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North-South Divide

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North-South Divide

How are the North and South of England different? If you're from England, which one do you identify with? In 1962, Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, voiced his fears of

two nations developing geographically.

So, how can we define the North and the South? What caused such a deep divide between these two parts of the country?

North-South divide: definition

Since the Norman period, the foundations of a North-South Divide have been evident in the UK. Poverty characterised the North and wealth, the South. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and these political and regional divisions deepened. The industry largely took place in the North and London in the South became of increasing importance as a financial centre. However, the idea of a polarised North and South truly came into public consciousness during Margaret Thatcher's period as Prime Minister.

Defining exactly what constituted the North and the South can be problematic.

North-South divide map

North-South Divide, Map of England divided into the South, the Midlands, and the North, StudySmarterMap of England divided into the South (yellow), the Midlands (green), and the North (blue), Wikimedia Commons.

It is common to divide the North and the South by the border of the River Severn in Gloucestershire in the West and the Wash Bay in Norfolk in the East. However, there are varying opinions about the Midlands.

Whilst enjoying some economic success and importance in the form of Birmingham, the second city of England, the Midlands also feels an affinity to the North through their accent, history, politics and culture. For the purpose of this article, therefore, we will characterise the Midlands as the North.

The South West also shares many features of the North. It has also suffered economically from dying mining industries and feels let down by the power in the South East.

The North-South Divide might not be the most accurate regional name to describe these divisions, but it serves as a convenient way of describing the poorer areas (the North) and the wealthier areas (the South) of England.

Thatcher and the North-South divide in England

Now we know a bit about the North-South divide, let's look at the causes, many of which come down to one woman: Margaret Thatcher.

North-South Divide, Margaret Thatcher, StudySmarterMargaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister (1979-1990), Wikimedia Commons.

The entrenching and worsening of existing divisions between the North and the South came under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher in the 1980s. Some historians have cast Thatcher as a hero, dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by the Soviet press, who helped end the Cold War and revived the turbulent economy of the 1970s.

Alternatively, some of her politics still bring contempt from the working-class people whose lives they directly affected. Let's see how some of them increased the inequality between the North and the South.

Deindustrialisation and the North-South divide

YearIndustrial Workers
19709 million
19807 million
19904 million

Table 1. The decline of industrial workers in the UK.

Deindustrialisation describes the process by which service (sectors like retail) replaced industry (sectors like mining). It has roots far before Thatcherism and the coal mines, in particular, started to close because of other forms of energy such as nuclear energy in the 1950s.

In fact, more jobs in coal mines were lost under Harold Wilson in the 1960s than under Thatcher. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was a thorn in the side of previous Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath and his concessions to the trade union cost him his power. The ‘Iron Lady’ was certain that she would not meet the same fate. She closed unprofitable coal mines to help economic success, ignoring the livelihoods that would be lost in the North.

In 1984 there were 174 working coal mines but by 1994 there were only 15 in the UK.

Trade union

A trade union is an independent organisation that fights to improve the working conditions for employees in various industries.

The Miners

  • In the 1970s the NUM successfully gained a pay rise and paralysed the country with their strikes, forcing government concessions.
  • Thatcher would not allow miners to control coal distribution. As soon as she became Prime Minister in 1979 she set up a network of drivers who were not in unions to stop industry grinding to a halt and created coal reserves that could last for around 6 months.
  • On 6 March 1984, the National Coal Board (state-owned) announced plans to cut the industry and produce 4 million tons less coal, potentially closing 20 pits.
  • The NUM rallied, and leader Arthur Scargill triggered nationwide strikes on the same day, starting in South Yorkshire.
  • Police played a vital role for Thatcher and classed with protestors in various locations. 52 protestors and 72 policemen were injured in the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in Yorkshire.
  • On 2 March 1985, Scargill ended the protest. Thatcher stood firm and made no compromises.

Privatisation and the North-South Divide

Another policy that Thatcher introduced to help stimulate the economy was privatisation. This refers to the redistribution of state-owned companies to privately owned ones. It also tied in with her early monetarism policy.

Monetarism

Monetarism is the idea that the money supply can control inflation. In theory, higher spending would control inflation. Increasing interest rates and lowering taxes and spending were the main tactics the government used to do this.

