Neglecting the North: Margaret Thatcher, Rishi Sunak and the North/South divide

The Tory party conference 2023, held recently in Manchester, has stirred up frustration among many people in the north of England following Rishi Sunak’s announcement to abandon HS2. To many, this is yet another example of how the north/south divide continues to negatively impact those living in the north. Despite Sunak’s declaration that ‘what matters is the future’, and that he wished to not ‘waste time debating the past,’ assumingly in reference to partygate and Liz Truss’ exceptional handling of inflation, it appears that Sunak didn’t have any problem associating himself and the Conservatives with a specific past, which emerged in more than one notable reference to Margaret Thatcher. He said that the Conservatives are the party of ‘the grocer’s daughter and the pharmacist’s son’, and later quoted Thatcher on the topic of inflation. However, the similarity with Thatcher that Sunak was keen to draw upon perhaps did not end with their links to family-owned businesses, but arguably extended to a shared attitude toward the north of England. 

The neglect of the north of England in British politics, particularly regarding infrastructure, arguably stems from the influence of Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, Thatcher adopted a laissez-faire approach to the manufacturing and mining industries, (which were predominately located in the north and in Wales) and her economic policy consisted of cutting industrial support after 1979.  The manufacturing industry experienced a huge fall in employment during Thatcher’s tenure in office. The sector employed 7.1 million workers in 1979 and, by 1993, this had fallen significantly to 4.4 million. 

Where mining was concerned, Thatcher had planned to close the collieries and to crush trade union support by stockpiling coal, to prevent the issues experienced in the 70s under Callaghan from being repeated. To protest the planned closures of the mines, the NUM launched the Miner’s strike of 1984. The collapse of the strike, which culminated in the battle of Orgreave (South Yorkshire) in June 1984 was devastating to the north, and heralded the ‘hollowing out of mining and working-class communities.‘ The miners were famously vilified by Thatcher in a 1984 speech, in which she stated that ‘we always have to be aware of the enemy within.’ Many of these working-class communities had no other industry to fall back on, and thus collapsed following the strike and continue to face economic hardships today.

Due to the influence of Thatcher’s policies, the north/south divide has become entrenched in British politics, and many feel the south profits at the expense of the north. More recently, under David Cameron it is possible to observe a similar attitude of a Conservative prime minister ‘overlooking’ the north in terms of infrastructure. In 2012 for example, the IPPR calculated that only 6% of Osbourne’s infrastructure plan was to be allocated to the north of England, of a total of £5 billion. Moreover, the IPPR also stated that in 2015, London was receiving six times the amount of transport construction spend than the north was per person. Cameron also promised an update to the A1 in 2014, in the form of a dual carriageway between Morpeth and Ellingham, which was actually scheduled to be finished before 2020. If this announcement sounds familiar, it is because Sunak announced it again in his 2023 conference speech, as one of several ‘new’ projects for his proposed ‘new network north.’

Regional division between north and south in England is more apparent ‘than in any other comparable economy’ according to a report published by the IPPR in 2019. Outside of London, poverty rates are generally higher in the north, with regional attitudes reflecting this. People in the south east are twice as likely to say that they have ‘good opportunities’ than people in the north east, according to a government poll published in March 2021.  Therefore, when (then) prime minister Boris Johnson joked that Thatcher gave Britain an “early start” in the phasing out of fossil fuels by closing the mines in the 1980s – a mere five months following the publication of this government poll – it is easy to see why people in the north feel disregarded when compared with the south. 

The recent Tory Party conference has highlighted that the north/south divide is very much still a relevant political issue today. The Prime Minister’s abandonment of HS2, and his argument that it was time to end ‘saga,’ was the most significant declaration of the conference concerning the north. Although HS2 has consistently divided opinion nationwide, its eventual purpose was to connect the north to the south via high-speed rail. For many, the scrapping of HS2 has aroused anger and resentment towards the government, with the pervading sentiment that the north has yet again been neglected by the Conservatives in terms of investment and infrastructure. To add insult to injury, Sunak boasted of a ‘new network north’: plans to re-invest the money that would be saved from the discontinuation of HS2 into northern infrastructure, the ‘new station in Bradford’ being one of these promises. However, the new station in Bradford had already been proposed under Boris Johnson, who then scrapped it, for it to be reinstated by Truss and scrapped again by Sunak when he came into office. Along with plans for the A1, previously mentioned above, it appears that several of Sunak’s exciting new plans seem to be recycled, pre-existing plans that have otherwise been unsuccessful.

If it is difficult to believe that Sunak is passionate about investment in northern infrastructure, it might be because he has previously boasted that he reversed Labour formulas which ‘shoved all the money into deprived urban areas’ and redirected funds into ‘areas like this,’ whilst standing in Tunbridge Wells. And where are the most deprived areas of England? According to the English Indices of Deprivation published by the government in 2019, of the 20 local authority districts with the highest proportion of neighbourhoods in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods nationally, 16 out of 20 are located in the north.  It appears that the ‘pharmacist’s son’ is on the same page as the ‘grocer’s daughter’ when it comes to neglecting the north. 


[Image: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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