The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country 
by Tom Hazeldine.
Verso, 290 pp., £11.99, September 2021, 978 1 78663 409 2
Show More
Show More

‘There is a natural and perfectly viable kingdom of the North between the Humber and the Forth-Clyde isthmus,’ the historian Frank Musgrove claimed in 1990. It wasn’t the best moment to use the present tense, even if there had been an upsurge in commentary on the ‘North-South divide’ over the previous decade. Tom Hazeldine suggests that the phrase ‘entered the political lexicon’ in 1980 via the Lancashire Tory MP John Lee, who announced that ‘those of us who represent the regions are increasingly aware of the North-South divide, as 21st-century industry is increasingly sucked towards the South-East.’ The phrase first appeared in Hansard a few months earlier, used by another Tory, the Shropshire MP Eric Cockeram, who noted that ‘a number of honourable members’ had discussed the issue. Thatcherism was just getting started, and Britain’s ancient territorial fractures were newly evident. By 1987, with Militant and the miners beaten from the Mersey to the Humber, Thatcher’s ally Lord Young could afford to be more direct: ‘the two present growth industries – the City and tourism – are concentrated in the South. It’s our turn, that’s all.’

Musgrove’s survey The North of England, published three years later, gave a sweeping and idiosyncratic account of northern history ‘from Roman times to the present’, a fleshed-out version of the idea that regions take turns. Every two hundred years, he argued, ‘the relationship between centre and perimeter seems to change.’ Having identified four eras of northern ‘distinction’ – Roman York, the Northumbrian renaissance, the Wars of the Roses and the industrial revolution – he predicted that a fifth was about to begin, happily initiated by Thatcher’s wave of privatisations. Northern pride has never been the exclusive property of the left.

Hazeldine’s The Northern Question takes Musgrove’s epic timespan, squeezes it into three-quarters of the space, and swaps out Toryism for Marxism. Avoiding some of Musgrove’s lumbering statistical expositions, Hazeldine also junks his sentimental regionalism; the result is a chillier polemic, rising from the rubble of Corbynism with a more fatalistic sense of the North’s relevance. Musgrove saw a proud region in need of a proper story, but Hazeldine aims at something utilitarian, testing ‘the weight of the North’ against a thousand years of southern rule. His aim is to ‘see what English history looks like when stood upon its head’.

Without Musgrove’s faith in the North’s ancient integrity, Hazeldine has a hurdle to get over: ‘part of the problem in writing about the North is how to characterise a region which constitutionally doesn’t exist.’ Musgrove solved this by discussing the four traditional border counties – Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland and Westmorland – alongside Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire (the last ‘something of a problem’). Hazeldine arrives at his definition more methodically. ‘Regional identities,’ he explains, ‘have been levelled out by a millennium of centralised rule and the modern impress of powerful institutions like the Fleet Street of old and the BBC.’ The North struggles to ‘announce itself with any clarity’ because it has no mass circulation newspaper to unify it and no significant regionalist party. If there is little that resembles a distinctly northern civil society (though this may be changing), neither is there much sign of an ‘official North’ as constructed by the state. What does exist is ‘no more than a caprice of the Whitehall mind’, its boundaries flowing around a series of ill-fated ministries and schemes. The North has had a more significant cultural influence on Britain, yet Hazeldine – leaning heavily on Dave Russell’s Looking North (2004) – suggests that ‘breakthrough moments for the region … were flash-in-the-pan affairs,’ with cultural production dragged relentlessly towards London. The Guardian left Manchester in 1964, while John Lennon’s childhood in Penny Lane was ‘remembered from the greater comfort of Abbey Road’.

