THE assumption that everything centres on the UK capital risks alienating the rest of the population, says Jane Bradley
Many years ago now, while working for the Scottish edition of a national Sunday newspaper, I received a visit from a big-name London-based correspondent.
He had been dispatched from head office to interview Gordon Brown at his home in Fife. It was like the Queen was coming to town.
As the sole Saturday morning occupant of the satellite Edinburgh office, it fell to me to meet our VIP guest and lend him a desk for the day.
It wasn’t hard to spot him. He stuck out like a sore thumb among the throng of tourists on Edinburgh’s Canongate, wearing a Savile Row-style wide-striped shirt and clutching a flat white in the days when flat whites were available only in Soho and New Zealand. Presumably he had had to offer a personal training course to our friendly neighbourhood Starbucks barista, in how to concoct this exotic beverage.
He was, he told me, staying in the Caledonian Hotel – enviable luxury compared to the Holiday Inn Express in Limehouse where we Scots were put up when visiting the London office. Granted, the Caley didn’t have the same entertainment value as my London hotel. Fewer flashers under nearby railway bridges. A lack of life or death thrills when you walked home late at night. But the London correspondent clearly still felt he was in an alien environment in our perfectly comfortable base a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament.
“I just wanted to check you got my copy OK – I’m working from the REGIONS today!” he would bellow down the phone to his news editor. “I’m not sure how good the INTERNET CONNECTION is here - I’m in the REGIONS - did I tell you?”
Although supposedly a national newspaper, it was quite clearly a London newspaper, with a token nod to “the regions”. Not surprisingly, it closed its entire Scottish office less than a year later.
I was reminded of this particular state visit this weekend when I was flicking through a popular magazine I’d picked up in a hotel on a weekend away.
In a seemingly innocuous article about the “best places to shop in the UK”, an Aberdeen clothing store was mentioned. So far so perfectly pleasant. Well done, Aberdeen clothing store. Yet when I read the blurb, it began: “It might be based in Scotland, but Hanon... lures customers from across the UK...”
“It might be based in Scotland but...”. Now, assuming that comment was meant on a geographical basis, rather than a stylistic one, it is still absolutely, 100 per cent ridiculous. Where I was while reading it, in the north-east of England, Aberdeen was actually closer than London, where this magazine clearly assumed its readers to be.
We “in the regions” have to put up with this kind of nonsense every day. Another article in the same magazine told me of a new delivery service that was available “only in the city centre at the moment”. A quick search online revealed that it wasn’t available in my city centre – Edinburgh – nor was it available in Glasgow, Dundee or Aberdeen. Or Newcastle, Birmingham or Manchester. No, the only city centre it were referring to was, you’ve guessed it – London.
Similarly, a colleague told me of a recent Radio Four weather forecast he was listening to, which talked to listeners who were “here” – as in where the broadcaster was – and those in the far north-west of Scotland, who were clearly not part of his audience: “There is still a little bit of drizzly rain across the far north west of Scotland, but here where it’s been wet the last couple of days things will dry out.”
It is a sad fact that the vast majority of people who work in the UK media are based in London. Yet, despite being residents of one of the world’s most international cities, they are the most parochial bunch on the planet.
When London-based restaurant critics venture outside of the M25, they remark on it in their columns, as if they are off on a school trip.
Do we care that they live in London? No, we most certainly don’t. If anything, we feel a bit sorry for them, with their high crime rates and extortionate property prices. A bit like people in the Western Isles feel about those of us who choose to live in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
One national newspaper restaurant columnist recently felt it necessary to point out early on in the review that he had “finally made it” to a restaurant in Norwich after a “few years” of discussions with the chef. Norwich is just over 100 miles from London. Less than two hours on a direct train. Yet this columnist made it sound like it was on Mars.
The London-centric problem in the UK has existed for decades. Granted, the UK capital is responsible for a large proportion of the British economy. Official figures calculated in 2014 showed that the city has an estimated Gross Value Added (GVA) of £338 billion - almost three times Scotland’s GVA contribution of £117bn and accounting for more than a quarter of the total UK figure.
This, however, is a symptom of the overall problem – not a reason to perpetuate it. Other countries do not have this top-heavy economic approach. Germany, for example, has six separate regions on the EU’s top 25 list of areas by GDP. The UK features only London - and Manchester at number 23. In Spain, Catalonia and Madrid – nearly 400 miles apart – are approximately equal in terms of their GDP output.
The BBC recently tried to do its bit to address the problem, by moving vast swathes of its operations north to Manchester.
The one-time Manchester Guardian did the very opposite half a century earlier, relocating from the northern powerhouse to be like every other national paper – paying enormous rents in London.
Property agents working in the UK capital, however, have claimed there is a surge in London-based companies looking for new homes further north - with HSBC’s decision to relocate its retail arm to Birmingham one of the most high profile - yet at the moment, the numbers are still tiny.
I can guarantee that a lot of readers (probably around 45 per cent at a guess) will see this as further proof that we in Scotland should leave the UK and go it alone. Perhaps we should, perhaps we shouldn’t. But whatever your view on independence, for now, we are part of Britain.
And if Britain doesn’t want to alienate us – and Northern Ireland, Wales and every other region of the UK outside of south-east England, something needs to change.