connecting its old heartlands with the newer ones in the magnetic urban centres. Remaining or leaving was a political question long before it ended up on a ballot paper. It still is.
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