Hazeldine opts for a historical materialist definition of North-ness, structured by the experience of runaway industrialisation and its long comedown. Regional destiny was determined by the ‘original sites of manufacturing revolution’: the old Lancashire-Yorkshire textile belt and its ports in Liverpool and Hull; the industrial hubs of West Lancashire, West Cumbria, South Yorkshire and the North-East coast, along with their coalfields; the North Derbyshire coalfield and the textile towns of High Peak. If relative deprivation is taken to be the main factor unifying the North, then the statistically similar Midlands complicate things. But the Midlands arrived at their fate ‘via a different route’. Hitched initially to a protectionist southern Toryism, Hazeldine suggests, the region – especially Birmingham – was held back by its reluctance to give up smaller-scale artisanal manufacture, before being nudged from Liberalism into a more southern-aligned Unionism by the ‘charisma and political machine’ of Joseph Chamberlain. The North emerges as the product not only of the industrial revolution but also of the new agents of history it produced: factory workers and the industrial bourgeoisie, thrown together in a specific place for the first time.

The enormous wealth produced by these new, volatile social relations gave the North a ‘unique pedestal’ from which to fall. A fall was always likely once the rest of the world caught up, but the question Hazeldine seeks to answer is why the North fell so much further than was necessary. In the aftermath of the First World War, the economies of the South-East and the North were ‘roughly on level pegging’, contributing 35 and 30 per cent of GDP respectively; by the end of the 20th century, the figures were 40 and 21 per cent, with London gaining another 5 percentage points between 1997 and 2017. Regional disparities within states widened globally over this same period, but the severity of Britain’s North-South divide is unique, worse than in famously imbalanced countries like Spain, Germany and Italy, as well as France, with its massive metropolitan core.

Examining English history from a northern perspective helps to explain this. The determination of Westminster politicians – Liberal, Labour and Tory – to maintain the economic predominance of London and the South-East (in finance, the wider service sector and cutting-edge manufactures) has an appalling consistency: in Blackburn in 1931, 42 per cent of women were unemployed compared to 3 per cent in Luton; in Lancashire in the late 1950s, Harold Macmillan’s efforts to maintain the price of sterling finally turned cotton into a net import; in the North as a whole from 1979 onwards, inflation and union power were conquered at the cost of industry’s often terminal decline. The preoccupation of the British ruling class with its world-leading financial sector is a vital part of the explanation for the long decay of the 19th-century ascendancy of the North.

Yet the question remains: why did something as colossal as the industrial revolution fail to shift the balance of British political power decisively towards industry and the North? The organic ‘levelling-up’ achieved by the region in the 19th century – Engels called Lancashire an ‘obscure, ill-cultivated swamp’ – was, Hazeldine argues, briefly but vitally compatible with southern self-interest. Nascent factory capitalism was tied in with the imperial expansion and nautical shoulder-barging that helped the City of London to bank the profits of global trade. The UK’s ‘head-start mercantilism’ offered ‘a massive helping of state aid for both Lancashire and London’. By the second half of the 19th century the North was matching the output of the South-East, but only if the West Midlands was included.

This generalised lift-off, exceptional on a global scale, briefly righted England’s lopsidedness. Hazeldine’s analysis bears the imprint of Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson’s thesis of British development, which holds that English capitalism’s head-start integrated old and new elites, whereas in other countries they ended up killing each other. The North’s industrial rulers were uneasily ‘adrift on a proletarian sea’, and after the French Revolution feared drowning. There was no nation-making bargain between owners and workers to destroy the old elite. Instead, ‘the tumbrils of Paris encouraged the Westminster old guard and the new captains of industry to huddle together for mutual protection.’ At Peterloo and elsewhere centralised political power crushed the demands of the emerging working class. Hazeldine disputes Musgrove’s claim that the North forged a brief industrial unity against the South. Instead, he shows that the North’s new elites benefited not just from empire, but from a state that entered the age of revolutions prepared to use overwhelming force to defend the sovereignty of profit.

The 20th century brought into power a movement forged in ‘Outer Britain’, as Hazeldine puts it, uniting the North with Clydeside and the South Wales Valleys. But his story of Labour in power is scathing, showing the failure to disrupt the pattern of southern capture and control. Ramsay MacDonald’s chancellor, Philip Snowden, was one of several senior northerners in the fragile interwar Labour governments. He bought a ‘big house’ in Surrey and was so ‘awestruck’ by the Bank of England that he agreed to ‘balance the books on the backs of the unemployed’.

