Kelvin MacKenzie made what I assume is a tongue-in-cheek plea for the formation of a ‘Southern party’ in the Telegraph yesterday. In the piece, he consistently resorts to crude caricature about anybody from North of the Watford Gap. According to MacKenzie, only people in the South East are ‘hard-working clever and creative, Glasgow has ‘unhealthy habits’, which are subsidised by the ‘people of Guildford’ and if you took the South East out of the economy, ‘it would be called Ethiopia’.
MacKenzie’s article is divisive, simplistic and wrong – ignoring the economic dynamism on display in many parts of the North and the fact that narrowing the North-South divide is necessary for the long term prosperity of the whole of the UK. It’s also an example of a kind of populist politics that seems determined to set different parts of the UK against each other – using scapegoats as an alternative to vision.
The stereotype rolled out by MacKenzie is also on display on reality TV, with the execrable ‘Geordie Shore’ or ‘The Valleys’ on MTV or ‘Geordie Finishing School For Girls’ on BBC3. This negative, clichéd and out of date view sees areas like the North East as all heavy drinking and fake tan. There are, however, plenty of good news stories from places outside of the South East.
The North East, for example, is the only UK region that is a net exporter and the past year has seen record export figures for the North Eastern economy of £14 billion. The region also has the highest rate of apprenticeship participation amongst young people. The North has many advantages has many advantages, excellent natural resources and skills in high tech manufacturing for example, which will be crucial if the UK is to compete successfully in the global economy. The North East has also been blossoming in the arts and creative industries for the past few decades, from the Baltic Art Gallery to the ‘Sage’ and plays like the ‘Pitmen Painters’. Last week’s OFSTED report showed that schools in County Durham, for example, have continued to improve.
The world is, of course, more complicated than MacKenzie suggests. There are plenty of highly prosperous towns in the North and plenty of pockets of poverty in the South East. When poorer parts of London were exploding in riots last year, the North East or Scotland didn’t see any violence at all – indeed North Eastern police officers were sent to London to help the Met deal with the rioting. Politically, Conservatives need to be careful to distance themselves from MacKenzie’s comments and sentiments – the Tories need to win in the North and the Midlands and the Tory brand is already damaged in many of these places.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t much more to do to narrow the North-South divide. As Neil O’Brien pointed out last week, politics is becoming increasingly regionalised and polarised in the UK. If this polarisation continues you’re likely to get rabble rousing voices like MacKenzie’s popping up more and more. Certain parts of the North still haven’t recovered from the devastating shock of deindustrialisation – with unemployment and welfare dependency continuing to be an issue. Too many Northern towns and cities are still too dependent on the public sector and have a shortage of sustainable private sector jobs. Transport infrastructure for the North also needs to be improved.
And we should be thinking seriously about addressing these issues and narrowing the North-South divide. That needs brave measures and radical policies. We shouldn’t be letting this debate be cheapened by attention seeking talk of Southern separatism and the use of cheap, outmoded and unfair stereotypes about the North.
David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange.