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A Losing Battle: London-centrism and the Northern Powerhouse

We live in the 21st century,  a time supposedly more equal than its predecessors. Despite this, just a few weeks ago Lord Singh of Wimbledon made the snobbish remark that York is “seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public.” This followed the Prime Minister’s announcement that the House of Lords may need to be moved elsewhere whilst Parliament is refurbished. York, in the Prime Minister’s opinion, presented a good option: the city was, in practical terms, well-equipped for such a move, and York had also been historically employed as the centre for political power during the reigns of King Edward I and King Charles I.

Yet, the controversy surrounding this seemingly straight-forward move made front-page news, with Twitter-users joining the conversation in their thousands. Some approached the issue with utter disbelief, unable to grasp the prospect of even a dash of de-centralisation. Others tweeted with outright terror, commenting that, if political power was moved to the North, London would ‘be ablaze soon enough.’ Another pointed out a very realistic concern, comically tweeting that ‘Boris Johnson did think about moving… to York, but realised Dominic Raab didn’t know where it was.’

Of course, snobbishness towards the North is nothing new. George Orwell captured it vividly in his The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he wrote, ‘When you go to the industrial North you are conscious…of entering a strange country… The Southerner goes north… with the vague inferiority-complex of a civilised man venturing among savages.’ Today, as a Leeds born-and-bred Northerner, I certainly do not believe I am made to feel superior – particularly within the setting of Oxford. On arrival, I was met with barely-concealed grimaces when I informed new acquaintances of my origins, whilst one commented ‘Oh, I don’t know many good schools up there, which one did you go to?’

Indeed, there aren’t that many good schools up north. There isn’t much good of anything. Despite Theresa May’s promises to re-invigorate the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ during her premiership, the buses, which run once an hour, still break down every other journey, and the railway network boasts only of 1960s-model carriages that trundle along at just a few miles per hour. The Harrogate to Leeds line, which I frequently caught on my way home from school, has for years been ‘Britain’s most cancelled train.’ Whilst I’m grateful at least that the windows open on these outdated trains, they provide a stark contrast to those I travel on whilst down South, which more often than not sport free Wi-Fi, charging ports, slick leather chairs and air-conditioning.

Needless to say, there is a distinct lack of investment in the infrastructure of the North, and, with a string of governments failing to address the issue, the problem has for a long time been abandoned to the inhabitants themselves. Discontented with their lot, and frustrated by a multitude of unfulfilled promises, in 2016 Northerners defied the South and voted, with a small but decisive 53% majority, to leave the European Union. I do not doubt that a significant number of the motivations Northerners had for voting Leave were nothing to do with the EU; for some, it was a rightfully rebellious act, directed at taking vengeance on an institution that had failed to hear their cries since Thatcher betrayed the miners in 1985.

Instead of choosing to hear such a vote as a cry for help, London-led Remainers simply claimed intellectual-superiority over the North, failing to admit that the capital and the regions live very different realities. Once again, we were sneered at, dubbed ‘backwards’, and referred to as ‘Brexit-land’. But such jibing is easy for those who have their cup filled. As Helen Pidd aptly wrote in a 2016 article for The Guardian, ‘while the north gets crumbs, the south-east gets whole loaves.’ And these crumbs are no longer enough; from 2009-2019, London received a shocking 2.4 times as much transport spending per capita than the North. During the austerity crisis, the situation significantly worsened, with Northern cities seeing their spending cut by 20%, whilst for the South West and South East this figure was only 9%. These figures betray the fact that our country is dangerously London-centric, despite only 6% of the English population living in the illustrious capital.

With years of increased awareness surrounding this issue, it is embittering to realise that opinions are far from changed. In a recent edition of The Spectator, Peter Jones presented a column named ‘Will all roads soon lead to York?’, which further reinforced the approach of Lord Singh of Wimbledon; Jones compared London and Rome, and, through classical parallels, argued that a place was only useful if it served as a road to the capital. He finished his piece with the defeatist approach that there would be no justification for moving Parliament to York ‘unless parliament had become an irrelevance, simply an ‘alleyway.’’ As a Classicist myself, such a perception of the North left me dumb-founded. During the Roman Social Wars, the Italian allies, the socii or foederati, died in their thousands in order to prove to Rome that their territories and inhabitants should be valued as more than simply ‘roads to Rome’. Fifty-thousand perished, to be exact. Must we enact a second Peterloo, and fight such deadly battles, in order that our voices be finally heard?

Perhaps not. Following the recent election, Boris Johnson has repeatedly emphasised that he will be endeavouring to ‘level up every part of the country’. The PM has vowed to ‘do devolution properly’, by strengthening the northern economy and returning control of the railways. Despite my initial scepticism of the man who infamously couldn’t even traverse a zipwire without getting stuck, his words certainly appear to be more sincere than those of his predecessor Theresa May. A year on from his election, the North continues to appear at the top of his agenda; like a frantic Emperor Hadrian, Johnson has already made trips to areas such as Sheffield, Manchester and Goole, and, despite an up-tick in UK coronavirus cases, he managed to fit in a visit to the North Yorkshire Police’s headquarters a few weeks ago.

Despite my Labour roots, I must reluctantly admit that I have been impressed with the PM’s dedication to the North, regardless of its potential propagandist motivations. After winning ‘the red wall’, Johnson has kept his promises and invested in the North; £337 million has been delivered for new Metro trains in Newcastle, alongside a further £95 million to improve the frequency and reliability of the Metro system. Across the North East, hundreds of new police officers have been recruited, and I am delighted to witness a Prime Minister who finally understands that high crime rates are not exclusively confined to London. Despite his background of an Oxford Classics degree, Johnson certainly does not share the same sentiments as Peter Jones; the Prime Minister views the North as a region valuable in itself, as opposed to a place which simply serves the metropolitan world of London.

There is still a lot to be done; Johnson must promptly deliver on the ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ he has proposed, alongside smaller projects, such as reinvigorating the Northern health and social care services. The coronavirus pandemic has, no doubt, brought significant delay to Johnson’s schedule. I am hopeful that better days are to come, however. With Brexit done, gone will be the days of Londoners sneering at their Northern counterparts; with an increased need to rely on internal productivity, they will realise the value of Northern industry more than ever, and London-centricism will, I hope, slowly become an error of the past.

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