The “North” is very much in vogue these days. We hear talk of “Northern Powerhouses”, “Healing The Scars”, of great futures for its cities and counties: places Southerners, according to Northern prejudice, rarely think of and visit even less; regions with ‘Wasteas Est’ written across them in the Domesday Book
Wasteas est. A wasteland. In the minds of many Northerners, the descriptions dates from the 1980s, not the 1080s. The physical scars are slowly disappearing from the landscape – abandoned mills, factories, docks and mines – but very much deeper still are the mental ones: wounds not only unhealed, but suppurating horribly. It would be churlish to denigrate the efforts now being made, but ultimately the answer lies not in economics but in repairing the North’s damaged culture. To put the sense of alienation into perspective, only last week thousands of Northerners signed an online petition, demanding union with an independent Scotland, a country many feel much more affinity than southern England.
Many people born south of the roses counties find all this totally inexplicable – and so did I, a Northern exile, for a long time. I now beg your indulgence to take you on a deeply personal journey. Some time ago my siblings and I tried to retrace the place my late mother grew up before and during the Second World War, a road called Candow Street in the Lower Don Valley – a place that was once quite literally a northern powerhouse of steel and manufacturing. We had some trouble finding it, because it doesn’t exist anymore – the houses were declared unsafe after a bomb landed nearby and presumably never rebuilt. The place really is wasteland now, standing adjacent to one the few surviving Sheffield steel works. Nearby are an abandoned public library, built by public subscription in order for working folk to better themselves, and the dark gothic arches of the local Methodist church: like so many blackened by now long ceased industrial pollution, broodingly symbolising that austere Protestant faith which used to play such a part in working class lives. It sounds almost apocryphal, the sort of scene that Lowry might have painted if he was born east of the Pennines,except that there are too few factories for his matchstick men to go to, too few steel mills, too few mines.
I mention this because growing up I was that rarest of creatures – a South Yorkshire Thatcherite. I still think she was right to take the course she did: by that time decades of cowardice and stupidity on all sides had long ago sealed the fate of Northern industry. However, almost 30years after the fact and deeply touched by what I had found, I came to realise that although their leaders were often dangerous Marxists with an alternative agenda, the motivations behind the working class rebellions and strife of that time were essential socially conservative, raging against not so much the disappearance of individual jobs but of an entire way of life: a way of life that was very harsh, to be sure, but not without great dignity. This is why those baffled Tories who bleat about Harold Wilson closing more mines than Thatcher completely miss the point: Wilson’s actions cost jobs; Thatcher is blamed for the loss of something incomparably more. To the working class North, its industrial demise said that all the generational sacrifice and pain had been in vain, that they, their forefathers, and what they struggled to build, was of no account.
In the aftermath of such hurt and humiliation, and bereft of any constructive traditions to hand onto their children, some very bitter weeds indeed were sown: hatred of Thatcher and the Tories is handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, seeming getting worse, not better, with each lurid re-telling between the generations. Something similar is, I imagine, central to the rise of Scottish nationalism, in all its Anglophobic hatred and irrationality.
It’s probably too late to save Scotland, but perhaps not too late to save the North – just please don’t think it will be enough to spatchcock a few factories into special enterprise zones, or build a few high speed railways: in order to heal fully and economically, the North must first culturally heal, and that means being empowered to build something that is entirely – entirely – its own, ideally within line with its great industrial traditions. How to go about that is a subject I hope to explore in a future article.