Britain has always been unfair, unequal and divided – Covid-19 has only served to show this in even more stark relief
As London politicians hammer the regions with even more lockdowns, they highlight the yawning chasm decades of unrestrained capitalism has slashed across the country.
It seems the old divisions of North and South are creeping back into our public consciousness. These divides are ancient and etched deeply into the fabric of Britain. Divisions of clan, of geography and of power have always been there, but Covid-19, like a dry summer exposing an ancient settlement, is causing the inequalities in our society to re-emerge with a vengeance.
It’s hard not to see them, as government policy made in the South seems to be hitting those in the North more harshly, with the virus further exploiting the policies of those past governments that created this unfair, unequal and divided country.
The spectres of our industrial past loom large in the current climate. The great Cheshire-based novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote ‘North and South’, a book outlining Britain’s industrial upheavals in the 18th century, may well be watching and sighing at our failure to learn anything about the dangers of unchecked inequality.
The ghosts of Britain’s past haunt this island. The UK has such varied geography, such differences in natural resources, not to mention a weather system that means two towns within miles of one another can have very different climates, all of which creates incredibly localised cultures. Our recent history is about how we used those resources to build an empire – a narrative told by those above, by those who benefitted from those divisions, and more importantly those resources, to those below.
In the 1980s, the Thatcher government was the enemy of the North of England. The Iron Lady saw swathes of the country as unproductive and idle, so she put in place policies that ensured the North-South divide was deepened.
The traditional jobs of the Industrial Revolution – of coal and steel, of manufacturing and exporting goods – would be replaced by a focus on finance, marketing, insurance and the legal framework needed to hold this new global system together.
The North-South divide was deepened even further by subsequent governments, both Labour and Tory, with no opposition put up to the establishment of a British Babylon filled with excess, inequality and the stinking rich. The so-called Third Way was vaunted as a method to use money from the private sector to fund investment in public services. But, like all trickle-down economics, the Third Way was, in reality, just another way of the rich getting richer.
And now, in 2020, wealth inequality has never been wider. The richest are shooting for the stratosphere, while Covid-19 further entrenches all those bad policy choices of the past, keeping the poor welded to the bottom.
In truth the North-South divide is more of a Southeast doughnut. The global elite’s use of the Southeast of England as a millionaire’s playground has carved a hole into the country. That wound, inflicted by the wealthy in London and the Home Counties, has raised land and property prices so high that there’s effectively been a working-class exodus.
Meanwhile, Britain’s middle class and the aforementioned global elite see endless opportunities in this 21st-century Babylon, filled to the brim with cultural, media, political, and financial goodies for those with the right connections and accent, and enough money. The doughnut’s hole is growing ever larger as these deepening divisions continue to stretch it.
Local councils and representatives in the rest of the country have started to realise they simply cannot compete. But they have to do something, so they try to attract new businesses into their areas. With the old industries of coal and shipbuilding consigned to the dustbin of history, they now offer up all that’s left to exploit: the local population.
Their towns are given over to the giants of the global distribution economy. Great warehouses can be constructed quickly, and the locals, in desperate need of work, are commodified just like the coal their fathers once mined.
The Kent coalfields are now distribution centres and car parks for international logistics firms, while the Midlands and parts of the North are used to pick and pack Europe’s cheap clothing and pharmaceuticals.
Northern mayors and councillors roll out the red carpet for Amazon, despite knowing their constituents are doomed to lives devoid of much hope or meaning, to keep those same constituents down with myths of ‘opportunity’.
Our divisions of North and South are deep, and while it once may have been about clan, natural resources and geography are now created in town halls and Government. Britain has been carved into zones: the important, wealthy, cultural and creative areas are well fed and nurtured, while the zones of those whose ancestors toiled in the mines, mills, docks and shipyards exist solely to feed consumerist greed. They need jobs and global capitalism needs workers.
But now these places are no longer split only by geography, the poor of the South are just as exploited as those in the North. The division between them has been carved by the gerrymandering of wealth by the elite in Westminster and the City. While it may be romantic to think of a great North-South divide, it’s also no longer correct. Our social historical and economic geography is far more complex – and yet, at the same time, depressingly predictable.
In the past, the mill owners, the mine moguls and the shipyard entrepreneurs had family and ancestral homes all over the United Kingdom and townhouses in London – just as the bankers and brokers of today have their penthouses and countryside pied-à-terres.
The booming voices of those with power have always been able to tell their own stories of success while moving freely around the country to have the best of all worlds. If you want to know where and how our country is divided, simply look to those who are unable to move and those you cannot hear.