Cycnos | Volume 25 n°2 - 2008 Britishness - Whence and Whither? 

Michel Darribehaude  : 

The North-South Divide: Continuity and Change


From the nineteenth century to the 1980s, the North-South divide was considered as a fundamental element of British socioeconomic life and identity. After the great upheavals of the Thatcher era – especially deindustrialisation, with the attendant decline of the traditional working class, and growing homogenisation of the UK – and after its existence was called into question by Tony Blair in 1999-2000, what is the situation today as seen through the media:  does the South still dominate the country in all fields with no sign of hope for the North? Our study also analyses the relevance of the divide to the modern world, the persistence of clichés and the role they play for those who believe in its existence.


keywords : Boundary , New Labour, region, stereotypes, Thatcher


Texte intégral

‘Baked beans. Big Ben. The blitz. Bobby Moore. Bannockburn. Some symbols of our identity appear as fixed cultural points in a changing landscape. […] But like our faces as we age, our cultural identity can change imperceptibly. Suddenly, a reflection seen from a new angle shows an accumulation of tiny changes that significantly alters the overall appearance.’ (Tom Bentley)1

1For many, if not all of those who observe life in the United Kingdom, the list of ‘fixed cultural points’ suggested above might also include what has long been considered as a fundamental element of Britishness, namely the notion of a North-South divide, and the feeling among Britons, but more particularly the English, of belonging to either one of these areas. Indeed, it is a commonplace of British life that a sense of identity based on a county or city, or on a larger geographical area, is particularly strong, probably stronger than in many other countries in the world2, and that ‘many English people see themselves as either “northerners” or “southerners”.’3

2The origins of the awareness of a divide are well known, and two names that immediately spring to mind are those of Elizabeth Gaskell and George Orwell. Suffice to say that in their own way each formalized the idea that the country was divided into two seemingly irreconcilable parts. While in her metaphorical novel North and South (1855) Mrs Gaskell popularized the view of ‘the softer south [as] hypocritical but sophisticated while the mercantile-industrial north, though rapacious, conceals hearts of gold beneath rough and ready ways’4, Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (1937) more realistically evoked a North and a South whose geographical and socio-economic differences certainly existed, but where differences in mentalities and behaviour were more imaginary than real – and, for that precise reason, resulted in even stronger prejudices towards the other half, especially in the North:

But when you go to the industrial North you are conscious […] of entering a strange country. This is partly because of certain real differences which do exist, but still more because of the North-South antithesis which has been rubbed into us for such a long time past. There exists in England a curious cult of Northernness, a sort of Northern snobbishness.5

3In the Thatcher years, instead of studying the behavioural, psychological aspects of the North-South divide, economists like David Smith6 concentrated on its past, present and future negative effects, providing many hard, cold facts on what was now seen as an unchallenged given of life in the United Kingdom: if nothing was done by the authorities, Britons, it seemed, were to be forever separated between a (by now) poor North and an (as usual7) affluent South, or even south east, with the latter becoming ever richer, isolated, so to speak, from the rest of the country and more turned towards the European continent.

4The aim of this brief study is to examine whether, some twenty-odd years later, the North-South divide is still seen by the media in the same light: first, from a socio-economic point of view, has the situation remained static, or have new trends not emerged? In actual fact, can it even be said to exist today? Secondly, what is the view of the English themselves on what was seen as an unchangeable trait of their identity? Do a majority still see themselves as either ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’ and believe in such cultural differences? If so, how does it affect their behaviour and outlook? What stereotypes, if any, survive?To try and answer such ambitious questions in this brief paper, certain aspects – eg theimpact of immigration and devolution – will necessarily have to be omitted or only briefly touched upon. Use has been made of various reports, articles and surveys that have found their way into the media, more especially – but not exclusively – The Guardian, The Independent and The Times, together with the BBC News and Internet sites8.

5But first, such a topic as the North-South divide implies per se the necessity of a definition: where is the ‘boundary’ between those two areas today?

I. Defining The Boundary

6In October 2007, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, caused quite a stir when he redrew the traditional boundary and offered ‘a controversial new map for an exhibition at the Lowry in Salford entitled The Myth of the North, on which Britain is bisected by a line from Grimsby to Gloucester.’9 Gone was the famed Watford Gap! What incensed some observers was, for example, that ‘Lincoln has moved south and Worcester north.’10 In fact most reactions and interviews11 refuted Dorling’s boundary, the outcry being also due to the ‘disappearance’ of the midlands on his map: ‘Beyond the Watford Gap’12 ironically described the ‘recent and newsworthy redrawing of the north-south divide […], which destroyed the West Midlands entirely and moved Leicester firmly into theguacamole rather than mushy-pea consuming zone.’ It was a fact the professor himself could not satisfyingly justify, so that even one of the few articles sympathetic to his cause had to remark: ‘The Midlands was brutally dismissed as “adding more confusion than light’ to the country’s geographical makeup.”’13

7Dorling was thus the object of much caricature although he used indisputable socio-economic criteria to draw his map, and this almostcoincided with the publication of his Identity in Britain: A Cradle-to-grave Atlas14, a study that aims at demonstrating that Britain is more divided than ever.

8Having provoked such an outcry, it is, to say the least, very doubtful this sort of map and boundary can hold in future studies.

9Another radical solution had been offered in The Guardian in ‘East is eden’15: with convincing evidence it made the case that ‘a more meaningful line on the map would not be from the Bristol Channel to the Wash but straight down the centre of the country. […] The new divide would split Scotland, run along the Pennines, down the M1 and end up at the Solent.’This view was in fact justified by the creation in 1998–1999 of eight Regional Development Agencies (RDAs)16 which, among other changes, redefined the limits of the north west, did away with the region known as ‘the north’ and created the new ‘north east’. A look at the resulting map will indeed confirm the existence of a ‘boundary’ running from Scotland to the south coast and separating two eastern and western halves of England.

10As already mentioned, for others a simpler view would be: the south east and London versus the rest of the country.

11Which still leaves us with the problem of definition. That this is at issue already says a lot about an evolution towards a complex situation today, and about a loss of traditional points of reference17. For all practical purposes, and because it is an old, often (deliberately?) fuzzy map that is implicitly used in news reports or imagined by most Britons,the boundary that will be used here will be a more ‘traditional’ one, albeit using the government’s ‘revamped’ regions. In short, to copy David Smith18 this means defining the South as consisting of six regions – London, the east19, the south east, the south west, the east midlands and the west midlands20 while the North is defined as sixotherregions comprising the north west, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north east, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words ‘our’ dividing line will still run from the Severn to the Wash, and we will concentrate more particularly on the English regions.

II. An ‘Uncool’ Myth?

12By the late 1990s, the old North-South debate was just a faint blip on the radar screens, or, at any rate, it had been receiving routine media attention since the Thatcher years, with only the occasional report on the topic.

13The debate about its very existence was unexpectedly and officially revived in late 1999 in a mounting campaign against the ‘myth’21 of a North-South divide, after media reports on alarming surveys indicating a widening North-South gap since at least July, but more especially October 199922. Tony Blair himself had recently acknowledged the existence of a two-speed economy and deep divisions within the country, promising: ‘no matter how long it takes, with every sinew ... we will work to solve these problems for our people’23. But one more report24 and the publicity it created apparently were the last straw25 in late November, when it was announced that the Prime Minister in person ‘orders north-south audit’26: ‘[He] has asked officials to compile a regional audit of how his government’s policies have affected every part of the UK. […] Mr Blair was sceptical of widespread ideas of a north-south divide and wanted to find out the facts for himself […].’ He – reluctantly, it seems with hindsight – acknowledged again in interviews, for example with The Northern Echo, that ‘there were significant differences of prosperity in different areas’, and that ‘there is a north-south divide. That it exists there is no doubt.’ But his spokesman added: ‘The north-south divide […] misunderstands [sic] what’s going on’ and reference was made to Blair’s famed ‘instinct’, which in this case told him ‘it’s not as simple as that.’ The assessment was to be presented ‘within days’, and so it was that Tony Blair himself launched a campaign actually seeking to deny the existence of such a divide in modern Britain27.

14The Cabinet Office’s ‘Sharing the Nation’s Prosperity’ was published on December 6, 1999 and this time BBC News made no bones about the government’s intent28, when it presented the results under the headline: ‘Blair: North-South divide “a myth”’29; it was also announced that Blair would visit the north west the same week to highlight the findings, thus showing the importance given to the report and the hype around it.

