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A Brief History of the North South Divide

The North-South divide, in its current form, is widely considered to stem from the Industrial Revolution, when the North industrialised rapidly, creating a starkly different landscape and culture from the South. However, cultural differences and indeed some of the inequalities between North and South seem to go further back; archaeologists have pointed to a cultural and linguistic divide in the Watford Gap area going back to the Vikings.

If we start in the Tudor period, history shows us a time of great change. This is perhaps most notable in religion, with the Protestant Reformation establishing the Church of England as state religion. With the monarchy and new Church – and their supporters – firmly based in London and the South, Northerners stuck with their Catholic faith longer than their southern neighbours. This led to the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury claiming that Northerners were “a certain sort of barbarous and savage people, who are ignorant”. He went on to say that Northerners “could not bear to hear anything of culture”. Both our neighbours in the South and in Scotland had multiple universities each by this point, whereas the North did not get one at all until the 19th century. The Archbishop’s statement seems almost self-fulfilling for the North, with a lack of educational opportunity leading to a lack of knowledge and culture or, as we see to this day, a brain drain South. In the same period, Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to England in 1599, wrote that “he who sightsees London and… its immediate vicinity… may assert, without impertinence, that he is properly acquainted with England”, as “England is (said to be) in London.” He attended plays, talks and royal courts, and described meeting people drawn to the city for its cultural life. Personal accounts also show that the North-South divide was already in the minds of Platter himself and those he met, who equated seeing the South with seeing all of England that was worth seeing, quite as many sadly believe to this day.


Moving forward to the 18th and 19th century, and the North was more clearly on the map. Modernisation in this period put the North at the forefront of technological development not just in relation to the South, but the whole world. Prestonian Richard Arkwright developed the first water-powered mill and cotton spinning equipment in the mid-18th century, leading to the boom that earned Manchester the nickname “Cottonopolis”, and the very first public Intercity railway line opened between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830.


However, the uncontrolled urbanisation of the North meant appalling living conditions, famously described by Salford-based factory owner (and later co-author of The Communist Manifesto) Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In this book he discusses the effects of urbanisation and the introduction of cotton mills in the North, among which increased infant mortality, diseases and high adult death rates. Eventually, the Government were forced to increase regulation to improve conditions, but Engels' descriptions of Northern towns were still recognisable 100 years later in George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

As industry, and therefore the population, grew in the North, there also grew an imbalance between them and the political and financial power focused in the South. The English economy was reliant on coal and industrial products from the North, but decisions on how to run the country were very much the purview of the London and South-East elite. It wasn’t easy for Northerners to gain access to these corridors of power, partially due to Britain’s strict class system but also because of the aforementioned lack of educational opportunities; even powerful Northern industrialists like Arkwright were self-taught, having never set foot in a primary school, let alone a university.

Perhaps for those reasons, campaigns to reform parliamentary representation have often been focused in the North or led by Northerners. In 1819, protesters gathered in Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform, an event that has since become known as “the Peterloo massacre”. Many of the same ideas and indeed banners would be used in protests led by the Chartist movement in later 19th century. Following on from this, the suffragette movement of the early 20th century was founded and led by Mancunian Emmeline Pankhurst, whose father, naturally, had been present at Peterloo all those years earlier. This history and culture of political activism is something to which Northerners still attach a great deal of value, and part of what Orwell rather unflatteringly described as “a curious cult of Northern snobbishness” (I for one feel that it’s perfectly justified to take pride in a Northern tradition of campaigning for rights!)


Following the industrial heyday of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the North struggled. A hundred years ago, the North’s share of the UK economy was roughly equal to that of the South East (including London), whereas the South East now has double the economic output of the North. Why is this the case? Partially due to the unequal and centralised state of the UK. The investment capital held in the City of London was and is controlled by a Southern elite who have never known much of domestic industry in the North. Already in the early 1980s, financial historians were describing how “The City… never depended upon domestic accumulation, so financiers did not mobilize to modernize the productive base, and industry was starved of long-term capital.” Such lack of investment meant that many northern towns struggled with unemployment throughout the 20th century. It goes without saying that the closure of the textile and later the mining industry, deepened this problem, particularly in the North East.


I’ve talked about industrial areas of the North a lot, but it is also important to remember that non-industrial areas also benefited from the fortune of nearby factories and mines. Food, meat and fish from the Northern coast and countryside were sold to an increased city population, who in turn holidayed at the seaside or the Lake District. By making cities poorer, the decline of Northern industry had a knock-on effect even in non-industrial areas. Towns such as Blackpool still get many visitors, but fewer can afford to stay there overnight or indulge in treats. Additionally, infrastructure such as railway lines, built and maintained primarily for the transport of goods, were axed or left badly maintained. Rural populations were suddenly cut off, or services so poor as to make commuting near impossible. Despite this, London and the South East still receive much more investment on transport per person than the North does.


This potted history now brings us more or less up to the present day, or at least recent human memory. I am sure, if you have read thus far, that you are at least somewhat aware of the current inequality between North and South. In comparison to Southerners from similar economic backgrounds, Northerners have less access to university education and fewer job opportunities. This leads to a brain drain South, with approximately 7,500 graduates moving South annually in the last decade. Most shockingly, however, is the continued lower life expectancy seen in the North. This is no longer due to lung conditions because of mills and mining, although it would be wrong to ignore that these issues persist in older generations of Northerners. Instead, the main factors are entrenched lifestyle issues relating to mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and less long term investment in healthcare and clinical studies in the North than the South. Male life expectancy in the area of Blackpool I am from is just 53.3 years. This divide is quite literally deadly, and getting more so.