Back home in Bolton, a few days after the end of term, a catch-up with two friends from school left me thinking. The conversation fell, inevitably, to government spending cuts. Cuts are what everyone\’s talking about these days. In the press, cuts have been associated with as long a list of social ills as poverty, crime, and discrimination against ethnic minorities. Go online and you will see The Guardian even has a section of its website devoted to when ‘The cuts get personal\’. Since the outbreak of the student protests, everyone in Oxford has been expected to have an opinion – the conversation wasn\’t unique. But what was unique was how being back home in Bolton, in a pub on a gloomy, northern day, had given me a new perspective on an old debate.
Southerners have long known that the North is a foreign country – we do things differently here. Our summer is cold and wet, we rhyme ‘grass\’ with ‘mass\’ and our shopkeepers say things like \’Thanks, Love\’ followed by a huge smile. There is more to the North than strange vowel sounds. Every time I come home for the vacation, I am surprised by the difference from genteel, collegiate Oxford with its tourists, spires and well-kept lawns. In Bolton, quiet suburbs alternate with rows of terraced streets; the new shopping complex in the town centre masks an urban backland of sex shops, grimy bars and greasy takeaways. A car journey reveals derelict plots where warehouses used to sit and the dual carriageway opens up a skyline of chimneys and four-pronged factories whose corner towers have lost their roofs.
This is not to say that the South is always affluent and the North always poor. In 2004 a report found that nine out of ten of the richest parliamentary constituencies were in the North with only one (Kensington and Chelsea) from London. The footballers\’ mansions of Cheshire and high-rise flats of inner-city London have long since attested to a more nuanced picture than the myth of the North-South divide would allow. Yet the North is still marked by its industrial past: the red-brick storehouses and railway bridges of Manchester are visible reminders of the history everyone who has grown up here knows and why a debate about cuts felt more relevant back in Bolton than ever before.
The fact is that areas of the North have long been dependent on the public spending which helped them emerge from the job losses of the 1980s and ‘90s. In the last decade alone, public sector jobs have grown by 100,000 in the North-West. In Newcastle, one in three people now works in the public sector. As far back as 2008, The Guardian was warning ‘just how vulnerable the North could be if the worrying state of the public finances led to a marked reduction in state support\’. That is the situation now being faced by local councils across the North and, for that matter, Wales: both could be looking at unemployment rates exceeding 10% over the next couple of years.
Here, cuts will very soon mean real job losses for ordinary people.
But the debate in Oxford has long been removed from the realities of ordinary people. As much as we wish otherwise, Oxford is not an ordinary place; we are not ordinary, and more likely than not our future lives will be utterly detached from the builders, care workers and office staff employed by the likes of Bolton Council and for most Oxford students, our lives already are. But it is worth remembering that a debate which is, for us, largely academic – a matter of balancing numbers on a mass national spreadsheet – has very personal consequences. A friend of mine took a very rational approach: \’People need to make sacrifices. It is the only way to get our economy back on track, to cut the deficit\’, she said. It seems to make sense, but then you remember the sacrifices demanded by this person are unlikely to be made by their parents, their family or their circle of friends. For the upper middle classes, the boom years brought a level of affluence unimaginable to the working classes of Bolton. For the former, there were holiday homes, smart restaurants, investments; for the latter, the trickle-down effect brought cheap tickets on easyJet and a property market that is increasingly difficult to break into.
All of this combines to explain why the mood in Bolton was very different. My school friends were angry, wondering what spending cuts would do to our town that is already known for its run-down shops, sticky pub floors and underperforming state schools. The conversation then changed: had we seen the blog post circulating on the internet of David Cameron in a series of photographs doing ‘ordinary guy\’ things with suitably scathing captions? The comparison made me think. There are ordinary people, and then there is Oxford. In this university of centuries-old stone, meadows, and walls encrusted with ivy that is so far removed from the lower end of the Big Society, it is easy to forget what life is for people outside the bubble – perhaps we\’re all David Camerons now.