15The gist of the argument was that the North-South divide was ‘an over-simplistic explanation of the problems that regional economies face’30 and with a host of statistics31, the report aimed at proving that even in the South ‘most regions have very poor areas blighted by joblessness, high crime and poor health but [even in the North] these often nestle next door to wealthy suburbs.’32

16In the following weeks, the claims provoked much debate and a spate of articles. As could be expected, these either confirmed and documented the official report – few of them did, actually – or, as in the of the vast majority, challenged it: for example ‘It’s grim down south too’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999; ‘A Picture of a divided Britain?’ – The Observer, 5 December 1999; ‘Londoners join Scots in poverty’ – The Observer, 27 February 2000 can be opposed to all those mentioned in the following paragraphs33.

17What many observers seemed to have overlooked was that the government’s point – i.e. there are deprived areas in the South and wealthy ones in the North – had never been in dispute. Granted that Tony Blair was trying to convince voters34, not experts, but contrary to what was claimed or inferred the latter had never over-simplified the issue by stating that a clear-cut line separated the poor and the prosperous halves of the nation. David Smith, for one, clearly insisted in his introduction:

In the earlier part of the 1980s, economic misery was spread widely. It was more prevalent and more deeply felt in the North, but it was certainly present in the South as well […]. It would be surprising if the economic, political and other differences between North and South followed a neat line according to the boundaries of the government’s standard regions. But it is the best we can do. Some parts of the South […] are economically disadvantaged.35

18This is just one example among countless others36. Another telling one was provided in a BBC News article37, incidentally showing some of New Labour voters’ and northerners’ dismay:

Mark Dickinson editor of The Journal newspaper in Newcastle maintained that the north-south divide still exists. […] ‘Apparently now there is no divide, everywhere is just different. We think it’s complete rubbish,’ he said. ‘We have never denied we have pockets of affluence, but we have pockets of affluence in a sea of poverty whereas there are pockets of poverty in a sea of affluence in the south east. There is a huge contrast and it is nonsense to say it is just the same.’

19In fact it was almost immediately reported that other surveys ordered by the government itself contradicted the PM and ministers’ assertions– for instance only one day after publication of the official report The Guardian published ‘Life’s tougher up north, insist Labour MPs – Northern backbenchers say government figures back their case’, and on the following day BBC News announced: ‘Poverty report challenges Blair’38: it provided statistics not only on poverty levels, but also on health inequalities, suggesting the government figures were ‘over-optimistic’. In the months that followed, other reports – several of them from official bodies – and other experts and other articles containing yet more indisputable statistics disproved this view and the theory of ‘over-simplification’, or provided a more balanced view of the situation – and in fact this has been the case ever since: from 2000 to the present day, it would be impossible to present them all here, but some are quite representative. For BBC News, they are: ‘North-south divide “widens”’, 10 April 2000 (based on a government-sponsored report which studied regional economic competitiveness); ‘MPs highlight north-south divide’, April 19, 2000 (referring to a report from the Commons select committee on education and employment); ‘North-south divide “getting bigger”’, August 22, 2000 (referring to a forecast by the Oxford Economic Forecasting unit, made up of ‘a group of leading economists’); ‘Focus on north-south “divide”’, August 24, 2000 (based on another report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation); ‘North-south divide confirmed’, September 28, 2000 (referring to the Office of National Statistics’ latest Regional Trends report). In The Guardian, one could read these articles: ‘What is the north-south divide?’, 7 January 2000; ‘Regional divide widening, ministers told’, 11 April 2000; ‘New warning on north-south divide’, 22 August 2000; ‘A dose of southern discomfort’, 8 October 2000; ‘While England becomes ever more divided Europe’s provincial cities forge ahead’, 1 March 2001; ‘North-south divide is widening, says report’, 13 December 2002; ‘North-south gap growing, says report’, 30 June 2004. A few representative headlines in The Independent were: ‘North-south divide grows as 1.7m jobs head towards London’, 30 June 2004; ‘Has London grown too big for its boots? – A new academic survey has discovered the North-South economic divide is widening’, 1 July 2004; ‘Anthony Sampson: The North-South divide is a failure of politics, not just economics’, 3 July 2004, and in The Times: ‘The North-South divide is still with us’ and ‘Precision help is needed to close our economic gulf’, 9 July 2007 … One of the most recent articles on the subject was ‘The only way is up’ – The Guardian, 26 March 2008, which quoted David Taylor, a regeneration specialist and entrepreneur:

The north-south divide – or, more accurately, the divide between north and south-east – still exists and is pretty fundamental. […] London has pockets of deprivation, but generally it has natural geographic and location advantages, and is prospering. Places such as Hull and Burnley have taken a terrible pasting; they have not replaced former industrial jobs and have endured decades of decline.

20One has to note that in 2000-2001, as a general election approached, New Labour MPs, fearful for their seats in the North’s traditional ‘Labour heartlands’, joined the fray and Blair himself had to let his ministers backtrack: in short the divide became an issue and was instrumentalised by the party in office. Headlines abounded again: in ‘Minister urges action to combat ‘winners circle’ in south-east’ – The Guardian, 15 November 2000, trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers, MP for ‘a Tyneside shipbuilding constituency’ and always described as a New Labour hard-liner39, ‘a born-again free-marketeer’40, was reported as set to ‘challenge Tony Blair’s official line of playing down the north-south divide by warning that rising prosperity in the south-east is failing to spread to old manufacturing heartlands’; the electoral reasons were made more obvious when the article mentioned for instance that he ‘has recently been strongly supporting backbench Labour MPs who argue that regions like the north-east are suffering at the expense of the south [sic].’ This new stance was repeated again and again, eg with items such as ‘Regions take centre stage – Labour is developing new policies for its old heartlands’ – The Guardian, 13 December 2000, or: ‘Byers forced to recognise regional divide’, in the same newspaper (28 February 2001):

[He] acknowledged yesterday that there were still ‘unacceptably wide economic gaps’ between British regions after official figures showed the north-south divide is widening. […] His admission […] marks a change of heart within the government which has in the past dismissed talk of a north-south divide as over-simplification. With an election thought likely in the spring Labour is aware that it needs to shore up support in its traditional manufacturing heartlands.

21MPs likewise put pressure on the party leaders41 and in ‘Mandelson muscles in on debate over north-south divide’ – The Guardian, 12 March 2001, it was clearly explained that ‘Labour is gearing up to make an historic shift of resources from the wealthy south to the poorer northern regions of Britain amid growing concern among party strategists about apathy and disaffection among heartland voters.’ On 30 March 2001, BBC News reported on a speech by Peter Mandelson to business leaders in his north eastern constituency in which he was adamant that the ‘North-south split persists’ 42.

22So gone was the official idea of ‘over-simplification’ – but not for long, because this clearly was for electoral reasons: once the election was over, the government shifted back to the ideas that had emerged in late   1999 – and the same debates started anew, albeit on a smaller scale. ‘Figures reveal north-south divide’ said a headline in The Guardian for 12 April 2002, but the article opened with these words:

The government today reiterated its belief that the north-south divide is not a key issue in England, despite releasing figures that show southern cities are better places to live than their northern counterparts. […] Mr Byers’ department said the figures did not provide evidence of a north-south divide, repeating the government’s line that economic differences within regions are as important as those between them.

23Yet on the same day, in the article ‘North-south gap likely to widen, warn researchers’, Brian Robson, head of Manchester University’s Centre for Urban Policy Studies and described as ‘a leading academic who advises the government’, stated: ‘There is nothing … to gainsay the view that there is a continuing polarisation of England with a booming south and a lagging north and west.’

24For Blair to declare the North-South divide a myth was not necessarily a good idea: it drew even more attention to the divisions within the country and the fact that New Labour has had such little success in bridging the poverty gap or bettering living standards around the country. Even if it allowed him to make one or two points, questioning the existence of the divide eroded the Prime Minister’s credibility.

25So what is the outlook today as presented in the media?

