England’s North Has Been Crushed by Thatcherism and Austerity

Northern England spawned the industrial revolution as well as a powerful workers’ movement and a lively culture of popular modernism. But the dysfunctions of Britain’s economic and political system have reduced it to a shadow of its former self.

Derelict factory building in Gateshead, England, 2014. (Andrew Curtis / Wikimedia Commons)

In 1949, on a ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Donald Horne, the iconoclastic Australian writer and critic, was catching up on back issues of the Economist. As he flicked through the pages of that famous organ of Manchester liberalism, skipping past articles on the dividends of Smith’s Potato Chips and the international balance of payments, he learned that the country he was to call home for the next half-decade was one wracked by endless crisis.

Horne wrote up his reflections some twenty years later, after returning to his native land where he had made his name with a coruscating takedown of the Australian elite in The Lucky Country. Horne saw England as a nation deeply uncertain about itself and its place in the world. “Come to Britain,” he wrote, “and see the crisis.”

The Northern Metaphor

If Horne’s book, God Is an Englishman, is remembered today, it is likely to be for his vivid summation of one of England’s great divisions: that between the North and the South.

The Britain of what he called the “Northern Metaphor” was “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious and believes in struggle.” In the “Southern Metaphor,” on the other hand, the same country was “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous, and believes in order and tradition.” And while the Northern Metaphor produced the sin of “a ruthless avarice,” the Southern matched it with a belief that “men are born to serve.”

Forgotten in the intervening years, Horne’s metaphors were picked up in the early 1980s by the American historian Martin Wiener in a book titled English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. Wiener used it as part of a cultural explanation for Britain’s industrial failings. Much as Horne had seen in the late ’60s, the Southern metaphor had won out over the Northern. This, according to Wiener, had led to an elite who yearned to be country aristocrats, living off their accumulated dividends, rather than pioneering industrialists forging the nation anew.

Wiener’s book was published at a propitious moment. Only a few months earlier, Margaret Thatcher had won a hard-fought general election, and on taking office she was determined to clear away the detritus of British industry anatomized by Wiener. Her closest political ally, Sir Keith Joseph, even went so far as to distribute copies of the book to every member of her cabinet.

Fuzzy Lines

Myths and metaphors are powerful political tools. So it is that Alex Niven’s new book, The North Will Rise Again, seeks to crystallize a new metaphor for the North of England — one that can, he hopes, reverse its decline.

Niven’s North is located below the southern border of Scotland and somewhere above the fuzzy line that stretches from the very northern tip of Wales in the West across the High Peaks of northern Derbyshire to the southern-most border of Yorkshire in the East. All above it are the former industrial powerhouses of Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Sheffield, and Bradford. He even on occasion extends the lower border to the “Trent-ish” cities of the English Midlands like Derby, Stoke-on-Trent, and Nottingham, deeming them to be part of the “cultural North,” if not the geographical one.

This land is not a happy one. Deeply blighted by decades of deindustrialization and government neglect, the North is in decline and has been for many years. Its towns are decaying, pocked with food banks and homelessness. Its former industrial heartlands are now dominated by low-paid and insecure service work.

The swingeing cuts of the austerity years lead to a “civic cut and run,” in which public services retreated in the face of unrelenting government cuts: in many areas of the North, those cuts were twice as big as their southern equivalents. In the decade after the financial crisis of 2008, government spending per capita on public transport was 2.4 times greater in the culturally, economically, and politically dominant London than in the North, leading many areas to feel even more hopelessly cut-off from southern prosperity than before.

Capitals of Modernity

This was not always so. The North, Niven reminds us, was once the great crucible of the workshop of the world, in which was forged the machinery and merchandise that would make Britain a global power. In the cotton towns of the English North were lit the first fires of the Industrial Revolution, and soon these rural backwaters grew “as if by magic touch,” in the words of Friedrich Engels, into dynamic and vigorous commercial cities.

It was, Niven writes, an “earth-shattering event in northern history,” and the spread of machinofacture brought with it new and ever greater feats of engineering and advancements, and unprecedented forms of scientific discovery. In these years, “the North of England effectively became civilization.” It was “progress” that the North of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stood for, and in doing so it offered “a forceful, even violent counter-theory about the sort of country England was — or could be.”

