Now that people are leaving for the English regions, maybe money and power will head back out of the capital, too
Ambitious thirtysomethings are leaving London in record numbers, according to the Office for National Statistics. Of course, so many would not be leaving if so many were not there in the first place. But to those of us historically inclined, it was a pleasure to read the names of the places they are moving to.
Top of the list was Birmingham, where in the 1870s Joseph Chamberlain famously ran an exemplary municipality and built a national power base. (I’m no expert on Birmingham but I once set a novel in Edwardian Halifax, which was similarly civic minded. (“The big celebrity in Halifax,” a local historian told me, was the mayor.”)
Manchester was on the list. “It’s no big deal, a Manc once told me, “but this was the birthplace of the industrial revolution.” Nottingham also featured, setting of novels by DH Lawrence and of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, the most caustic – which is saying something – of the “kitchen sink” group of northern writers, who I was brought up on but whom nobody reads any more.
Searching the internet for new literary productions emanating from Nottingham, I find a play of 2012 called Diary of a Football Nobody … which I’m sure is extremely good. But the title does remind me that the only time you hear most regional cities mentioned is on the classified football results, when it is a masochistic pleasure for any northerner to hear Charlotte Green’s cut-glass enunciation of “Preston North End”.
But the names of provincial towns and cities are now being heard in a more important context. Their council leaders are demanding greater powers as part of the constitutional settlement promised by David Cameron since further Scottish devolution, and it seems that at last we have a rebellion against London. George Osborne in the autumn statement, in response to this, promised the creation of a “northern powerhouse”. This would include road and rail improvements, science initiatives and a major new “theatre space” for Manchester.
I am now going to step into a minefield. I was born in Yorkshire but I live in London. I don’t like living here, if that’s any help, and my wife will attest that I have spent the past 20 years trying to move us out of it. But the fact is, I took part in a migration bigger and more dangerous than the recent exodus of thirtysomethings. And that is the migration to London.
I moved south in the mid-80s, at about the time when the mines were being closed, the big bang was going off and the Yorkshire Post ramped up rhetoric about the “north-south divide”. But the real divide was between London and the rest.
This started at a political question but it becomes a cultural one. Westminster has been appropriating powers since at least the second world war. Contributory causes include centralised state socialism, as opposed to the localised socialism of mutualism and cooperation. There was Thatcher’s animus against Labour town halls, and then the more justified animus against “loony left councils”. Now “austerity” is the stick used to beat local government.
The result is that Westminster has become the town hall of Britain. It is ridiculous that in a grownup country, Eric Pickles should be berated on the front page of newspapers, as he was recently over council rubbish collections. Not that I’m against berating Eric Pickles, but the talents of a cabinet minister (if any) should be used for matters of greater national moment.
If we can’t look to our local councillors about rubbish collection, how can we take them seriously as people? How, in turn, can we take the places they represent seriously, even if these happen to be the places in which we live? And why would we read about those places or watch films about them?
Having entered a minefield, I am going to stamp about in it. Yes, there was a vibrant music scene in Manchester… quite a long time ago. I know all about the Leeds piano competition, Opera North, the Sage at Gateshead. I know part of the BBC is in Salford. I know that Ian McMillan, who presents The Verb on Radio Three, is from Barnsley. I know there must be some good new novels set in the provinces. But compared with the momentous forces that have sucked the cultural life out of the English regions, this is nothing.
George Osborne’s answer is limited devolution to certain good-goody “city regions” that can be trusted to receive slightly more money than they have at their disposal just now. It is my hope and belief that before long he will start to resemble the boy with his finger in the dam.
• Andrew Martin’s latest book is Belles & Whistles
This article was written by Andrew Martin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 3rd December 2014 19.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010