A Divided Kingdom? A Brief Study on the North-South Divide in British Culture and Society.
There is a general consensus held by most Britons that there is indeed a North-South divide in the UK. So what evidence supports their claims?
So what is the North-South divide?
The North-South divide refers to the perceived differences in standard of living between the north and south due to the concentration of socio-economic and political power in southern England. However, the dividing line is mainly a hypothetical concept and is based on the stereotypes and presumptions of a region in comparison to another i.e. the south.
The History of the North-South Divide
The origins of north-south divide dates back to the industrial revolution in Britain between 1750 and 1840, in which the discovery of new minerals such as iron and the technological advances of steam and coal power, led to the mechanisation of agriculture, vast engineering works and infrastructures such as the transnational railway system.
The industrial revolution nevertheless affected the social, cultural and economic conditions of the country, and while regions such as the Midlands were the epicentre of mass production and labour during the ‘age of steel’ with 90% of the manufacturing industries situated in the north, the concentration of the country’s economy was in the south.
Such socio-economic discrepancies can be seen in the commission of “workhouses” under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that coincided with the erection of squalid tenement blocks during the 1840s in Gobals, an area surrounding the city of Glasgow, to provide homes for the city’s growing population of industrial workers.
The Geopolitics and Economics of Division in British Literary Culture
Cultural responses to the impact of poverty and inequality experienced by the working classes in the north can be found within the social realism of Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) that describes the working class situation in the East Midlands during the post-war era, while Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South (1853) depicts the class conflicts and social tensions between the starving mill workers and the mill owners in the fictional town of Milton, that is based on Manchester.
Other works include Charles Dicken’s Hard Times that is set in Coketown, a mill-town in the north of England, like Gaskell’s Milton. In Hard Times, Dicken’s not only comments on the widespread pauperism and squalor found in places such as Gobals but also perpetuates the negative stereotypes common to the geography and social conditions of the north by describing the northern town as bleak and degrading.
The Regional Disparities between the North and South in Income and Employment in Contemporary British Society
‘If we do not regard it as a major Government responsibility to take this situation in hand and prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south, I am sure our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.’
– Harold MacMillan, Prime Minister in 1962
Studies on the economic output of the north indicate that there has been little to no economic growth in the north and the midlands since the end of the recession in 2009 compared to London, Wales and Northern Ireland.
To combat this, schemes such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy of 2014 that was overseen by Chancellor George Osborne attempted to redistribute England’s “southern-centric economy” to the North’s population of 15 million people. The scheme did succeed in increasing the number of jobs created in Manchester by 84 per cent compared to 71 per cent in London during the same time and led to the number of employees in the north growing by 2.2 per cent.
However, in 2018, the south still remains the epicentre of socio-economic power with employee numbers growing exponentially by 7.5 per cent.
The measure of the regional disparities between the north and south can be found in the study of gross value added (GVA), which measures the economic output of either an individual or industry sector in the UK.
According to statistics, London’s gross value added (GVA) per head is £71,162 compared to just £25,950 in Greater Manchester and £16,595 in Bradford.
The Regional Disparities between the North and South in Health and Life Expectancies
According to the NHS, the overall life expectancy in the UK has increased by more than five years between 1990 and 2013, from 75.9 to 81.3 years and that the life expectancy from birth in England increased by 5.4 years.
However, studies on mortality across different regions in the UK found that the north of England had an excess of 20% in premature death rates between 1965 and 2008.
It is of no surprise then that the geographical “health gap” between those of the higher and lower social classes is widening, as there seems to be a correlation between unemployment, limited access to education and lower life expectancy rates in north when compared to the south.
Can the disparities between the north and south be reconciled?
Well, the problem is that manufacturing is still one of the main sources of economic production in the north whereas the economic development of the south is largely based on businesses and professional services. So, it seems that there is no clear-cut way to narrow the dividing line between the north and south, and with brexit around the corner, the will to stay united as a country is proving ever more challenging to uphold.