While the southern half of the nation was aristocratic, traditional, conservative, ancient, and rural — a land of “deeply ingrained traditionalism” and entrenched and unshifting privilege — the North was revolutionary, modern, dynamic, forceful, progressive. Against the accounts of those other great modern capitals — Paris, London, or New York — the cities of the North of England “were the real capitals of modernity,” Niven claims, exhibiting a “rebel commitment to modernism and progressive change.”

Along with the thrusting industrial and technical advances came a culture for which, according to Niven, the “idea of the future has tended to be at the forefront.” Much of the early chapters of the book are given over to anatomizing a distinctive brand of northern modernism.

This cultural strand takes its early cues from Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist movement and reemerges in such diverse phenomena as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s machinist dystopia We, the sci-fi sublime of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Newcastle’s modernist Morden Tower poets, Delia Derbyshire’s pioneering work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. What each has in common is a deep belief in forward movement: a thrusting, pulsing modernist spirit that echoes across the urban landscape of the industrial North.

Lewis, an Anglo-American novelist, painter, and open fascist sympathizer who was privately educated at the ur-establishment Rugby School, might seem a strange lodestar for northern futurism. But Niven finds inspiration in his early work of the 1910s for the magazine BLAST, with its iconoclastic and violent rejection of the staid and privileged world of southern modernism. With its machinic typography and design, its avant-garde poetry and prose in praise of the modern and mechanical, BLAST celebrated the “surfaces of industrial capitalism while attacking its central political institutions,” in giddy reveries for the antihuman power of urban modernity.

This modernist impulse reached its apogee in the 1950s and ’60s with the birth of what Niven, following Mark Fisher, calls “popular modernism,” when the avant-garde experiments of early-twentieth-century high culture crossed over into everyday forms of life. A cluster of mass forms developed in those modern, confident decades, from Pop Art, with its playful riffs on advertising and commercial design, to the sonic experiments of ’60s music, or the modernist sensibilities and aspirations to shape new forms of human activity that characterized postwar architecture.

Brasilia on the Tyne

The postwar years were for Niven ones of “bold egalitarian strides” when, driven by a “rare sense of optimism and renewal,” experiments in modern civic culture sprung up across the North. He presents T. Dan Smith, the modernizing leader of Newcastle City Council with his ultimately doomed attempt to turn his home city into the “Brasilia of the North,” as typifying these progressive social democratic dreams. Driven by an almost religious zeal, Smith fundamentally reshaped the city’s physical environment, demolishing vast rows of Newcastle’s slums and engaging in a series of ambitious modernist construction projects in their stead.

These heady years were not to last, however. Smith’s reputation fell sharply from its ’60s zenith as the tide turned against those buildings perceived as “concrete monstrosities” that had been created by an out-of-touch technocratic elite. His ultimate downfall would come in 1974, in a kind of allegory for social democratic Britain, when he was arrested on corruption charges relating to the dodgy developer John Poulson. Smith spent the next six years in prison, before dying in relative poverty and obscurity in 1993.

The contrast between Britain’s brief social democratic, popular-modernist interlude and the neoliberal era that followed was stark. As the rot of deindustrialization set in, little was left of the progressive dreams of the 1960s bar some half-remembered remnants in the cultural fabric of the North. It is the sad story of Andrea Dunbar who seems to represent this decline best for Niven.

Dunbar was born in 1961 and raised in a working-class family on the Buttershaw estate, a social housing complex built on open moorland on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire, which would later become a byword for deprivation. She wrote her first play, The Arbor, at fifteen as part of a school assignment. Encouraged by her teacher, Dunbar developed the play, which tells the story of a Bradford schoolgirl who falls pregnant to her Pakistani boyfriend, and it was later performed at the famed Royal Court Theatre in London in 1980.

Her second play, the wonderful, moving, and bitingly funny Rita, Sue and Bob Too, opened at the same theater two years later, when Dunbar was just nineteen. Alan Clarke later made it into a film, which premiered in 1987. Barely three years after the film’s release, aged just twenty-nine, Dunbar died of a brain hemorrhage after collapsing on the floor of a local pub.

Her short life, as documented in Clio Barnard’s almost painfully moving film The Arbor, was marred by alcoholism and abuse, as so many others are in the postindustrial North. As Niven perceptively writes, her life and work are “a grim archetype of a collective trauma which disproportionately ravages northern homes.”

Following the decimation of the Thatcher years, Niven charts the wasted potential of New Labour, when various schemes for northern redevelopment were mooted, not least the failed attempts at regional devolution following its implementation in both Scotland and Wales. Yet little changed under Tony Blair, except for the odd gimcrack bauble that sprouted on former industrial land, like the ostentatious and commercially driven urban regeneration projects seen at Salford’s gaudy Quays development and on Gateshead’s Tyneside.

A Modernist Myth

If Niven’s book aspires to be a cultural history of the North, then it is a selective one. Rarely does he venture beyond its northern-most outpost of his native Newcastle. Merseyside gets little mention beyond the Beatles, and Cumbria is no more than a side note to its eastern cousin Northumbria. Cheshire, my own northern citadel, is treated no less unkindly as a posh southern redoubt — hardly true of Crewe or Winsford, even if it is apt for Frodsham and Wilmslow.

But the book’s selectivity is part of its project. It is an attempt to create a new myth for the North, one that can forge a popular cultural socialist politics from deindustrialization’s battered ruinscapes. To do this, Niven writes, we must attend to the “northern traditions of imaginative escape and civic idealism.” Such a movement, he says, must be “a radical, revolutionary project,” based on pan-northern cooperation that can wipe away the antiquated, neo-feudal structure of Britain’s political system.

The watchwords for this new movement must be progress, hope, forward movement, anything that can break through the encrusted structures of traditional England. Niven’s new northern metaphor is one of progressive and modernizing change against the Tory southern elites. It must be forward looking, anti-nostalgic, modern.

Little is said, though, about that other great northern tradition: solidarity. As the historian Raphael Samuel wrote of the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike — the longest national dispute in British industrial history and a pivotal moment in northern history that gets little airing in Niven’s work — it was solidarity and community, often as not created amidst the struggle, that were key to the strike.

If it had an animating spirit, Samuel wrote, it was not a progressive modernity but a “radical conservatism.” This was a movement “of the known against the unknown, the local and the familiar against the remote and the gigantesque.” As one woman in the Welsh mining town of Maerdy told researchers: “We just want to keep what we’ve got!” Here was a movement for survival against the anonymous and modernizing forces of capital, yet one that was no less progressive for its conservatism.

Going against the grain of Niven’s modernist claim that “as in so many other walks of contemporary life, it seems clear that only cities can save us,” Samuel wrote that “the pit villages threatened with extinction by the Coal Board” were “not an atavistic survival from the past.” In fact, by “merging a country setting with an urban sociability, uniting work and home,” they offered “a model of how we might live in the future.”

Angel of the North

Throughout The North Will Rise Again, Niven is fond of quoting the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin as a progressive ally. Yet Benjamin was no mere modernist, as Niven seems to insist. There was a deep and abiding romanticism to his work as well.

Benjamin’s last work, “On the Concept of History,” written soon after his release from a makeshift French internment camp for German nationals and less than a year before his untimely death, is a powerful indictment of the concept of progress. There, he writes of an image by the artist Paul Klee that he had bought in 1922 and which he had hung on the walls of his studies in his increasingly peripatetic life in the years since.

The picture depicted an abstract angel, the Angelus Novus or new angel. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” he wrote, this angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The angel was pushed onward by a terrible storm: “This storm is what we call progress.”

Amidst the ruins of the deindustrial North, such a catastrophe is easy to see. As Niven knows well, any way out must be attached to a vision of the future. The current lack of such a vision, one that can motivate people to struggle for a better life, is one of the reasons for the Left’s historical low in the twenty-first century. Yet this vision does not have to be the impersonal, thrusting, machinic one of modernism.

There are more ways out of the wreckage than forward. As Benjamin wrote from his Parisian room, while the storm clouds gathered over Europe: “Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength.”

For it is not the image of liberated grandchildren that nourishes us, nor the onward march of progress. As the miners knew all too well, it is the image of the redemption of enslaved ancestors that steals us for the fight.