Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Two Nations - a cautionary tale

Of all the barometers for general ignorance the reference points for the North-South divide are an extremely reliable indicator, particularly when attacking the Coalition.  In an otherwise excellent piece in the "Observer", Andrew Rawnsley makes the easy link to Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" as a 19th century exemplar of the divergence between effete southern bed-wetters and the gritty northerners.

From a political viewpoint, the obvious touchstone is "Sybil: or the Two Nations" by a little-known novelist, published in the middle of the Hungry Forties and the Chartist upsurge.  "Sybil" explores the political divide in a way that Gaskell did not, and makes a much stronger case for an inclusive approach to economic and social problems than either Clegg or Cameron have been thus far able to muster.

After a few days in Yorkshire, the depressed state of the economy and the continuing dominance of London continues to astound.  It's clear that the civic regeneration is falling on hard times - but because the fall back towards the 1980s is less precipitous than the spectacular ineptitude of the financial collapse it has been much less reported by the media (more on London-centricity will continue ad nauseam), but the fragility of the Labour boom and the subsequent "tough love" perpetuated by Osborne and others is evident throughout.

For once, it is even possible to consider Petrolhead Hammond as having the right idea - connecting the Midlands, the North and Scotland through high-speed rail is a necessary but not sufficient condition for regenerating economies and integrating into the wider European culture.  Paradoxically the solidarity of cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds feels much more in keeping with a European ideal of public space on a human scale.

Back to "Sybil", a book that is certainly more readable than most 20th and 21st century tomes by politicians, it is instructive that the One Nation Tories were around 170 years ago.  Its author went on to become a Prime Minister, but you will seldom find anyone in politics today who knows or cares who Benjamin Disraeli was, or how his ideas were formed.  Hardly surprising as it's too difficult to consider any form of common wealth and obligation within the current political dialogue.

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