Rearmament and the Second World War reinflated northern industry, but Labour’s vigorous postwar agenda was undermined by its efforts to sustain imperial greatness: defending sterling as well as throwing money at the Korean War and the atom bomb. Attlee failed to redirect London’s wealth northwards; many of the new industries encouraged by the government’s regional policy were branches of international conglomerates, reinforcing dependency. After 1964, Harold Wilson’s efforts at regional planning were, again, derailed by a run on the pound; a nationwide subsidy regime gravitated towards the whiter heat of the South-East. ‘The bribes got bigger,’ Hazeldine observes, summing up the postwar habit of paying off the North to save London’s electoral blushes.

After Labour’s return to office in 1997, the Blair government helped the South to boil over so that public spending could trickle north. It even restored independence to the Bank of England, reversing one of the party’s clearest inroads into southern power. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour’s vote in the North almost halved, from 4.1 to 2.6 million. The austerity enacted by the coalition government exposed the shallowness of Labour’s decision to replace industry with public sector jobs in the North: the drastic reduction of public spending was devastating for the region. Quantitative easing created an asset boom for the UK’s richest households, combining with austerity to transfer wealth from the North to the South: manufacturing jobs collapsed twice as fast as financial and business services. Median household wealth in London grew by 14 per cent, and fell in Yorkshire and the Humber by 8 per cent between 2010 and 2014. Lord Young, now David Cameron’s ‘enterprise tsar’, had to resign in late 2010 after suggesting that people ‘have never had it so good’.

It was only after substantial Tory losses in the North at the 2014 European elections that George Osborne launched a regional empowerment scheme called the Northern Powerhouse. Hazeldine describes it as ‘a public-relations device to highlight Conservative good works’. Northern discontent turned out not just to be a political problem but a profound governmental one. In 2016, almost every English region voted to leave the European Union; but if you removed the West Midlands along with the three Northern regions, Remain would have won a narrow victory. Hazeldine’s interpretation of the result acknowledges the salience of immigration in Leave-voting towns like Boston, where the number of migrants had increased quickly, but also points to towns with low levels of immigration that returned a strong Leave vote, such as Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent. ‘Much of the rhetoric of Leave was anti-immigrant,’ he writes, but ‘the anger that powered it to victory came from decline.’

Theresa May sought to tap into that anger by embracing Brexit and holding a snap election in 2017. She secured 42.4 per cent of the vote, equalling Thatcher’s 1983 result; yet her attempt to expand the Tory electoral map was thwarted by an average ten-point increase in Labour’s vote share across the North. Jeremy Corbyn, an unreconstructed Bennite with a London seat, promised to break from the southern political and economic consensus that Brexit had already unsettled. He was rewarded for this even in the South, where unlikely gains were made in places like Canterbury and Kensington. The hung parliament that resulted didn’t last long. Hazeldine suggests that Johnson’s triumph in December 2019 was the legacy of three years of prevarication by the political class over Brexit, culminating in Labour’s support for a second referendum. This ensured that ‘the ideological polarisation between the governing Conservatives and Labour opposition was confined to a proxy debate about the technicalities of EU withdrawal.’ Johnson’s slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ was pitched directly at the North, and he was rewarded with a slew of northern seats. Labour’s average vote share in the region dropped by the same amount it had risen in 2017.

Hazeldine claims that ‘by endangering the City’s frictionless access to Continental capital and markets, Brexit struck a blow.’ Yet it also ended the North’s access to the EU funds that reinforced the UK’s withered social state. The thinktank IPPR North estimates that the government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, intended as a substitute for the EU’s structural funds, will supply 40 per cent less funding over the next three years than would have come from the EU. The bigger question is whether the electoral upheavals caused by Brexit can be exploited to shift the regional balance of power. Hazeldine notes that Brexit was supported by a coalition as confused as England itself: while northern cities (with the exception of Sheffield) voted Remain and for Corbyn’s Labour, the rest of the region ‘settled for a junior place’ in coalition with the old Tory enemy. Having convincingly asserted a northern reality, Hazeldine offers no suggestions for its consolidation. His point is that Brexit, and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’, are just the latest consequences of a divide written into England’s political and economic geography.

