Gregor Gall: North-South divide not so divisive

The latest social attitudes survey makes interesting reading for followers of the independence debate, says Gregor Gall

Many in the north of Britain have lost faith in the existing political system. Picture: Neil Hanna
Many in the north of Britain have lost faith in the existing political system. Picture: Neil Hanna

The large part of the Scottish left that supports independence for Scotland does so for the primary reason that independence will allow the greater expression in the body politic of the left-of-centre of political gravity presently found in Scotland.

Currently, the belief is that conservative institutions of Westminster politics constitute a road block to this expression. Amongst many SNP supporters, the impasse is often formulated as the outcome of “London-dominated” or ‘London-controlled’ political parties.

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But an analysis of the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA)survey data shows the biggest political gulf is not between Scotland and England, or Scotland and London, but between the north of Britain and the south of Britain.

It has long been believed that London and the south-east of England are economically, politically and culturally different in substantive ways from the rest of Britain. In the more measured views of this perspective, it is not to suggest that “down there” they are all Tory-supporting, rich and middle class. But it is to suggest that the centre of political gravity is quite far to the right and that is underpinned by different economic dynamics. In other words, relative wealth allows, if not produces, support for free market individualism and “I’m alright, Jack” attitudes. It is most easily typified in an overheated property market, massive City bonuses and considerable support for UKIP.

It might make some sense in this perspective to encourage London and the south-east of England to declare unilateral independence from the rest of Britain. At the very least, this would allow the political centre of gravity elsewhere to be properly reflected in public policy and state institutions.

The BSA survey began in 1983 and has been carried out each year, with some 3,500 adults interviewed each time. Many of the most important questions are included each year so that robust analysis is possible.

Selecting a number of these questions and viewing the data by the standard ten regions (Scotland, North East England, North West England, Yorkshire and Humberside, West Midlands, East Midlands, Eastern England, South West England, South East England, London and Wales but excluding Northern Ireland) shows a number of marked trends and phenomena.

The most obvious questions concern attitudes to the poor and unemployed, public ownership, public services, individual responsibility and the gap between the rich and poor, as well as whether big business benefits at the expense of workers, whether the government should have responsibility for income distribution and living standards in society, and if one law exists for the rich and another for the poor.

The first marked phenomenon is that the regions of the north of England are – in broad measure – every bit as left wing as those found in Scotland and Wales and that these responses are consistently to the left of the regions from the Midlands southwards. Surprisingly, London is not quite the bastion of reaction that may have been anticipated. Rather, it is often on a par with its northern neighbours on both sides of the Border.

The second marked phenomenon is the trend that, despite the difference between the north of Britain (including Wales) and the south of Britain, all social values have become more right wing as a whole since the BSA surveys began. So the north of Britain is not as left wing as it once was and the south of Britain is more right wing than it used to be. This is no great surprise as the move of the Tories to the right of their previous “one nation” politics to those of Thatcherism and then the apeing of this by Labour in becoming “New” Labour was unlikely to not have an effect.

Maybe the surprise is that social values in the north of Britain have remained quite as resilient to the charms of neo-liberalism – the ideology that the free market should determine how society operates and that “greed is good”. The third marked phenomenon, however, is that while support in the north of Britain for redistributive policies has declined, as has sympathy for those on benefits, the sense of social injustice has increased. When asked if ordinary people “get a fair share” of the fruits of society, agreement stayed almost static, but at the same the views that “big business has too much power” and that “unions are too weak” have gained support.

What seems to be going on is that most citizens in the north of Britain have lost some considerable faith in the ability of the existing political system – through the state – to be capable of delivering fair outcomes for themselves and for society. Yet at the same time, they have not positively endorsed the market, its processes and outcomes, for they dislike that business is stronger and unions are weaker.

The dynamics of politics in Britain now and in the foreseeable future do not allow for a referendum on having a republic of northern Britain or of the north of England where either’s progressive social values can freely flower. The referendum on 18 September 2014 is, however, a certainty. Maybe a radical form of Scottish independence will spur “our friends in the north” on to stop themselves being dominated by the neo-liberal hegemony based in Westminster.

The call for a parliament of the regions in England is apposite here. Meantime, the limited further extension of devolution to the Welsh Assembly might now seem insufficient if Scotland charts its own course. Solidarity with “our friends in the north” could take the form of leading by example and the cross-border cooperation.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford