It’s the Wrong North, Gromit

By Saul Freeman

Three days and some sleep later and I have some thoughts.

Thought 1 is to make it clear that I was at all times – and still am – very much in the Remain camp. Thought 2 is to note how wearily reductive and predicable much of the post-cataclysm commentary from appalled Remainers on the Left has been.

Thought 3 is that I live in the North – heartland of Brexit.

Much of what I read in the media and on social media seems to boil down to a howl of outrage that those outside London were ever handed an opportunity to express their democratic rights. Draw a line somewhere north of Milton Keynes, South and West of Swindon and East of Peterborough and they simply can’t be trusted. Londoners are at this very moment petitioning the higher powers (Thom Yorke, perhaps?) to either hold another vote or to declare a city state that can rejoin Europe and run screaming from association with the grubby provinces: “You’re all a bunch of racists!”

When reasonable folk point out that this might display a degree of ignorance and prejudice in equal proportion to the alleged crime of the Brexiters, even hitherto sensible dead-centrist folk like Dan Hodges  – now of the Mail on Sunday – come over all self-assured and self-righteous:

Mention the “North-South divide” and the full weight of the South-East (with a per capita atomic mass roughly equivalent to that of a 3 bedroom loft-style apartment in groovy Hackney) drops from the sky onto those impertinent enough to suggest that the vote might tell us something important about our nation and that deserves scrutiny.

In the 1980s as the North bore the full brunt of the Thatcherite attack on the working classes who toiled in heavy industry, the Left expressed its love and admiration for those plucky Northerners. Both in London and up and down what was to become the M4 corridor, you couldn’t move for Constituency Labour Parties and the SWP, RCP & CPGB organising Miners Solidarity Groups. A cynic might imagine that there was a fetishising of the North and all who sailed in her from those who knew almost nothing of life there and what that looked, felt and smelled like. But never mind that – we all had the donkey jackets and Coal not Dole button badges. We loved those Northerners, fighting the fight on the sharp end of the class struggle. They were worthy.

A generation and a half later and the pits are now logistics distribution centres handily located close to the M1. Former pit villages are teetering under the weight of a structural unemployment that crushes and splits communities. Cities like Sheffield -built on the sheer good fortune of proximity to both seams of coal, rushing rivers and iron ore – lurch from one funding crisis to the next, locked in a death-grip with endless disappointment and never-quite-arrested decay. The North doesn’t die; distinct bits of it do – of course – prosper, thank you very much. But it’s not like London and the South East. It just isn’t.

Here’s the thing, and at face value it’s quite simple: there are not enough jobs. What jobs there are are often low paid and insecure. In London and the South East there are – broadly – enough jobs. That doesn’t mean they are all fulfilling, well paid and involve foreign travel, but the jobs are there.

In Sheffield, for example, if you’re a white-collar worker (say, an administrator) the reality is that if you can’t get a job in one of the two universities or the dwindling Home Office presence, you will a) struggle to find a permanent job and b) when you get one, it will pay roughly a third less than a similar job that your friend has at the university. Your mortgage or rent however will not go down by a third. If you’re an unskilled blue-collar worker – well, good luck with that one.

In the North this lack of jobs now and the lack of prospects of jobs and prosperity for the next generations has combined with a discourse around immigration. London’s “progressive” elite may find it distasteful – and some of this discourse is indeed unpleasant – but it’s there, it’s real and we have ignored it at our peril.

Here’s an example of how we got here. In 2013, Liberal, progressive proto-Corbynistas in the South poured rage and scorn on David Blunkett when he spoke out about the pressures facing Page Hall in Sheffield. That’s an area where just under 40% of families claim benefits and over 50% of children are regarded as “at risk” from poverty. Tensions between the existing residents of Page Hall and the newly arrived and rapidly expanding Roma community were escalating. After calling attention to this problem in his constituency, Blunkett was hounded for being a racist and accused of using language akin to that of Enoch Powell. It was the River Don of Blood speech.  Of course, a significant proportion of the settled Page Hall demographic was in fact Bangladeshi in origin, but not many of those branding Blunkett a simple, old-fashioned racist seemed to want to think about the complexities that might signal.

In describing the behavior of the UK Left around the common “anti-Israel “ discourse, David Hirsh uses the concept of the self-declared progressive circle whereby the virtuous Left defines and polices the borders of normative discourse. Step outside the circle (i.e. give voice to an idea that may not be on the tick box list of pre-approved tenets) and the full force of disapproval and anger comes crashing down: “We understand what you are saying. We can decode it instantly. We have the tools. And what our tools show is that you are bad. You are not virtuous like us”.

Dan Hodges and all those rushing off to sit in front of their laptops and log into the latest post Brexit petition seem to me to be engaging in exactly this type of behavior.

Significant parts of the North (and of course Wales & Cornwall) have never recovered from the loss of heavy industry. London and the South East is simply not in the same boat. Unless you live in the North (or Wales & Cornwall etc) there is a very good chance that actually you don’t understand. Not really. Now, the smart thing to do with this is to engage and unpack. The easy and less smart thing to do is to draw out the virtuous progressive circle. The trouble is, it really is much easier to get out the felt tip pens and start drawing, so largely that’s what people seem to be doing.

Gone is the eye-welling tsunami of love from the Left for the brave, noble North. It’s been replaced by a visceral disgust and a knowing mistrust: “it’s not us that have changed. We’ve compared the circle we drew back in 1984 and it’s more or less exactly like the one we drew out yesterday. So if it’s not us, it’s them. In the North. They’re not who they once were.

It’s the wrong North.

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