Below is the ‘provocation’ I delivered at the Battle of Ideas debate held last night in Sedbergh. It was a great evening, and conversation took all sorts of twist and turns – a really enjoyable night of thoughtful discussion and robust challenge. A big thanks as ever to Claire Fox for the invite, and I look forward to the November gig at the Barbican – come along!
Is there a North/South divide?
It seems a bit of an obvious question, and our laughably dated transport network certainly testifies to years of neglect. But this is not the whole story, and tonight I’m hoping to make a bit of a different case about what the real divide might be.
To start with, we have for too long let this debate become a strictly provision-based analysis, with policy wonks and statisticians looking at what one area has, comparing it with what another area has, and then lamenting the difference. This is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not sufficient. It can only comprehend the measurable – productivity, education levels, tax take – and from it proclaim that many places, particularly in the North, have been left behind.
But it cannot really answer the question why. After all, this recognition of unequal input and output is ages old, and yet some impersonal force seems to continue to drive on political decision making in the same direction. A provision-based analysis can, it is true, give a concrete manifesto to work toward, but it presents a narrow focus on the symptoms then declares them to be the cause.
And the flip side is just as problematic – with the gap only framed in material terms, so intervention is always conceived likewise, and words like ‘investment’ come bounding into view as the main justification for bothering to do anything it at all.
But as we all know investments are made for a return, and the best investments are those which give the greatest return, and those which give greatest return are most likely to find themselves at the forefront of the political mind. The economic utilitarianism sets the rules, and its winners tend to be the economic utilitarians.
Which is all well and good for urban centres, places of scale and population, but where is Cumbria ever likely to come in that equation? More to the point, where is any mostly rural area likely to come in that equation?
So we start to see how the issue here is less political and more cultural – less a divide between North and South, and more of the large urban vs everywhere else.
This is why so much of the funding destined for ‘the North’ rarely seems to go much further than what we all really know to be the north Midlands – the M62 beltway stretching from Hull in the East to Liverpool in the West.
But Leeds is as close to Luton as it is to Lindsfarne; Manchester closer to the Malvern Hills than to the Solway Firth. When we are told there is huge investment in the North, and then see so much of it rarely seems to get past the M62, one wonders if politicians know just how much more North there is.
In my own sector – that of education – this blind spot is particularly stark: of 171 Strategic School Improvement Fund grants, precisely two went to Cumbria, with a combined award of less than was given to a single school in West Sussex.
The big cities and towns along the M62 corridor didn’t do so bad out of that fund as it goes, and politicians can claim with justification to have been investing in ‘the North’. But clearly there is another place, further away still, that we might call the Neglected North, struggling to find a voice in its bid to be a part of any Northern Powerhouse revolution.
This is why we need to up our ambitions somewhat. Because you see, if complaining against the inevitable logic of urban-centric thought is futile, then meekly submitting to it need not be the answer either.
Perhaps I can put this another way. I like living in Cumbria. I want there to be better buses and more museums and better funding for schools… but I also want this place to be cherished for being this place, and not facing demands to be more like somewhere else. Yes, I want the funding the North needs, but not at the cost of its soul.
Now I get this might seem like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, so let me unpack that a bit, and to do so, perhaps I could offer another example from my own sector.
It has long been a bugbear of mine that Cumbrian schools receive much less funding than schools in Inner London, despite all the natural advantages being in Inner London brings with it (none of which are ever priced into funding priorities and inspection frameworks, an important point to bear in mind). Now, hopefully, we are moving towards an era of greater equity, but even if economic input was identical to that of Inner London, would this eradicate the disadvantage?
Well, no. Because ultimately, even with the exact same amount of funding, there are still challenges – of distance, of recruitment, of school size, of capacity – that will make what we do different. Just as good, for sure, but different.
But what if our versions of excellence cannot be recognised by those who set the rules, too used as they are to seeing from the perspective of somewhere else? What if there is a perspective blindness that means we’re never at the forefront of consideration when the rules are being written?
Take the example of school governors: where is it easier to recruit governors with the vastly enhanced professional skills and experience that is now demanded: in London – with its huge population of graduates and professionals on the doorstep – or in Longtown?
And should Longtown be judged any the worse for that?
Or again: who is mostly likely to fulfill the much more resource-heavy inspection demands of the new inspection framework, the school in rural Cumbria with three teachers, no money and no support staff, or the school in the big city with forty staff, 700 kids and a multi-million pound budget?
And when this happens, and these unwitting biases play out, which areas of the country will find themselves being told their schools are not good enough and their teachers are substandard, by a legion of politicians and journalists who never set foot here but line up to wag their fingers and emote about educational disadvantage, unable to conceive that perhaps the very mechanism that tells them this is so is already unfit for purpose?
This is where that bigger problem comes in view. Bridging any gap requires that we first recognise that the whole edifice is tilted, perhaps not by intent, but certainly by ignorance, a sort of yoke that those outwith the circles and society that governs us are compelled to labour under, whilst being blamed for being burdened in doing so.
So few of those who rule us come from among us, and those who do have had to leave, indeed to escape, to get there. And what is true for rural counties is just as true for coastal regions or post-industrial townscapes. The perspective blindness, and the values disconnect to which it testifies, is egalitarian in its disdain.
So the North/South divide is really just a proxy for a deeper disconnect between a big-city, graduate-dominated, well-connected, liberal-minded Britain, and the power they have to shape and determine the rules by which everyone else must play. This is the gap that needs bridging: not just one of provision (though that too), but of esteem, of value, of being valued, for who we are and where we are, wherever we are.