'North England' and the need for radical change

By Jill Segger
February 14, 2020

“We were reckoned, in the north part of England, even as the outcasts of Israel.” There may not have been all that much change since the Westmorland Seeker, Francis Howgill, made this rueful observation in the mid seventeenth century.

For many politicians, the north (or “north England” in the otiose and contemptuous terminology of former Chancellor, Sajid Javid), appears to be an undifferentiated mass. The reality is that it encompasses a population of 15 million, of whom some 2 million live in rural areas over an area of around 14,000 square miles. It contains much of the country’s national parkland and seven large conurbations.

The cultural, economic and social makeup of this large area is diverse. Consider the differences between Cheshire and Cumbria, Birkenhead and Berwick on Tweed. The lifestyles of wealthy incomers to picturesque areas have little in common, for example, with those of Westmorland fell farmers or minimum wage workers in Chapeltown.

It has suited politicians of all stripes – who spend much of their time in the nation’s capital – to prefer generalisation and cliché over understanding and respect for diversity. This failing is by no means confined to discussion about the north, however, at present it is that stretch of the country lying between the Midlands and the Scottish border which is being weaponised in specific party interests.

Since the massive de-industrialisation of northern England in the second half of the last century, a great many areas have been left deprived, one could say, ruined. Their inhabitants feel abandoned by successive governments who have not only been long on promises and short on delivery, but have shown little understanding of the distinctive communities and cultures which were formed and sustained by the heavy industries which contributed so much to the UK’s prosperity.

In the more rural parts of the region, upland terrain, harsh winters and widely scattered communities are the components of an experience of deprivation which presents differently to that portrayed in popular imagery. Public transport is poor. Decent housing is in short supply as second homes increasingly dominate the property and rental markets. There are long distances between hospitals and to give an example from the county I know best, there are only four Accident and Emergency departments in the whole of Cumbria: Barrow, Kendal, Whitehaven and Carlisle. It is salutary to look at their locations on a map and to consider the kind of roads and terrain which lie between them.

Cities are growing younger while the populations of small towns and villages have ageing populations. This off-balance human geography does not only have implications for health care, but it  also changes the equilibrium between energy, innovation and settled resignation. I speak from experience – I am one of those who left and have come to know myself deracinated. Rural populations do not tend to be forceful in the ways which cause elected representatives to heed them. In this sense, Francis Howgill still speaks for many people today who live in settlements which are hollowed out beyond the tourist season and know that poverty of means and opportunity is not ameliorated by a beautiful view.

A decade of austerity has further broken down towns and villages once built around farming, fishing, mining, steel, weaving and engineering. Where the old structures have crumbled, people who may have little understanding of economics nonetheless know the human scale of community and their need for it. They know it in corner shops; in looking out for each other’s children; in using their own dialects and idioms which represent something for which economists and policy wonks have little time and less concern. They are encouraged to believe there is ‘better’ somewhere but are culturally and emotionally disassembled in learning that they must leave in order to find it. It does not need to be like this but will remain this way for as long as a governing class based in the bottom right hand corner of England fails to understand the histories and heartbeats of places far away from their own comfort zones.

Boris Johnson has promised £5 billion over five years for improved bus services in rural and non-metropolitan areas, saying that investments in local infrastructure would "improve quality of life and productivity". Maybe. But coming at the same time as the government has committed to over £100 billion for HS2 – an environmentally destructive project which will make little difference to people in Hebden Bridge, Workington or the rest of ‘the north’ which lies beyond Manchester and Leeds – it rings a cracked and tinny peal.

Until power and all its assumptions begins to understand the need to move itself out of town, northern England will remain little more than a convenient source of propaganda labels such as ‘Red Wall’, ‘Workington Man’, ‘northern powerhouse’ and other scattergun sound-bites which have little meaning for, or effect upon, a population about which it is so cynically reductive. The new blue surface of the Red Wall may begin to bring some of the real needs of its communities before a Conservative administration if its newly elected representatives are sufficiently insistent and capable of seeing beyond their own promotion prospects. However, if they fail to command attention, the blue coating is unlikely to weather well. The north country needs something much more nuanced and radical than a colonial rule with opportunistic cosmetic adjustments.

Power needs to be devolved to a much more local level, but in this sense, power must mean listening, sensitivity and a willingness to realise what life is like in these diverse communities. Big government, big media and big culture will have to focus itself differently. Central government has thus far shown little awareness of this.

It must address this deficit if it is to speak to and for millions who feel themselves outcasts. Francis Howgill went on to write of such people as being perceived as “destitute of the great knowledge, which some seemed to enjoy” but that they “came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in.” May they not wait too long.

------------

© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.