Friday, 10 February 2012

Devolution for the North - An age old aspiration for Brigantes

The North of England and the South of England have enduring and deep-rooted differences; some subtle, some stark, cultural, economic, natural and political, that are born from a long history of tension and conflict. These differences, when driven by the landowning southern gentry, The Conservative Party,  and which cause an inequitable and unjust distribution of national resources, should be a matter of grave concern to the regions.

It is frequently commented that concepts of community and friendship are valued more highly in the North than in the South, perhaps due to the rich heritage of cooperation and collective action of the North’s history in having to overcome greater economic hurdles and greater hardship. This is nowhere better exemplified than in the Cooperative Society itself, being born out of the ‘Rochdale Principles’ of the weavers and artisans of 19th Century Rochdale.

It is without exception visitors to East Lancashire or Hyndburn for that matter note this extraordinary sense of solidarity found in the North which forms the basis of a completely different political outlook to much of the south.

When compared to the more isolationist and independent culture of the rural South with its heritage of nobility, land ownership, a national imperious sense of entitlement benefiting from expansive private landowning and advantageous commercial proximity to London and the continent, the different approach to economics and public life is significant. Just like the provinces, northerners identify with a different way of life. Indeed, the South of England’s quaint country lanes, affluence and epicurean culture is often more reminiscent of France than the North of England.

In a debate in the House of Commons after the recent release of figures by the British Heart Foundation, Public Health Minister Anne Milton described northerners as being hard-drinking, smoking and prone to “jump into bed with each other at the drop of a hat.” This kind of patronising, degrading comment serves to reinforce the tradition of Conservatives in the South East cultivating an image of northerners as being undeserving and hapless. While London has long reaped the benefits accrued from the industry of the North with its glitzy executive pay head offices, it has been accompanied by a demeaning prejudice that undermines the North’s valuable contribution and ignores the North’s economic hardships.

In the South East’s exploitation of the resources and hard work of the northerners through government and most significantly through free markets, particularly London’s high society, we are reminded of parallels with the despotic mediaeval kings who harshly taxed the North to fund numerous wars, brutally crushing any resistance.

Westminster lords and nobility, landed gentry and southern privileged elite has tithed and taxed Northern Brigantes for centuries.

Devolution to the North is not a new concept. Richard III, unlike his contemporary successors Cameron and Osborne, recognised the value of a ‘Council of the North’. An administrative body set up in 1484 by the king for the purpose of improving local government control and economic prosperity, for benefit of the entire area of Northern England.

Henry VII like most Conservatives today, failed to recognise the differential culture, greater hardship or economic value of the North slaying his predecessor Richard III’s army at Bosworth reinstating southern ascendency and birthright.

The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1489, was prompted by the people of Northumberland and Yorkshire resisting further exploitative taxation to fund a war with France which was no geographical threat to the North and with little appreciation of the agricultural pressures of the harsher climate.

The Tory Public Health Minister’s reaction to the statistics by the British Heart Foundation showing that people from the North East are more likely to die of heart disease than their counterparts in the South, demonstrates that this appalling lack of understanding of the economic difficulties faced by the North prevails.

The North has a long history of begging to its Westminster masters epitomised by the 1936 Jarrow March. Marchers were given £1 each to catch the train back home.

This sits with an appalling Tory legacy of brutal 1980’s cuts to the North that failed to understand that heavy industry balanced the regions and balanced Britain’s economy offering a route to a better life for all.

This legacy of preferential treatment for the South at the expense of the North is manifested in the severity of the Government’s cuts to council funding today. Despite the Department for Communities and Local Government insisting that the South is not being hit by the cuts less than the North, heat maps produced showing the size of the cuts clearly show that the North is being hit significantly harder.

It is evident that this historic legacy to favour the South by diverting resources away from the economically stricken North is being continued into this century.

This has bred feelings of exclusion and resentment in the North, which is being fuelled by the Government’s continual failures to make its actions match its empty promises to end the North-South divide.

Plans for the High Speed 2 linking London to Birmingham has been accompanied by claims that the line will split after Birmingham and bring the high speed rail connection further the North. As plans lay out the initial stage, the Government has been evasive over the details of the second stage and many suspect that the Government does not, in fact, intend to continue the line past Birmingham. Legitimate suspicion engulfs the Government’s promises on HS2 to the North.

In this harsh economic climate of austerity, there is clearly no truth to the claim that “we are all in this together” – the North of England is suffering far more from the Government cut backs despite centuries of Westminster exploitation and the North’s its inbuilt economic disadvantages.

Gregg’s factory in Newcastle didn’t cause the financial crisis but the people of the North are being made to suffer for the consequences.

The economic crisis has given this Government an excuse to abandon the North, cutting back essential public spending to the people who rely on it the most, to prop up London’s glitzy millionaire financial sector.

How are we not to be left with the sense that we are simply seeing the attitudes of the 80s being repeated? The time has come to revive King Richard III’s ‘The Council of the North’ and offer those North of the Trent the devolution settlement which has been offered to the other British provinces.

Hannah Mitchell Foundation has been established to develop the case for directly-elected regional government for the North of England.