26If at times the North-South gap is described as ‘narrowing’ (never as ‘being bridged’, let alone ‘bridged’), the case remains that the North is struggling just to catch up with the South. Furthermore it manages to do so mainly – if not exclusively – where house prices are concerned, and only when these drop in London and the south east. Over long periods, the South and south east are the ‘winners’. Typically, ‘Grin up north, it’s grim down south’43 pointed out that

[new figures] reveal it is the north rather than London and the south-east that is now leading the housing market and notching up the fastest house price growth. […] [But] the north is simply playing catch-up, while many of the more exclusive parts of London and the south-east are plateauing because the turbo-charged price rises they have enjoyed simply could not be sustained.44

27Or in February 2002, a Halifax economist predicted: ‘We could be about to see a period where the north marginally closes the [house price] gap with the south, where we expect the market to be weak over the coming year. But it will be a catch-up, not a closing of the gap.’45 Typically again, this was later confirmed:

Soaring property values in the north in the past 12 months have significantly eroded the historic north/south house price divide, according to research from Halifax estate agents. Northern regions […] have been catching up fast […] [But] despite the north's recent record growth, southern counties came top for price increases over the past decade and remain the most expensive areas […].46

28Much less often, bridging the gap concerns employment, and only within the same limits as house prices: eg ‘On the small side’ – The Guardian, 10 December 2007 indicated that

some northern cities are catching up, for example on employment growth. […] In fact, half of the UK's most improved cities on employment growth are in the north […]. These cities have seen tens of thousands of new jobs every year, for the past 10 years. But there's a catch. This recent strong growth is from a low base. Employment rates in Sunderland and Sheffield, at around 69%, are still well below the national average of 74%. Meanwhile, Derby and other northern cities like Liverpool still face a major skills gap, as one-fifth of their working-age residents do not have a single qualification. So, northern cities are doing better - but they have a long way to go if they are to catch up […].

29More often than not, from the 1990s to the present day, the North-South divide has been described as ‘widening’47; to quote just one excerpt:

The research [carried out by Manchester University’s Centre for Urban Policy Studies] complements another study by senior planners and economists for the country’s 30 big urban authorities, which says northern conurbations have been losing ground to London, the south east and East Anglia since 1993, and show no sign of catching up.48

30By 2007 The Times, too, acknowledged this reality: ‘The North-South divide is still with us’49.

31Actually, most, if not all, of the worst predictions made by David Smith more than two decades ago remain valid or have been confirmed50: according to the press, in most situations it is a case of London and/or the south east ‘against’ the rest of the country.

32Yet no-one can deny New Labour has tried to remedy the situation since 1997. One of the policies that really broke with the Thatcher era was the launchingof a new regional policy, with the creation of the RDAs and Urban Regeneration Companies (URCs)51. A detailed analysis of the measures adopted by Labour is not our purpose, only the actual or expected impact of those measures on the North-South issue52. The effects of RDAs can now be assessed: as we have seen, from the point of view of the North lagging behind the South little has changed. This is due to systemic reasons: RDAs cannot create ‘a level playing field’: ‘Regional aid […] doesn’t seem to stop the rich regions getting richer at the expense of the poor. […] [The south-east’s RDA] wants to accelerate growth even further.’53 What is also predicted is that, coupled with this situation, not only will other government plans fail to fundamentally alter the domination of the south east and London, but on the contrary they will increase it and worsen the situation, both in the North – economically – and in the south east itself – environmentally, especially with the hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built in that region54.

33The media are willing to underline northern efforts55, and northern assets are not forgotten56. Nowhere is this more visible than in the case of ‘urban renaissance’ and ‘urban regeneration’57. They are indeed terms often used in the press and notably applied to northern cities – because this is where both are most needed – since URCs were created but especially since some results can now be more precisely assessed. Their success is regularly recorded by some as very great indeed58 and in 2004 Liverpool was chosen to be a ‘European capital of culture – 2008’59 heading off competition from five other UK cities; three of these (Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle-Gateshead) were also in the North, a sign of vitality. So URCs apparently fulfil their role in the North, while London is presented as a ‘loser’60. But the picture in other articles is far from rosy: ‘Precision help is needed to close our economic gulf’ – The Times, 9 July 2007, or ‘We cannot let northern cities fall behind’ and ‘Northern cities “still suffering from decline and deprivation”’– The Independent, 9 July 2007 all insisted that urban renewal is only a façade, while ‘Urban Britain is heading for Victorian levels of inequality’61 reminded readers of New Labour’s failure to fight poverty; for its part, ‘On the small side’62 warned of the tasks still facing northern cities, although ‘it's less than grim up north’:

[cities] are part of the answer to the UK's economic future. But the urban renaissance is unfinished business. Our cities' performance is still too uneven - across the country, and within cities themselves. And with the national economy looking more uncertain, cities will need to work even harder to succeed in the years ahead. […] The ‘north-south divide’ is still with us – […] it's changing shape […] but there are still big differences between cities in the southeast and those in the north. And all of our biggest cities are facing massive internal disparities on incomes and deprivation. […] we need to move the urban debate on from the recent focus on shiny new city centres. All of our major cities have had a facelift - look at the Baltic in Newcastle and the Bullring in Birmingham. But we can't turn around our cities with buildings alone. The next wave of urban regeneration needs to deal with the more difficult problems facing residents in underperforming areas - and that means better transport, better housing and more jobs.

34Successful urban regeneration thus appears to be a fragile, to-be-confirmed exception to the rule of an enduring divide overwhelmingly favourable to the South.

35Be that as it may, in all fields, from the most trivial to the most serious, from the most unexpected to the most hackneyed, the press seems to revel in presenting occurrences of a North-South divide. Such articles may concern differences in social attitudes towards fox hunting (‘Fox hunting’s north-south divide’ – BBC News, 9 July 1999), pocket money (‘Northern parents dig deeper’ ­– The Guardian, 2 August 2002) or drugs (‘London goes to pot in north-south divide’ – The Guardian, 26 September 200163), and the price of beer (‘Lager cracks £2 glass ceiling’ – The Guardian, August 20, 2001, and again on 18 October: ‘Beer prices a bitter pill for south’s drinkers to swallow’).

36Environmental and quality of life issues now feature among the more traditional topics: ‘Beach hygiene’s north-south divide’ – BBC News, 25 May 1999; ‘Wokingham ‘best in Britain’ for life quality’ – The Guardian, 17 October 2007: ‘the Berkshire borough has higher earnings, better schools and a longer life expectancy than other areas of Great Britain’ – and so did the other local authorities in the top ten, all in the South. Likewise ‘North-south divide emerges over UK's best places to live’ – The Independent, 9 August 2005 reported that ‘three of the five most desirable places […] are in the south of England, while three of the worst areas are in the North.’ As if to give northerners some solace, such articles often mention: ‘But people in London suffer a deteriorating quality of life with the country’s highest recorded crime and increasing traffic congestion’64, a view many northerners actually agree with65.

37However, even if road traffic conditions are very bad in the South, a study of road accidents and the state of roads – unfavourable to the North – resulted in this headline in The Guardian (24 June 2007): ‘North-south divide in lethal roads’. Likewise, other means of transport are not up to the expected standard in the North, which suffers from poor links with the rest of the country: these were evoked in ‘The train is not taking the strain’ – The Telegraph, 29 November 2007; and in The Guardian: ‘Funding boost for north is a fairy tale, Labour MP says’, 21 September 2004, or ‘The only way is up’, 26 March 2008.

38Even charities are not where they are most needed:‘A helping hand where it's needed? – Richer parts of the country have far more charities than poorer ones, according to a new report, and the north fares worse than the south’ wrote The Guardian, 20 February 2008.

39 House prices and housing66 have featured prominently in recent years: headlines can still be made on ‘The northern spiral of decline – Brendan Nevin on the north/south housing divide’ – The Guardian, 19 February 2003: while in the North, ‘house prices fell by 40% over five years’, the South, especially London and the south east, regularly experienced housing booms and rocketing house prices67.

40These are often studied in relation with employment prospects in the service and high-technology sectors in the South, or in connection with job losses in manufacturing in the North, with references to a ‘two-speed economy’ and the ‘technological divide’ across the UK: for example in ‘Bridging the digital divide’ – BBC News, 19 December 2000; ‘What is the north-south divide?’ – The Guardian, 7 January 2000; ‘£150m boost for science in north’ – The Guardian, 3 March 2001; ‘Death of the factory worker’ – The Guardian, 1 March 2002; ‘North-South Divide Exists in UK Net Access’, 24 August 1999.

41High unemployment is linked with education deficiencies and low attainment in the North. To mention only The Guardian, ‘Mandelson muscles in on debate over north-south divide’ (12 March 2001) explained that ‘schools in Labour controlled Northumberland and Mr Blair’s Durham receive considerably less per pupil than richer London boroughs’; ‘Postcode lottery for university entrants’, 20 January 2005; ‘The skills challenge – New figures show huge regional variations in educational attainment by school-leavers’, 21 May 2008; ‘A-level results: South trumps north in grades’, 14 August 2008; ‘A level results: Record year for A grades that highlights north-south divide’, 15 August 2008. Some exceptions do emerge: ‘More colleges fail in south – Ofsted cites the north's industrial history and affinity for “artisan training” as key to success’ announced The Guardian (30 November 2004) – but whether it is a success story for one or the other, the news is always analysed and presented in the perspective of a North-South gap.

