Originally published in Backbench.
1066 is an important date in British history. It was the year William the Conqueror landed in Hastings ready to wrench the throne from the deserving (and probably dashing) English King, Harold Godwinson. But this didn’t just initiate sweeping changes in landscapes and government. It launched Anglo-Saxon England into a turbulent millennia of North-South civil unrest which continues to this day.
The North’s seething animosity towards its Southern counterpart is more than an extended response to the violent class wars of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and her band of ‘dry’ economic disciples no doubt ring-fenced Northern prosperity for decades to come and intensified regional-metropolitan divides. But her crippling of Northern manufacturing industries is less important than the fact that she felt this was historically and politically acceptable – and, as a matter of fact, ‘necessary’. Why is that?
Go back 1000 years, and we find her predecessor in Duke William II of Normandy. His ‘Harrying of the North’, which involved ‘wasting’ land in an effort to deter rebellious Northern lords, established a precedent. This was the strategic and ‘necessary’ depletion of the region’s population, community and sustenance in an effort to solidify centralised governance and consolidate Norman rule.
A 1/3 of Yorkshire was declared uninhabitable as a result. This raid laid the foundations for an embittered Northern separatist movement that has ever since struggled to wrestle itself from the yoke of Norman London and its descendants.
As the South quickly ‘Europeanised’ through trade with modern-day France, the North was weakened and subdued. York, once a powerful political contender to London, was demoted. The Archbishop of Canterbury was made supreme, with the Archbishopric of York left flailing in the remnants of its former importance. Vital trade with Scandinavia was cut off.
Today, the castles that litter the Scottish border and East Coast of Northumberland are relics of a Norman plot that drove northern communities inwards and stripped them of their autonomy.
Unbeknownst to William, this was not to be a temporary phenomenon: it condemned the North, and particularly the North-East, to a fated political subservience that has proven all-but-impossible to overcome.
The political consequences of the Battle of Hastings are still being felt today – even if historical impasses allowed for the temporary levelling out of regional inequalities.
Almost 800 years after the Norman Conquest, a brief pattern of co-industriousness between North and South emerged during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the North fed the capital with its vast reserves of coal and enjoyed a prodigious, though short-lived, prosperity. But fast-forward to the 1980s and Thatcher’s brutal policies signify a return to normality: a vicious re-imposition of an entrenched North-South divide that politicians feel far more comfortable with.
Stripping Northerners of their rights in the 11th and 12th centuries was a tragedy, but imposing inequality upon them in the 21st century has far more sinister consequences. Lower life expectancies, higher suicide rates, consistently high levels of unemployment, lower central investment on infrastructure projects and culture, less spending per person on education and transport, hardly any attention in the national media and next to no representation in political professions: these are all innumerable realities that pervade parts of Northern England without any justifiable cause other than careful neglect.
It’s no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry estimates that the North-East region will be the hardest-hit under a ‘No-Deal Brexit’, or that government support rate to Northern councils is among the highest-cut in the country. This has simply become tradition.
Indefensibly, most governments view the North-South divide as a historically determined reality over which they have no control, obviating government obligation to reverse the decay and rendering it politically fatal to commit to doing so. George Osborne gave it a feeble attempt with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ solution, but this hasn’t materialised in any substantive sense.
Democratic politics commonly consists of five-year cycles that leave little time to address regional disparity with any genuineness. Just like New Labour’s stint, which did so little to revivify the North during its time in power, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to rejuvenate the High Street will equally fall flat without adequate funding proposals and attempts to create sincere power-sharing regional authorities. Simply preventing high-street bank closures is not enough. Theresa May’s assertion, meanwhile, that the North East will ‘not be left behind’ after Brexit is highly dubious.
Norman Tebbit – one of Thatcher’s closest aides during her time in government – expressed remorse at the way the Thatcher government treated Northern mining communities many years after the damage had been done. In 2009, he claimed that the enormous ‘devastation’ inflicted by closures ‘went too far’ – ‘with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone.’ There is no doubt, he admitted, ‘that this led to a breakdown in these communities with families breaking up and youths going out of control.’
Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May will, in due course, express their own forms of nostalgic regret about the way their governments have slashed resources and investment for deprived Northern communities. But what good is this to those who have suffered at the hands of a recurrent insensitive elite?
An EU membership referendum and then supposedly ‘Delivering on Brexit’, will not, contrary to Cameron and May’s electoral logic, make the North feel adequately ‘listened to’ or represented by those in Westminster in the long run. It will not undo years of deliberate political devastation. We need a far deeper reassessment of the country’s fundamental regional power prejudices if we ever hope to emulate a civilised nation; starting with acknowledgement that regional disparity is anathema rather than an inevitable state of affairs. If we fail on this account, it’s clear that the next millennia will unfurl in the exact same way as the last one. The North will remain doomed, and history will happily repeat itself.