George Osborne’s recent announcement of a plan to unite “the north” with a train link between Leeds and Manchester is an honourable proposal indeed. It is well acknowledged by now that the economic development of the supposedly United Kingdom has been focused mainly in the South and more specifically, London and the surrounding throng of cities which are slowly being absorbed by the capital. Surely then, it’s a wonderful thing to give this Northern hub a bit of a leg up and economic boost by increasing the rail connections. On the face of it this seems like a pretty solid suggestion but what it fails to address is one glaring problem: that “the North” is an enormous area of our country.
In my time at University in Winchester (in the South…), I encountered a surprising amount of abuse for being a “Northerner”. I’ll admit, it was all just good humoured banter and jesting but in it holds a worrying sentiment that there is a very real separation of our country. The affluent south and the hard-done-by north are almost two distinct countries… and one is significantly larger than the other. I’ve heard people mention that “anything north of the Watford gap” is the North. And yet there is about 300 miles of country to the North of London and Scotland after that, to lump all of this vast swathe of land together in one category does a disservice to the breadth of diversity there is in our country. And Osborne is doing no better by creating a Northern Hub by attempting to make a super city from Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and other cities in the area, he says that together that this collection of cities when combined “can take on the world”.
What the chancellor seems to be ignoring is that you can’t wilfully combine any of these cities together, just ask a Mancunian what they think about the idea of combining to make some super city with Liverpool… “Like f*** will we…” The point is even more pertinent to the hundred miles of country north of this “Northern Powerhouse”, for those trapped between a Northern Powerhouse and a potentially independent Scotland the sense of abandonment will undoubtedly feel even more real.
So what is the answer to this problem?
There is no single solution unfortunately, as much as a new High Speed Rail connection will help these northern cities there needs to be more in the way of actively encouraging different kinds of development and perhaps preventing an unnatural amount of investment in the capital. It may sound ridiculous to dissuade money from flowing into our country’s biggest asset but more needs to do be done to prevent the inflation of housing prices in London and the wage gap between north and south, perhaps this would be a start. Another idea (suggested by Osborne today) is to encourage more “Boris Johnsons” as mayors of big cities; perhaps he’s right that cities need to be in more control of their own destiny and so need dynamic, independent leaders with real power to lead the development. Giving autonomous powers to these cities would probably help, rather than having Westminster force economic development on them “the London way” why not let them do it themselves?
But what really needs to be done is to encourage a real unity of the four corners of our country, despite being a multicultural and – largely – very accepting society, we seem to have no tolerance or love for the rest of our own Islanders. It’s no wonder so many Scottish are so desperate for independence; it’s hard not to feel the sense of separation from Westminster even in a market town in the midlands, let alone an Island in the Outer Hebrides. The fact that UKIP have done so well in the rest of the country and not in London shows that there is a distinct lack of unity under our government. It may well be just a protest vote, or even – as our own writer puts it - “the triumph of the angry minority over the apathetic majority” but it serves to show how truly out of sync our country is.
Osborne’s plan to unite the north is fine but what we really need is a United Kingdom.
Image Rights; Jason Charlesworth