42Employment (or unemployment) also goes together with trade unionism: in that field, membership is still higher in the North68 – but few articles are ever published on the topic. Even in politics, ‘the north-south divide […] is making a comeback’, as The Guardian announced in ‘The new north-south divide’ (27August 2007); actually, this was not anything new, since ‘North v South’ – The Guardian, 28 October 2007, informed us that ‘on the voting map, the line still often separates red from blue’ and, after all, the continual references to the old ‘industrial heartlands’ as Labour heartlands69 are quite symptomatic.

43The most disturbing issue concerns health70. As is well-known and commercially documented after decades of market surveys, everyday diets differ in the North and in the South, so the item: ‘The diet divide’ – BBC News, 6 September 2001 came as no surprise. However to this is now added the problem of obesity and ‘Britons most obese in Europe’ – The Guardian, 10 October 2006 described this problem as being more serious among northerners than southerners. Other serious health issues are studied, too, and articles based on scientific surveys almost invariably point to a North-South divide that is favourable to the South: for example in BBC News: ‘Arthritis: a new north-south divide’, 7 June 1999; ‘North-south health divide “widening”’, 2 December 1999; ‘Northerners “die earlier”’, 6 June 2000; ‘Cancer rates reveal regional divide’, 13 July 2000; ‘Heart patients face north-south divide’, 15 March 2001; ‘Scots “unhealthiest in UK”’, 27 September 2001; ‘Northerners suffer more ill health’, 24 May 2002; or in The Guardian: ‘Glasgow tops list for the highest death rate in Britain’, 25 August 2000; ‘NHS “failing breast cancer victims in north”’, 27 March 2001; ‘Tooth decay worst among children in the north’, 31 August 2001; ‘Living in south adds years to healthy living as northerners die younger’, 24 May 2002; and ‘South-western UK residents live longer, figures show’, 29 May 2008.

44On this slowly changingmap what very clearly emerges from the North-South debate is that although for example ‘Merseyside has one of the most serious concentrations of unemployment and social exclusion in Europe’71, the north west is no longer the worst-off region: those most often cited in negative terms and in the more alarming news are, first, the north east – with, among other problems72, large numbers of industrial closures and the resulting sharp decline in manufacturing jobs in recent years, poor exam results, low skills and low wages; secondly, apart from some inner-London boroughs, the south west because of poor transport links, the lack of affordable housing73, and an ageing population. And although the region’s unemployment rate has in recent years been much lower than the national average, the 6.3% rate in Plymouth (often cited as one of the southern ‘pockets of poverty’74) is much higher and the city’s rate of violence against the person is 32% higher than the national rate. In the south west, too, ‘Cornwall, for all its beauty, is one of the poorest counties in the UK.’75

45What is also evident is that it only takes an event like the summer 2007 floods to revive the North-South debate, the lack of quick government reaction leading to bitter arguments that ‘If Chelsea were under water, it would be taken seriously’76 or that had the floods occurred in the Home Counties, help would have arrived far more quickly. Likewise, the southern-based media also came in for criticism, the lack of coverage of flooding in Kingston upon Hull leading the city council leader to dub Hull ‘the forgotten city’77.

46After all this hammering by the media on the existence of a North-South divide in most, if not all, areas of life, is it any wonder that a majority of people still think in terms of North versus South?At any rate, the result of an Internet poll published by The Guardian78in answer to the question: ‘Is there a worsening North/South divide in Britain’ was: ‘Yes’: 79%, ‘No’: 20%.

47Therefore the consequences of such reports and events on perceptions of the divide cannot be downplayed – but what about their impact on identity and the persistence or not of clichés, and more individual responses?

III. ‘Rubbed into Us’? – Stereotypes Die Hard

48One of the reasons that was put forward to explain the ‘failure’ of the regional referendum79 was that when John Prescott spoke of ‘north-easterners’, the voters did not even understand who he was referring to80. In other words, for those who hold this view, there is in England no regional feeling – if one takes ‘region’ as meaning ‘the north east’ in this particular case – and they believe this situation applies to all such regions.

49This may carry some truth concerning the official regions or some voters, but it is quite apparent through all the interviews and readers’ letters, together with forums and Internet sites, that the old pride still prevails among Geordies, and also Scousers, Yorkshiremen and many others. Examples abound: in ‘Scouse proud’ – The Guardian, 15 January 2008, likewise in the interviews provided in ‘Northern exposure’ – The Guardian, 27 October 2004:

For many, [the north-east] is a region set apart from the rest of the north, let alone the rest of England; fiercely proud, often parodied, sometimes insular and over-romanticised […]. Tim Healy, Actor, born in Newcastle upon Tyne: I’ve always been proud to be a Geordie. […] Bea Campbell, Writer and broadcaster, born in the Borders, lives in Newcastle: I have complicated feelings about it (regional identity). […] People probably think they're from Tyneside before they think they're English, and they love their identity. Geordies are in love with themselves. […] Peter Barron, Editor, Northern Echo, born Teesside: There is a lot of fragmentation but wherever people are from, what they all have in common is a fierce pride and passion, born out of the industrial heritage - and football underlines all that. There's this intense rivalry between different areas but when they talk to outsiders, they'll say, 'I'm from the north-east.' […] Donna Air, TV presenter and actor, born in Newcastle: Coming from the north-east is something in my blood. There's an energy, a motivation and a work ethic that comes from my northern roots. I feel a strong sense of pride, which is a dominant characteristic of the area […]. I see myself as a geordie, and I'm proud to be a geordie.

50It is also quite clear that this sort of pride thrives on, and reflects, an opposition to all other cities, counties or regions, but especially London and the south east; the same sentiments are expressed even in the south west: ‘In the far south-west, a sense of separate identity has been asserted amid resentment of incomers’81 (the latter come mostly from London and the surrounding counties); and – one is tempted to say: of course, because they have been so commonly voiced there – in Yorkshire82, the midlands83, and again the north east:

[It is a region] suspicious of a capital 300 miles away where many still trek for work. […] Bea Campbell […]: The north is no more homogenous than the south [but] the idea of the north is sustainable in one very sharp sense: that it isn't the south. The south is power, wealth, the political centre, a self-absorbed and complacent locale from which the north, for good reason, feels estranged.84

51  Indeed that defiant pride is still there, impervious to change, modernityand reason. But it can be more than just the pride of the northerner versus the southerner, and become the sort of contempt or ‘snobbishness’ described by Orwell so long ago. To take just one example: ‘The north-west is booming. For us, it's grim down south’85 proclaims: ‘For most of us it’s no longer grim “oop north”. Geologically, we are rising and the south-east is sinking. Emotionally, we do not aspire to the overheated south-east. In fact, many of us think that it’s grim down south.’ Needless to say, ‘the admission from the Bank [of England]’s Governor […] that unemployment in the North East was an acceptable price to pay for curbing inflation in the South’86 did nothing to help matters by justifying opposition to the south east and London.

52Another glaring fact is that clichés die hard. Of course, gone are Andy Capp and the days when northerners considered only they had ‘grit’, were ‘grim, “dour”, plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic’, while southerners were ‘snobbish, effeminate and lazy’87. One would also hope that most southerners know that few northerners now wear cloth caps, keep whippets or ferrets, and eat black pudding (numerous articles mention such clichés with great and sometimes bitter, not to say sombre, irony); yet some of the old stereotypes remain: ‘North or south of the Trent, you are where you shop’88 explains that asking for a fork at Old Trafford can prompt the answer:

‘You want a fork? […] Southerner, are you?’ […] What stereotypes there are buried deep in our attitude to tuck. Up north: tripe; down south: jellied eels. Up north: mushy peas; down south: guacamole. Up north: black pudding; down south: I think you’ll find we call it dessert. […] one sociologist attempted recently to establish what he called the ‘sushi line’, which he drew from a point somewhere near Weston-super-Mare and cut across to Bury St Edmunds.

53Other prejudices have cropped up, both in the North and in the South. Those of northerners are best summed up here:

The further south you go, the more hostile it gets. I'm not saying people in the south are not nice people, but that they are busier, richer, always in a hurry and life (it feels to an outsider visiting) is all about getting from A-B, about the individual. […] People [in the north east] have time to stop and talk to you, and because life has been and in some areas still is a struggle, it only makes everything all the more special here. There is a pride and sense of belonging attached to being a Geordie that is unmatched as far as those that live here are concerned. We are known for our big gobs, […] our whole other language (we don’t speak English here...), […] we are also known for our sense of humour, our positive attitude and above all, our total love and respect for family and friends. We have passion for everything and everything we have, we appreciate.89

54Other prejudices are to be found in the South, too, one having been for a couple of decades now that the affluent area finances the rest of the country, especially the North, where jobless people are supposed to be happy sponging social benefits.

55These sentiments on the part of northerners and southerners about themselves and ‘the other half’ are often expressed through the readers’ reactions to an article on the divide, which often turn into an almost mudslinging match opposing North versus South, this (northern) city versus that (southern or northern) city, politicians (i.e. the South) versus the people/the working class (i.e. the North). One fascinating feature in The Telegraph in 2006 was the question: ‘How strong is England’s North-South divide?’90, which readers were invited to answer on the Internet. Although it was not a scientific study, the respondents (60 in all at the time of writing) provided interesting material, as a snapshot of feelings and reactions and a catalogue of present-day prejudices, with many of them closely resembling those of … 1937. Before we concentrate on the latter, some of those who denied the existence of the divideexplainedthatpeople now watch the same TV, the same films, read the same books and magazines, which was not the case in Margaret Thatcher’s England and makes for a more homogenised country. For others, southerners do not care about the divide or being northerners or southerners; they consider themselves first and foremost as either English or British. It is northerners who insist on differences – a recurrent idea in all surveys on the topic.

56The vast majority of respondents, however, accepted the existence of the divide. Among these, two subgroups emerged: first those who insisted that the differences exist but far less than some fifty years ago (other respondents, on the contrary, considered there are still ‘strong’ differences). Moreover, the view was expressed that the divide is rather between England and Scotland, while others insisted on a division between London and the rest of the UK, or between London and the Home Counties on the one hand, and the rest of the UK on the other. For others again it was the south east versus the rest of the country. Several respondents in this category lived in, or came from, the north east and opposed their region to the south east.

57As for those in the second subcategory, who wholeheartedly agreed that there was a divide, the vast majority preferred the North. For the minority who favoured the South, London supports and subsidises everyone else (thanks to financial services in the City); in the South people work, while in the North people only want the money but do not want to work – and they are not nicer at all, or just like anywhere else. As opposed to the South and London – ‘the happening place’ – the North was successively described as ‘backward looking’, ‘unambitious’, ‘intolerant’, ‘jealous’; other terms were: ‘boring’, with a ‘poorer cultural life’, and ‘provincial’; Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol and Sheffield were all described as ‘grubby and depressing’.

58Apart from the obvious economic differences, everyone that preferred the North agreed that the South is ‘expensive’, ‘overpriced’ and associated with ‘inflated prices’. A respondent considered that the economic and financial differences are overrated, just because of the concentration in the capital of the highly paid professional classes and ‘upper class twits’, as opposed to those with ‘normal [sic] jobs’. This is probably why, politically speaking, the North is still negatively associated by many southern Internet users with Labour (i.e. northerners will vote for that party no matter what mistakes it makes) and the South is still associated by northerners with the Tories, Margaret Thatcher and her ‘scorched earth’ [sic] policies.

59Southerners were described as ‘snotty’, and the South or south east as ‘gridlocked’, ‘crowded’ or ‘overcrowded’, ‘noisy’, ‘dirty’ and ‘aggressive’; London was also associated with the high rate of crime, and mostly the ‘rat race’. Those for whom the North (or north east) is ‘the best place to live’ insisted on the quality of life, the warmth and pride of its inhabitants, and the fact that they are respectful. So cultural differences between northerners and southerners were acknowledged, but described by some as ‘pleasant and positive’.

60If we take ‘culture’ as meaning ‘the arts’, ‘painting’, ‘music’ or ‘sculpture’, those who prefer or like the North deny that the North is a cultural desert, thanks to museums, galleries etc. and ancient historic cities within easy reach, to which have to be added uncrowded beauty spots and scenery, or ‘lovely countryside’. Others insisted the North offers both rural beauty and ‘crazy nightclubs’.

61There were those who would not return to the North, while a larger number of former southerners were quite pleased that they moved to the North or north east.

62Interestingly, some of the respondents were ‘expats’, while others described themselves as having ‘moved around quite a bit’ in the UK or around the world. But even today many of the prejudices listed above, and other, worse ones are more often than not the result of, or fuelled by, sheer ignorance – and this would appear to have little to do with education. American-born Bill Bryson could write in 1995:

Southerners and Northerners were so extraordinarily, sometimes defiantly, ignorant of the geography of the other end of the country. It used to astonish me, working on newspapers in London, how often you could call out a question like ‘Which of the Yorkshires is Halifax in?’ and be met with a tableful of blank frowns. And when I moved North and told people that I’d previously lived in Surrey near Windsor, I often got the same look […].91

63Amazingly by 2008 the situation has little changed since then or the inter-war years, in the sense that people know little about the other half: if given the chance, northerners prefer to stay in their region92, and southerners have seldom visited places north of Watford Gap – as if they still lived on different planets. At any rate, this is the result of various surveys: for examplein ‘Northern cities try hard sell in south’93:

According to EU-funded research, Londoners need adverts for other cities because the English are painfully ignorant about geography. Southerners think Yorkshire is all mining and thatched cottages. Manchester is rain and Merseyside is the Beatles – when in fact it is the nation’s capital for call centres. […] They [people in the south east] haven’t got a clue about cultural diversity […].

64Or in ‘In praise of the north’94: ‘A fifth of southerners don’t know where these places [Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool, Newcastle-Gateshead] are, according to a survey yesterday.’ In ‘North v South’95, interviewee Christina Solomons, a 26-year-old student, declares: ‘It’s funny, I tell them [Londoners] I’m from Nottingham and they ask “Where’s that?”’ Again in ‘Millions mind the Watford Gap’96, which comments on a survey, we learn this:

Almost 5m southerners [i.e. 15 per cent] have never travelled north of the Watford Gap – and the cultural barrier has become an equal deterrent in the opposite direction. […] 2.3m northerners [i.e. one in 10] have never ventured south […] Just one in five southerners has visited Liverpool. When northerners venture south their destination tends to be London. Only one in five has been to Bath, while a mere 15% have visited Brighton.

65The consequences are mind-boggling:

The cultural divide has led to three in four English people resorting to comic stereotypes to understand their fellow countrymen, often relying on the television soap operas East Enders and Coronation Street. Almost three-fifths of northerners describe southerners as snobs while half surveyed associated London and the home counties with ‘wide boys’ and City brokers in ‘pinstripe suits’. For southerners, the north is a desolate landscape of derelict mining villages and fish and chip shops, and is dismissed by three-fifths as ‘bleak’ and ‘unsophisticated’.

66‘North versus south: the old divide just got wider’97 provides some more information on the same survey98:

half of northerners [cite] arrogance as a southern characteristic. […] ‘Southerners are stuck up and prejudiced towards anyone without a posh accent.’ […] fewer than one in 20 [southerners] have been to Newcastle or Leeds.

67Indeed, one recurrent reproach against southerners, especially Londoners, is that they only seem to know ‘the world around the M25’99. ‘It’s prim up north’, The Guardian, 14 May 2003 is expressed from a Cheshire viewpoint: ‘[...] our national papers [...] are for the part [sic] edited in the deep south by people who never stray beyond the M25’. However if many northerners have seldom, if ever, visited the South and rely on TV programmes or what they have heard or read about it to pass judgements, even ‘expatriated’ northerners react to ‘metropolitan myopia’ with ‘metropolitan misanthropy’100: told from an exiled Yorkshireman’s viewpoint, ‘Dirty old town’ refers to the ‘unfriendly locals’ in London; the typical Londoner is a ‘pretentious oaf’ or ‘too pleased’ with himself – in fact ‘dirty, overpriced and unfriendly’ London ‘is not northern enough.’

68One really cannot be sure that today, in the same circumstances as those which playwright Les Smith described in ‘Giro Blues’101 in October 1991, the northern ‘man-in-the-street’ would not rejoice on hearing of some plight suffered by southerners.

69It is in that sense that it matters little where the South ends and where the North begins102.Of all the recent articles that have tried to grapple with the subject and provide an in-depth analysis of the North-South phenomenon in the modern world and its relevance in helpful terms, three stand out.

70First, in ‘North v South’103, which analyses the North-South divide in two midland cities – Leicester and Nottingham – its relevance to cultural identity emerges as very low, certainly one of the consequences of a concentration of immigrants: ‘Is the divide increasingly irrelevant in an area almost synonymous with immigration? Leicester’s 289,700 population is almost 30 per cent Asian […].’ Multiculturalism is reported to mean that people think in more global terms. At any rate ‘asking [a former Ugandan] to define himself as northern or southern seems absurd’ indeed. But here the usual stereotypes are described as ‘meaningless’ and ‘patronizing’ even by whites; for most people, the divide is ‘simplistic’, does not contribute to forging new identities in two cities that have lost ‘the industries that once defined them’, and is declared to be ‘retrograde’ and ‘old-fashioned’. Finally, most interviewees would seem not to care whether they are in the North or in the South. This, however, does not prevent others from using those very clichés: ‘I think we’re maybe a bit more friendly, a bit more down to earth than the South.’ Or: ‘I’d prefer to be classed as a northerner. Down south, it’s all offices, expensive prices and miserable people. […] the North has a better range of beers, it’s more normal, more friendly. [London] is such a dismal place.’ Or again: ‘I’m horrified that I’m meant to be a Southerner. […] “Southern” just brings up all these sorts of stereotypes and I’d prefer to be a Northerner. People in the South seem a bit more reserved, a bit more angry […].’ Another citizen describes ‘a more meaningful divide’ as ‘what is basically London and the Home Counties versus the provincial, former industrial cities’ – but what else is the North-South divide in the eyes of many contemporaries?

71In ‘North v South’104, Sheffield-born Rachel Cooke presents the case for a ‘cultural north-south divide’ (emphasis added) and the existence of what she calls – without ever managing to define it clearly – ‘a northern sensibility’. She is aware of possible criticism, for example because of the differences that exist between northerners – ‘and, God knows, there are plenty of them - inter-county, inter-town, inter-sodding-village’ – and also because of the risks that go with ‘an unabandoned [sic] use of generalisations’. She is likewise wary of clichés and ‘a perpetuation of the old patronizing myths’, but she falls into that trap, eg when she quotes Stuart Maconie, ‘music writer and Radio 2 DJ’, who explains that ‘[the northern sensibility] embodies a certain roughness, masculinity in the best sense of the word. […] A healthy barbarism.’ Nevertheless, in spite of the undeniable homogenisation of Britain especially through television105 and Mrs Thatcher’s ‘[shoving] us all into the food processor of her ambition, from which we [supposedly] emerged a single, gloopy mass’, Rachel Cooke is convinced that this sensibility ‘lives on’; through her interviews and examples she somehow manages first, to convince us of its existence, and secondly to capture some of its character, elusive though it is: for example when she describes it as ‘a capacity for excess’, and ‘an oppositional state of mind’.

72Finally, one of the most insightful, poetic – and tongue-in-cheek – articles on the concept of North and South remains ‘Elsewhere and nowhere’106 which argues that ‘the true north […] remains elusive wherever you are’, and that today’s ‘vagueness about boundaries’ (contrary to the 1960s and the 1980s) reflects ‘a growing uncertainty about what the north means’. Although it is ‘being rediscovered, […] it has lost some of its coherence’ and in spite of statistics showing a new health divide, reality is more complex. In fact, where the North begins does not matter at all: ‘The north […] begins and ends nowhere. […] The definite article and capital letter have fooled us into thinking of “the North” as a place, when it is really just a compass point.’ Not only is the North ‘a nebulous destination’ on road signs, it actually is but a concept, a mental construction (‘it has always been an idea, not a real place’), so that, just as ‘in his book The Idea of North Peter Davidson argues that the north is a metaphor for the edges of the known world, […] the north “points always to a further north, to an elsewhere.”’ The search for the North – and for its boundaries – must therefore remain disappointing and frustrating, at best, or ‘futile’ at worst: ‘the north recedes infinitely in the act of searching for it.’ But ‘people latch on to these maps and statistics because they crave some sort of official confirmation of the maps in their minds.’

73So for northerners, South can serve as a kind of foil for the region’s own qualities, while for others it can act as a scapegoat for all that is wrong in the country, eg socially or economically. The reverse is also true, of course, but far less frequent. But there is more to it than simply this. And it is in that sense, too, that the precise boundary between South and North is irrelevant. In 1997 John Prescott could perhaps rightly claim: ‘We’re all middle class now’, and in 1999 it was Blair’s turn to declare that ‘the class war is over’; likewise the decline of the industrial economy has been well documented in recent years, together with the ‘Death of the factory worker’107. However, this does not mean that the British have grown less class-conscious, so that now the North can be seen as ‘a metaphor for class’108, class being one of the factors that plays such a predominant role in Britishness, but is so often derided as ‘out of date’ these days. If one accepts this vision, Orwell’s ‘Northern snobbishness’ thus reflects the current ‘inverted snobbery’ – which, we are told, prevails among large parts of the population. In this perspective, the North-South divide also fills the void left by the proclaimed disappearance of the class divide and, therefore, of the class struggle; it is indeed a revamped / revisited kind of ‘us-and-them’ factor in the English, especially northern, psyche, replacing the old hostility, or antagonism at least, between classes. Or, more aptly perhaps, it is what remains of the old one, one of the few ‘politically correct’ remnants of the past that are left to express – negatively – individual or collective grudges, or – more positively – hope for a better future.

74That the North-South divide has evolved is beyond doubt: with deindustrialisation and the spread of poverty in all regions it has become a more complex issue and the division is not so clear-cut as it used to be – if ever it was: as we have seen experts have never denied the presence of pockets of poverty in the South, and of affluence in the North. However, saying it is a myth is just as simplistic as it would be to claim that nothing has changed since the days of Mrs Gaskell or even Orwell.

75There is no doubt either that most statistics favour the South, which is such an economic powerhouse that one cannot imagine anything being done to prevent its RDAs – especially London’s and the south east’s – from developing its assets and further increasing southern predominance over other, less favoured regions. Certainly the latter can only hope to catch up with London and the south east when circumstances allow. What could be done would be to avoid policies and measures which, far from ‘protect[ing] the current serious north/south imbalance, actually dramatically increase it’ with new developments which are ‘not market-driven, but subsidy-driven.’109

76What is the role of the media in all these respects? Whatever one’s view on the reality of a North-South gap, it is quite evident that by repeatedly reminding public opinion of the actual or imaginary existence of a divide in all human activities, the media perpetuate the idea that there is one, and hinder a more positive mental evolution. Indeed it is the mere fact of mentioning it that gives the divide its existence.

77But this would not be enough if it did not resound so much in the collective unconscious. As David Smith put it, ‘it is often as important for people to believe in North-South differences as for them to actually exist.’110 As things stand today, it seems large numbers of English people, more particularly those in the northern half, need to believe that the divide exists, and that they are different from southerners. On this issue, there is no generational divide either.111

78Although partly based on prejudice, on the same old clichés as in the 1930s and, in the final analysis, on much ignorance, the North-South divide most obviously serves a purpose: if it is still there in people’s mental maps, it is probably because it echoes the old ‘us and them’ vision, because it is a way to reaffirm one’s difference(s), to refuse further damaging homogenisation, and the only politically correct way to declare, albeit indirectly, that the class struggle is not dead.

79It is not necessarily a fundamental element of identity for a majority of citizens (this is especially true in the south), many of whom, we are assured, will in the next few years identify with region-cities: writing in 2004, Tom Bentley contemplated ‘the rise of the city-region as a source of economic dynamism and a vehicle for identity [because] the city-regions offer new symbols and forms of congregation.’112 But even if this is true, there is every reason to imagine that large numbers will still insist that their region-city is located in the North rather than the South, and embodies the ‘true’ northern qualities, or ‘a northern sensibility’.

Notes de bas de page numériques

1  ‘Building a new Briton’ – The Guardian, 18 September 2004.

2  With, as usual, its own idiosyncrasies. See ‘The north’s gone south’ – The Guardian, 26 November 2004, or ‘West is north and east is south in this patronizing map of  stereotypes’ – The Guardian, 26 October 2007.

3  James O’Driscoll, Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (1995), p. 47.

4  ‘The north’s gone south’, op. cit.. In 1989, however, David Smith expressed the view that ‘the overall picture presented by these [Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, Mary Barton and Dickens’s Hard Times] and other literary excursions northwards, including those of Disraeli, was to reinforce southern prejudices about the industrial North. There may have been money to be made there, but the drawbacks were many.’ North and South – Britain’s Growing Divide, London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 17.

5  George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier,London: Penguin Books, 1989 (1937), p. 101. In the same passage, Orwell does not fail to mention the usual clichés attached to the ‘cult of Northernness’.

6  See supra note4.

7  Many observers fail to consider that ‘the golden age of the industrial North’ was only a relatively brief period in the history of the British economy, lasting only ‘for most of the first three-quarters of [the nineteenth] century’: ‘Just as British industry was starting to lose out against countries which had experienced their industrial revolutions later, so the balance was slowly beginning to shift back from North to South. W. D. Rubinstein […] records a shift back to London in income distribution in the second half of the nineteenth century. […] By the late nineteenth century, London incomes accounted for nearly half the total – broadly similar to the position a century before.’ D. Smith, op. cit., pp. 17-19. See also ‘Beyond the divide’ – The Guardian, 24 August 2000: ‘The truth is that England’s northern regions generally underperform economically compared with their southern neighbours. The myth is that this is new […]. [The London phenomenon] has always been there, contrary to the romantic belief in a wealthy 19th-century north promoted by Lord Young, Mrs Thatcher’s trade and industry lieutenant […]. No-one can deny the all-too-solid existence of Castle Howard or Cragside […] but their regional economies never matched those of London and the south-east. From 1859-69, the north-east and Yorkshire scored 93 and 82 on a per capita income on which London scored 122; in 1879-80 the figures were 84, 90 and 147; in 1911-12, when every pit, pottery and steelworks was going full tilt, they were 81, 78 and a towering 331 for London.’

8  NB: For the sake of clarity, the names of reporters and writers have been omitted.

9  ‘North and south are just states of mind’ – The Independent, 25 October 2007.

10  ‘West is north and east is south in this patronizing map of stereotypes’, op cit..

11  For instance in ‘Where do the Midlands fall in the new north-south divide?’ – The Guardian, 25 October 2007, in which a Susan Harrison, of Worcester, declared: ‘People talk about the north-south divide, but where do we come in?’

12  The Guardian, 10 November 2007.

13  ‘North v South’ – The Observer, 28 October 2007. Another such article written several months later was ‘Elsewhere and nowhere’ – The Guardian, 19 March 2008: ‘Dorling’s new north-south map […] was a far more nuanced piece of demography than the media caricature suggested.’

14  B. Thomas and D. Dorling, Identity in Britain: A Cradle-to-grave Atlas, Bristol: The Policy Press, 2007.

15  7 December 1999.

16  The Regional Development Agencies Act was passed in 1998 and implemented the following year.

17  Does it actually matter? See infra, part 3.

18  David Smith, op. cit., pp. 4-5.

19  One of the newly defined regions that ‘replaced’ East Anglia.

20  The inclusion of the midlands in either the North or the South has always been a matter of contention.

21  The word used by former employment minister, then treasury chief secretary Andrew Smith in October 1999.

22  See The Guardian, 1999: ‘Return of the north-south divide’, 19 July; ‘The gap gets wider’, 21 July; ‘Move the capital’, 2 September; ‘Southern lights’, 4 October; ‘Fat south, thin north’, 14 October; ‘North-south gap yawns ever wider’, 16 October; ‘Postcodes chart growing income divide’, 25 October. BBC News, 1999: ‘UK unemployment: the North-South divide’, 16 July; ‘London calling’, 13 August; ‘Survey emphasises north-south divide’ (based on the Office for National Statistics’ Regional Trends survey), 30 September; ‘North-south divide thrives’, 14 October (based on new figures on both pay packets and the economy from the same source and from another report by the British Chambers of Commerce).

23  See ‘Fat south, thin north’, op. cit.: ‘Even Tony Blair concedes that unchecked growth in the south-east is disastrous.’

24  Published by the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research at Bristol University. See ‘Blair questions ‘north-south divide’’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999.

25  Ibidem.

26  BBC News headline, 29 November 1999. All the following quotes come from this item.

27  ‘Blair’s one nation tour’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999, commented: ‘many in Westminster are bewildered by the prime minister’s determination to suddenly highlight the issue.’

28  Commenting a little later on this inquiry, critics like Peter Hetherington (‘What is the north-south divide?’ – The Guardian, 7 January 2000) wrote: ‘[Mr Blair] set up an inquiry […]. It came as no surprise when it gave the prime minister what he wanted.’

29  BBC News, 5 December 1999.

30  Blair’s own words in a speech in Manchester; see ‘Blair challenges “regional   stereotypes”’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999.

31  See for instance: ‘North-south report: Key points’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999.

32  ‘Blair: North-South divide “a myth’’’ – BBC News. Mr Blair could therefore argue ‘that his government’s policies are enhancing living standards around the country, and not just in already affluent areas.’

33  From time to time, the idea that the North-South divide is an over-simplification is taken up again, eg ‘The north-south double helix’ – The Guardian, 24 October 2007, this time as a reaction to Prof. Dorling’s map.

34  See ‘Blair’s one nation tour’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999.

35 Op. cit., pp. 2-5. As if to drive the point home, he ends the introduction with the same idea.

36  See The Guardian, 1999: ‘A wee tweak and we’re ticking over nicely’, 19 July; ‘The gap gets wider’, 21 July; ‘Move the capital’, 2 September; ‘Southern lights’, 4 October; ‘Fat south, thin north’, 14 October; ‘North-south gap yawns ever wider’, 16 October; ‘Postcodes chart growing income divide’, 25 October, ‘Life’s tougher up north…’, 7 December.

37  ‘It’s grim down south too’, December 6, 1999.

38  The report was: ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 1999’, commissioned from the New Policy Institute by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Quoting from it, BBC News announced: ‘Poverty increased during the first year of the Labour government [and] it is more prevalent in the north than the south. Hardest hit are the north of England and Scotland.’

39  ‘In his role as “outrider for the Blair project” he has asserted that “the reality is that redistribution of wealth is now less important than the creation of wealth”’ – BBC News, ‘Profile: Stephen Byers’, 28 May 2002.

40  ‘The gap gets wider’ – The Guardian, 21 July 1999.

41  ‘Labour ignoring north-south divide, says MP’ – The Guardian, 2 March 2001.

42  In all fairness Peter Mandelson has always been very constant in his denunciation of the divide and his advocacy of an active regional policy. See ‘Fat south, thin north’ – The Guardian, 14 October 1999.

43  The Guardian, 6 October 2001.

44  On the same topic see ‘North and Midlands buck trend of falling prices as London market slides’ – The Guardian, 3 December 2001.

45  ‘10 year housing boom widens north-south gap’ – The Guardian, 27 February 2002. Other typical passages mention: ‘[The Halifax bank] study of house prices in 720 British towns confirms a widening north/south divide. The top 20 slots are dominated by towns in London and the south-east, with a tripling of prices since 1991 in some areas. In the bottom 20, including Redcar, Blackpool, Grangemouth, Batley and Paisley, prices fell or barely moved.’

46  ‘North/south house price gap shrinks’ – The Guardian, 27 September 2003.

47  See supra pp.9-11.

48  ‘North-south gap likely to widen, warn researchers’ – The Guardian, 12 April 2002.

49  9 July 2007.

50  By 2004, though, Smith had this to say when commenting on D. Dorling and B. Thomas’s People and Places: A 2001 Census Atlas of the UK, Bristol: The Policy Press, 2004: ‘In wealth, per capita incomes and most other respects, the South East is well ahead of the rest of the country, and its influence is indeed growing. But it is important to remember that disparities within regions are greater than those between them. It is important too not to be too apocalyptic about the North-South divide, which the Sheffield study is in danger of doing.’ (‘Don’t exaggerate the North-South divide’, British Industry magazine, July 2004 and:

51  These were created ‘following a recommendation from Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force Report in 1999.’ See:

52  As for devolved power to the English regions as the solution, the north-eastern referendum on an elected regional assembly (4November 2004) instantly killed the idea. While its supporters – most notably in The Guardian – had got themselves all excited because of favorable opinion polls, voters actually rejected the proposal by a majority of 499,209 on a turnout of 47.8% of the region's 1.9m electorate: 696,519 (77.93%) voted against devolution, with only 197,310 (22.07%) voting in favour.

53  ‘The gap gets wider’ – The Guardian, 21 July 1999. There are, however, optimistic exceptions to the rule: ‘Booming, busy and beautiful’ – The Guardian, 28 November 2007, describes a very successful regional policy.