In the sprint through the centuries, some elements of that geography zoom past, and many of them are more relevant to the present than Hazeldine acknowledges. Viewing the rest of England from the North, he faces away from Scotland, and his account downplays the fact that for centuries it sat on the perimeter of a separate Scottish kingdom. That kingdom was often richer, more powerful and culturally vibrant, which helped force the North into dependency on the South. Musgrove suggested that Scottish expeditions across the border were vital in forging and delimiting a ‘northern sense of identity’, one defined against the invader.

This raises some tricky theoretical problems. If the North were a nation, Hazeldine’s emphasis on industrial capitalism would be understood by theorists of nationalism as a ‘modernist’ explanation of northern consciousness; Musgrove’s medieval focus would come closer to an ‘ethnosymbolist’ one. The issue is whether archaic cultural traditions, created a millennium ago, can still exert a decisive influence – one that can compete with or overpower class or nation. The lure of statehood might supply old traditions with an army of energetic revivalists – but would anyone do the same for a region?

Either way, Scotland matters. Today, the difficulties of defining where the North begins relate entirely to its southern limits. Nobody doubts that it ends at Gretna and Berwick-upon-Tweed. Yet it is still worth spelling out that the so-called ‘North’ is halfway down the landmass of Britain, and that this is the case because, just as northern political autonomy was being extinguished, Scotland and England were forging themselves as states. The Scottish kingdom was not uninterested in the territory that neighboured it: until the Battle of the Standard in 1138, there was a chance that the North could become the South. The people of Yorkshire, by spurning the advances of King David I, might have deprived us of a much more interesting island.

This is not just medievalist quibbling. The imbalance between the North and Scotland has been fundamental to Britain’s evolution. In 1977, the leaders of Tyne & Wear and Merseyside county councils helped orchestrate the defeat of the Callaghan government’s Scotland and Wales Bill, which would have delivered political devolution to the peripheral nations. These ‘no-men of England’, as an article by Neal Ascherson in the Scotsman called them, rallied dissenting Labour MPs behind their anti-devolution campaign, fearful of a strengthened developmental agenda on the other side of the border and resentful about higher spending on Scotland. Northern sceptics also gave support to the stitch-up that followed: the 1978 Acts created near impossible obstacles to the creation of devolved assemblies (Scotland voted in favour of devolution in 1979, but with the support of less than the required 40 per cent of the total electorate, meaning that it was not put into effect). Northern concerns had some justification: Labour was not electorally threatened by northern regionalism, and so the party had little interest in agreeing to any devolutionary demands there. The solution was to sabotage the demands that were being listened to.

The absence of Scotland, and of nationalism more generally, from The Northern Question is especially unfortunate, because they provide useful ways of thinking about the problems Hazeldine identifies and the solutions currently on offer. The popularity of Anglo-British nationalism in the North surely helps to explain the lack of a regionalist electoral movement of the kind that secured Scottish and Welsh gains. Fear of the Scots remains a powerful weapon in the Tory arsenal. In 2015 David Cameron successfully warned of a ‘coalition of chaos’ between Ed Miliband and the SNP, and his party has now pushed Keir Starmer to rule out a deal of any kind with Nicola Sturgeon. The next election should indicate whether the North, still battling to be heard, will continue to be kept in place by resentment towards its noisy neighbours.

Hazeldine understates the region’s extraordinary military heritage – this is well documented in Dan Jackson’s The Northumbrians – and the ways this bound northerners to the national state as well as to local arms manufacturers. Scotland also provides a vital point of comparison when it comes to the first precondition for a more assertive northern politics: civil society. From a Scottish perspective, the most startling feature of 20th-century northern history is the absence of a sustained and unified civic campaign on behalf of the region as a whole. Like the North, Scotland was a heartland of the industrial revolution, and its heavy industries experienced a similarly long and painful decline after the First World War. Its trade unions, civic elites, media and surviving domestic capitalists responded to this, however, by forging something like a ‘development coalition’ from the 1950s onwards, which pushed for special treatment from the government and ultimately threw its weight behind the campaign for a Scottish Parliament.

Could the North​ be ready to do something similar? Since The Northern Question was published, there has been some movement in this direction. Hazeldine is dismissive of the regional empowerment initiatives introduced since the North-South divide first appeared on the agenda in 1980. He isn’t wrong – they have done little to reverse the flow of wealth and power out of the region – but Scotland has demonstrated the surprisingly progressive consequences that half-arsed government can have. When Westminster attempted to contain Scottish dissent with quangos and opaque plans, it provoked campaigns for these schemes to be made more transparent and accountable, producing a more populist movement for national democracy. In the North, disillusionment with Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse – the centrepiece of which was a proposal for a revolutionised transport network – has led to a growing co-operation between northern newspapers in making front-page policy demands. This has been enabled in part by the concentration of local newspaper ownership, but it also reflects the ability of Westminster’s pork-barrel pandering to have the inadvertent result of unifying regional discontent.

The wave of local devolution deals since 2010 have had a similar effect, as newly created mayors and other local leaders have realised the profile-building potential of a more interventionist municipalism. As mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham is integrating the public transport system into a Bee Network of buses, bikes and trains; in Teesside, the Conservative mayor, Ben Houchen, has municipalised Durham Tees Valley Airport and the vast former Redcar Steelworks. Local leaders are also discovering the power of the spectacle. At a press conference outside Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in October 2020, Burnham and other local leaders received the news, on live TV, that the government had rejected their request for £65 million to combat Covid-19, which swept the North just as an England-wide lockdown was loosened for London’s benefit. Images of Burnham reading the news on someone else’s phone became icons of northern discontent, even inspiring the formation of a Northern Independence Party.

The NIP arrived too soon in the process of northern self-discovery – its candidate, the former Labour MP Thelma Walker, won just 250 votes in the 2021 Hartlepool by-election – but the tendency does seem to be towards greater politicisation. Westminster promises change and northern stakeholders prepare for it with a generative glut of reports, conventions, lobbying and commentary; Westminster disappoints and the North unites in protest. The cycle will repeat, but with ever greater co-ordination and institutional density. This is not a very radical movement, but it does look like a more assertive regional bourgeoisie is being formed, constituted not by big capital but by metro mayors, think-tankers, local businesses, council leaders, civil servants, newspaper editors and academics.

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ white paper – masterminded by Michael Gove and released in February – gave these people something to chew on. It is full of rhetorical ambition: ‘system change is not about a string of shiny, but ultimately shortlived, new policy initiatives. It is about root and branch reform of government and governance of the UK.’ Its headline promises are twelve ‘medium-term’ missions, laudable aims like increasing and equalising productivity, improving broadband and transport connectivity, helping renters and first-time buyers, reducing crime and increasing ‘pride in place’. Yet there is little new funding. After reunification, Germany spent almost €80 billion per year on regional development – far beyond the imagination of a Tory chancellor. The tax-cutting consensus prevailing in the Conservative leadership contest does not promise to change this, and indeed may make the problem worse. Regionalised tax cuts and ‘enterprise zones’ are no match for big, targeted and strategic spending.

More promising is the claim that ‘every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution with a simplified, long-term funding settlement.’ It is not yet clear whether ‘Levelling Up’ will be of much interest to Johnson’s replacement, and power spreading away from the centre is unlikely if Truss or Sunak puts her or himself at the centre of a new agenda. Even if the devolution plans are retained, whatever emerges is likely to exemplify the classic non-pattern of British constitutional change – ad hoc, overhyped and underpowered – but it will still provide new sites of political representation, away from the grip of the metropolis and open to contestation by all sorts of political tendencies that have hitherto been submerged by England’s three main parties. As has been the case in Scotland, the result will probably be a ‘voice’ rather than anything resembling sovereignty; but a voice still has the power to invoke and convene something greater than itself. It can collaborate with the more established devolved regimes and encourage newer ones. Whether this new force allies itself with Labour, the Conservatives, or something else entirely, it might at long last thrust the peoples of ‘Outer Britain’ into the heart of political life.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences