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The north-south divide is as old as England itself. Unity is only ever fleeting

James Hawes
·5-min read

Divide England? Who could seriously propose that? With all that mighty history behind us? Well, it didn’t seem crazy to Winston Churchill in 1912. He said that if we wanted to preserve the UK we “would have to face the task of dividing England into several great self-governing areas”. Southern England was just too Tory – and too big. Churchill saw that in the democratic era an England dominated by this Tory south could not coexist with the Celts. If anyone thinks he was wrong, just look at what has happened over the past year.

By the autumn of 2019, clear majorities of Conservative voters were ready to jettison the UK, and even the Conservative party itself, in pursuit of Brexit. Our very modern, music-hall merry monarch, Boris Johnson, and his tacticians saw the way the wind was blowing. A purged Conservative and Unionist party became the English National party in all but name. Nationalism did what nationalism does, persuading people whose lives are very different that they have mysterious interests in common and many northerners were persuaded to vote, often for the first time, the same way as southerners.

It looked like an epochal triumph, but the Tories were forgetting the monster from the English id. Scarcely 10 months after Johnson was enshrined, scientific discussions about how best to fight a pandemic somehow mutated into a political north-south battle.

It is as if English history is on autopilot. For this cry has assailed southern leaders from the death of Athelstan (the first Englishman to rule all of England) in 939AD. The struggle adopted many ethnic/religious/political masks, starting with part-Scandinavian northerners v would-be southern rulers. It was this split that in 1066 doomed England to conquest. For three centuries, a French-speaking elite gave England a faux unity, but as they anglicised, the old divide reopened, climaxing in the apocalyptic north v south bloodshed of Towton in 1461. The north became the fortress of Catholicism in the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) and the Northern Rebellion (1569). Even the civil war had a north-south element.

So is geography fate? It looks like it, in England. Or, more accurately, a unique conspiracy of geography and geology. We are divided by the faultline between the rich lands of the south and the rugged, igneous uplands beyond the Trent. By coincidence, the naturally better farmland also has a kinder climate for agriculture and is closer to the great markets and new ideas of the continent: the entire set-up of England conspires in favour of the south.

The naturally better farmland has a kinder climate for agriculture and is closer to the great markets and new ideas of the continent

The Venerable Bede, himself a northerner, thought it worthwhile mentioning nine times in his History that the English are divided into northerners and southerners. By high medieval times, the Trent had become thoroughly fixed as the border. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the chivalric heralds of England and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge both used it as an official demarcation. When Daniel Defoe wrote the first guidebook to the brand-new Great Britain in 1727, he compared crossing the Trent to crossing the Rubicon and simply lumped everything “North by Trent” together. This, not the old border between England and Scotland, was what mattered in the new state.

The Industrial Revolution could have changed everything: for once, geology, principally, King Coal, was on the side of the north. By 1848, its latest cultural-political expression, the Chartist movement, was ready to mount a challenge to the south and (with the delighted support of Karl Marx) even to try setting up an alternative parliament in Manchester, in 1854.

The southern English elite responded with their signature masterstroke: new blood was allowed in on strictly controlled terms through a great new wave of Anglican public schools. Northern thinkers were soon complaining that, as one MP put it in 1897, English manufacturers should “do as the Germans do and bring their sons up to be better manufacturers than themselves, instead of bringing them up to be gentlemen who do nothing but hunt and shoot”.

But the cultural pull of the south was too strong and, by 1900, the industrial north was falling off the international pace while the gentleman capitalists of the south played development bankers to the world. How could something so deep and powerful have gone unnoticed by so many English people today, if asked, would probably say that the north-south divide started in the 1980s? Well, that is what happens when something is right in front of our noses, be it in politics or relationships: we can focus it out precisely because it is so close, until, one day, something changes and there it is, waiting where it has always been. It’s back in focus now and it’s not going away. We are all essentially “valence voters”, who will generally go for politicians who, in some nebulous way, we feel to be like us. When George Orwell went north researching The Road to Wigan Pier, he found that the yawning class divide between him (Eton and Oxford) and a sharp-nosed, dark-haired little cockney melted away in face of the cultural otherness of the northerners: “He suddenly divined that I was a fellow-southerner. ‘The filthy bloody bastards!’ he said, feelingly.”

That was why Peter Mandelson, in 1994, confident that he could rely on a desperate north to back almost anyone, saw that Tony Blair’s vague “southern appeal” was so vital. Keir Starmer (southern accent, Knight of the Bath, QC) is well placed to repeat that trick, but can anyone ever really appeal for long to both north and south in England? (Blair himself, lest we forget, was under heavy fire from the north by 1999.) Johnson thought he had cracked it, but that now seems risible.

It may be time to recognise what voting maps show quite clearly: the English have always voted as much on tribal lines as any of the Celts. “We” are not a single people at all and never really have been. Or we can insist, against all the historical evidence, that we are one nation, a nation that, as Churchill saw in 1912, will almost always be ruled by the party of the south.

•James Hawes’ latest book is The Shortest History of England. His novels include Speak For England