By the end of Thatcher's term, 40 government-ran businesses and more than half a million government-employed workers had been privatised. This included giants such as British Telecommunications and British Gas.

Thatcher favoured the individual over centralised services. For many communities in the North that struggled to cope with deindustrialisation, the state-offered services were a lifeline. Thatcher moved swiftly to cut this sector, for what they perceived as private greed and left levels of unemployment at over 11% in 1985.

Housing Act (1980)

The Housing Act or ‘Right to Buy’ scheme of 1980 was an early indicator of Thatcher's intentions to privatise on a grand scale. Under the act, council house tenants could now buy their property from the state at a large discount. It was ironic that Thatcher coined the term Housing Act when many of the government-owned properties were flats.

According to the Guardian1, there were almost fifty houses sold for every flat. The regional differences were clear too, with the highest concentration of sales in London and the surrounding area. In other words, it was far more likely that a white-collar worker in the city would be able to afford to own their own house and pick properties with more space.

The buyers were, in actual fact, ten times more likely to be employed and not necessarily a typical, less fortunate council tenant. The ‘Right to Buy’ scheme signalled the London-centric (regional South) bias of Thatcher's government; it was geared towards those who already had money. Ultimately, the poorer sections of society suffered again with rents rising by 55% by 1991 at the end of Thatcher's tenure.

White-collar worker

A white-collar worker is typically someone who works in an office with a shirt and tie and does not do physical or manual labour.

The North-South divide: facts

What was the legacy of Thatcher's policies? Let's see if the divide still exists today.

The NorthThe South
  • Pro-Labour (although the map below shows that recently the Conservatives have many seats in the North).
  • Pro-Conservative (although the map below shows that recently Labour has many seats in the South).
  • Some recognition of the success of Thatcherism with Blair and Brown's governments and New Labour.
  • Conservative modern political philosophy is now largely informed by the successes of Thatcherism in the 1980s.
  • Reliant on the public sector.
  • Favours private companies and individual enterprises.
  • Lower average house prices: £147,719 in the North East in October 2021 according to the UK government website.
  • Far higher average house prices: £366,883 in the South East in October 2021 according to the UK government website.2
  • 5.5% unemployment in the North East according to the Office for National Statistics.
  • 5% unemployment in the South East according to the Office for National Statistics.3
  • The average income was around £13,000 per year in 2008, according to the Guardian, which often includes benefits.
  • The average income was about £19,000 per year in London in 2008 according to The Guardian.4
  • Life expectancy was 78 between 2017 and 2019 according to the Office for National Statistics.
  • Life expectancy was 81 (between 2017 and 2019) in London according to the Office for National Statistics.5

Political Parties in the North and South

Whilst it is easy to simplify ideas of the North as a Labour stronghold and the South as politically Conservative, the map below shows how this idea is perhaps dated. In 2017, England was overwhelmingly Conservative. There were pockets of Labour support in the North, but also in the South.

Most interestingly, London has a large Labour following despite the Conservative notions of the South associated with Thatcher. This may be a result of the economic disparities in the capital where there are the largest pay gaps in the country.

North South Divide, General Election England 2017, StudySmarterGeneral Election 2017: Blue = Conservative, Red = Labour, Orange = Liberal Democrats, Wikimedia Commons.

Conclusion

While the policies of Margaret Thatcher certainly accelerated the North-South Divide, it is clear that many of the tensions causing it were already prevalent in society. It would therefore be lazy to say that it was wholly caused during her premiership.

Thatcher's government gave power to those willing to spend. Her priority was the economy and therefore those unable to add substantially to it fell by the wayside. Deindustrialisation, privatisation, and the Housing Act all served to entrench the regional inequalities between the North and the South. It is thus easy for historians to mark this decade as the watershed for the North-South Divide.

However, it is important to consider that deindustrialisation was already happening before Thatcher and it is likely that any Conservative government would have followed policies of privatisation as Ronald Reagan did in the US.

Thatcher has left an undoubted legacy on UK politics and the fact that New Labour moved to the right is a testament to much of her success. We can also see very recently that the regional North is voting Conservative. Labour's crisis of identity has roots in Thatcherism.