54  See The Guardian: ‘Move the capital’, 2 September 1999; ‘Fat south, thin north’, 14 October 1999; ‘Unbalanced Britain’, 6 February 2003; ‘Increase the density’ and ‘Stevenage resigned to massive influx’, 15 October 2004.

55  ‘Northern cities try hard sell in south’ – The Guardian, 10 February 2001.

56  For example in The Guardian: ‘Look north to make dream home come true’, 2 April 2002; ‘Booming economy proves capital’, 10 May 2002; ‘Quality of life improves with less poverty and better air quality’, 21 June 2002; or ‘Still blinded to the northern lights?’, 27 October 2007.

57  For example, in The Guardian:‘Shapes of a bright northern future’, 18 January 2002 (about ‘some of the most dramatic changes ever seen in Britain’s urban landscape’ in Newcastle-Gateshead, Manchester, Hull, Sheffield); ‘Bright lights, brighter city – Leeds’ regeneration is the envy of rival provincial cities and makes it a potential threat to London’, 5 March 2002; ‘North-east emerges ahead of London streets of shame’, 21 September 2002 (about a competition for ‘Britain’s best and worst streets’ in which ‘most winners [for the best streets] were from the north, or Midlands [Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, Nottingham])’; ‘When the hope comes in’, 24 June 2002 (about Tyneside, Newcastle and Gateshead); ‘British politics can’t survive if it treats provincial cities as overseas colonies’, 6 October 2006, about regeneration in Manchester; in The Telegraph: ‘There’s more to Liverpool than archaeology’, 14 August 2008; ‘Glasgow East is not about independence’, 20 July 2008.

58  See supra and in The Guardian: ‘The north-west is booming. For us, it’s grim down south’, 12 October 2006 (on Manchester and Liverpool); ‘A city with something to shout about’, 12 September 2007 (about Birmingham); ‘In praise of ... Liverpool’, 26 September 2007; ‘The only way is up’, 26 March 2008, and ‘Developers go brown to be green’ – The Telegraph, 12 October 2006.

59  See: ‘Imagine there's a heaven...’ – The Guardian, 14 January 2007: ‘the city of nightmares has become the city of dreams’.

60  ‘Dirty old town’ – The Guardian, 6 April 2002.

61  The Guardian, 18 July 2007.

62  The Guardian, 10 December 2007.

63  This was based on the annual Regional Trends Survey and contained information on unemployment, incomes, health, school exam results and mentioned: ‘Deep divisions between the prosperous south and the rest of England show little sign of narrowing after four years of a Labour government […]. On almost every indicator […] the north lags well behind.’

64  ‘London goes to pot in north-south divide’ – The Guardian, 26 September 2001.

65  See infra.

66  See supra.

67  Other examples in The Guardian: ‘House price gap rises to £83,000’, 11 January 2002; ‘Priced out of Sevenoaks? Leven could be heaven’, 10 May 2002; ‘10 year housing boom widens north-south gap’, 27 February 2002; ‘Leap in south-east’s house millionaires’, 21 September 2002; ‘Northern homes make top prices’, 19 October 2002 but, we are told, ‘the vast majority of million-pound home sales are still in southern England.’

68  See for example: ‘Trade Union and Employers’ Associations – Statistics Update – Annual Report 2003-2004’ (at: -).

69  See supra.

70  This is not anything new: ever since the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, medical surveys have shown the sort of ‘health gap’ that is criticized today – which does not make it any less serious.

71  ‘North-south report: Key points’ – BBC News, 6 December 1999. See also ‘East is eden’ – The Guardian, 7 December 1999: ‘Merseyside has become more and more of a backwater, cut off from the rest of the national economy. Four of Liverpool's five parliamentary constituencies have unemployment rates in double figures; one, West Derby, has a jobless rate of 24.9%, almost six times the national average of 4.2%.’

72  ‘[…] the poorest region of the mainland UK is north-east England, where the hopeful signs of industrial regeneration […] cannot disguise the fact that it has the lowest income per head, the lowest house prices and the second worst incidence of long-standing illness of any part of Britain.’ ‘East is eden’, ibidem.

73  ‘[…] outside of London, the south-west suffers from the largest gap between local wage levels and housing costs in England.’ From: ‘Life beyond cream teas’ – The Guardian, 4 June 2003, which takes Devon and its public services as an example of ‘many of the most serious problems confronting the region as a whole.’

74  ‘Blair: North-South divide “a myth”’ – BBC News, 5 December 1999: ‘some of the worst unemployment blackspots are actually on the south coast, in places such as Plymouth […]’.

75  ‘East is eden’, ibid.; it provides precise economic details on this county.

76  Headline in The Guardian, 3 July 2007; see also: ‘Precision help is needed to close our economic gulf’ – The Times, 9 July 2007; ‘We cannot let northern cities fall behind’ and ‘Northern cities ‘still suffering from decline and deprivation’’– The Independent, 9 July 2007.

77  For more details on regional bias see: ‘Regional bias in the British press’ – The Economist, 9 August 2007, and ‘Northern discomfort’ – The Guardian, 13 June 2008: ‘When Gloucestershire flooded last year, Hull did too, but you probably didn't hear so much about it. Why not? The local council […] discovered that it didn't register on the radar of London newsdesks.’

78  4 November 2002.

79  See supra, note 51.

80  See ‘West is north and east is south in this patronizing map of stereotypes’ – The Guardian, 26 October 2007.

81  ‘Study predicts big exodus from London’ – The Guardian, 27 July 2002.

82  ‘Dirty old town’ – The Guardian, 6 April 2002.

83  ‘Where do the Midlands fall…’: see supra note 11.

84  ‘Northern exposure’, ibidem.

85  The Guardian, 12 October 2006. See also ‘Booming, busy and beautiful’ – The Guardian, 28 November 2007: ‘While bitterness still remains towards the perceived Londoncentric power-base of the south, left over from the 1980s, there is also a feeling that “they can have their high cost of living and cramped Tube, I’ve got a decent job, beaches and golf courses galore.”’

86  ‘Southern comfort stings North’ – The Observer, 12 September 1999, in which we learn that ‘the Bank of England is known fairly pejoratively here [in the North East] as the Bank of South East England’.

87  G. Orwell, op. cit., p. 101.

88  The Telegraph, 25 March 2003.



91  Notes from a Small Island, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 166-7.

92  See: ‘North/south divide in attitudes revealed’, Yorkshire Forward, 30 January 2006 at:

93  The Guardian,10 February 2001.

94  The Guardian,19 September 2002.

95  The Guardian, 28 October 2007.

96  The Times, 24 February 2008.

97  The Observer, 24 February 2008.

98  Neither article provided details on the survey.

99  Source: ‘How strong is England’s North-South divide?’ – see supra p. 25.

100  Source: The Guardian: ‘Northern discomfort’, 13 June 2008 and: ‘Dirty old town’, 6 April 2002respectively.

101  The Guardian, 9 October 1991.

102  See supra, part one.

103  The Observer, 28 October 2007.

104  The Observer, 25 February 2007.

105  Quoting John Godber, playwright and artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre: ‘[…] We can’t let the arts become homogenous. That’s the problem with most television. It tries to ignore difference. You think: where the fuck [sic] is this set? Whereas you know where the best work is set… Kes, Shameless, The Full Monty.’

106  The Guardian, 19 March 2008; it was written by Joe Moran, a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University.

107  The Guardian, 1 March 2002 – again, this has happened to the advantage of the South: ‘No other region enjoyed growth higher than the national average, with the two-speed economy favouring the service sector-dominated south of England and hitting the manufacturing heartlands of the midlands, the north, Scotland and Wales.’

108  As stated by one interviewee in: ‘Northern exposure’ – The Guardian, 27 October 2004.

109  ‘Unbalanced Britain’ – The Guardian, 6 February 2003. See supra part two.

110 Op. cit., p. 47.

111  ‘we seem unable to got [sic] rid of these inherited prejudices, and so they continue to affect students on this campus, and all over the country.’ Source: ‘The North/South Divide’, 13 March 2008 at: Nouse (York University):

112  ‘Building a new Briton’, op. cit.

Pour citer cet article

Michel Darribehaude, « The North-South Divide: Continuity and Change », paru dans Cycnos, Volume 25 n°2 - 2008, mis en ligne le 11 mars 2010, URL :


Michel Darribehaude

Michel Darribehaude is a Senior Lecturer in British civilisation at l’Université du SUD Toulon-Var. His research concerns nineteenth-century folk song and the Industrial Revolution, and the North-South divide.
University of Toulon-Var