The North-South Divide was a metaphor for those who are fortunate and unfortunate with London representing the South, but now we are seeing that London votes Labour. There is also a drive for the redistribution of some services in the UK, departing from London or the South, with the BBC recently moving its headquarters to Manchester.

North-South Divide, BBC Salford Quays in Manchester, StudySmarterBBC Salford Quays in Manchester, Wikimedia Commons.

North-South Divide - Key takeaways

  • The North-South Divide is used as a metaphor for the poor and the rich or Labour and the Conservatives but it is not always geographically or regionally accurate.
  • The roots of the North-South Divide were in England long before Margaret Thatcher.
  • Thatcher's policies such as aggressive deindustrialisation, privatisation, and the Housing Act widened the gap between the North and the South of England.
  • They caused unemployment, strikes, and rising costs for people who lived in or identified with the issues of the North.
  • Thatcher changed the political landscape of the UK. Her three terms as Prime Minister caused a crisis of identity for Labour and many of their policies now mirror those of the Conservatives.

Sources

1. Andy Beckett, 'The right to buy: the housing crisis that Thatcher built', The Guardian, 2015.

2. HM Land Registry, 'UK House Price Index for October 2021', UK Government, 2021.

3. Bob Watson, 'Labour market in the regions of the UK', Office for National Statistics, 2022.

4. Datablog, 'The north-south pay gap: what do people earn where you live?', The Guardian, 2016.

5. Chris White, 'Life expectancy for local areas of the UK', Office for National Statistics, 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions about North-South Divide

The North-South Divide refers to the political, regional, and economical gap between the North and the South of England.

Deindustrialisation was beginning to cause the North-South divide but Margaret Thatcher's policies in the 1980s such as privatisation, the Housing Act, and the ignorance of trade unions worsened the already present inequalities.

Traditionally the border between the North and the South stretches from the Severn in Gloucestershire to the Wash Bay in Norfolk.

The North of England is generally an area of industry, Labour politics and reliance on public services. The South is a region of finance or offices, Conservative politics and private enterprise. In reality, these are political terms more than regional ones.

Yes, there is a divide, although the idea of a North-South divide simplifies the Midlands region. It is, however, a useful way to think about the disparities in wealth between the North and South of the country.

Final North-South Divide Quiz

Question

In which decade was the North-South divide accelerated?

Show answer

Answer

1980s

Show question

Question

How many working days were lost due to unemployment in 1979?

Show answer

Answer

30 million

Show question

Question

Which areas of England share features of identity with the North?

Show answer

Answer

The Midlands and the South West

Show question

Question

What was the level of unemployment in 1985?

Show answer

Answer

12%

Show question

Question

What caused the Miners Strike in 1984?

Show answer

Answer

The National Coal Board wanted to produce 4 million tons less of coal, causing closures of around 20 pits.

Show question

Question

Why did the Miners Strike fail?

Show answer

Answer

Thatcher had agreed a network of non-unionised drivers and had surpluses of coal and coke so the industry could continue.

Show question

Question

How many workers lost their jobs due to privatisation?

Show answer

Answer

500,00

Show question

Question

What was another name for the Housing Act in 1980?

Show answer

Answer

The Right to Buy

Show question

Question

What were the political legacies of Thatcherism for the North-South Divide?

Show answer

Answer

New Labour adopted some of Thatcher's policies and had a crisis of identity as shown by the 2017 election results. The North idea became less regional. 

Show question

Question

How much higher were the rents in 1991 compared to the introduction of the Housing Act?

Show answer

Answer

55%

Show question

Question

Where has the BBC moved their headquarters to?

Show answer

Answer

Manchester

Show question

Question

What was the aim of privatisation?

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Answer

Privatisation would increase the money supply in the economy and focus on individual enterprise. It would also allow state spending cuts.

Show question

Question

How many coal pits were there in 1994?

Show answer

Answer

174

Show question

Question

What was the role of the police in the 1984 Miner's Strike?

Show answer

Answer

The police stopped the Miner's Strike using violent measures and clashed with protestors, notably during the Battle of Orgreaves, Yorkshire.

Show question

Question

What is monetarism?

Show answer

Answer

Monetarism is an economic policy focusing on increasing the supply of money in the economy by increasing interest and reducing spending and tax.

Show question

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