Is it Grim Up North?

The Brexit binary of the liberal metropolitan elite versus the Northern white working-class is false and harmful to British politics.


Analyses of Brexit have misleadingly pitted the white, Northern working-class against London's liberal metropolitans. (Photo: Pexels)

Analyses of Brexit have misleadingly pitted the white, Northern working-class against London’s liberal metropolitans. (Photo: Pexels)

Mainstream political discourse tell us that Brexit has revealed a divide between London’s “metropolitan liberal elite” and a Northern, white working-class who have “legitimate concerns” about immigration. Yet this false binary is a harmful symptom of lazy analyses of Brexit. Politicians and journalists have often ignored, misrepresented and disparaged those who live outside the capital. From tragedy to farce, those who claim to represent the North politically often end up reproducing harmful stereotypes.

Brexit has shed light on the contempt that certain liberals hold for those less well-off who live outside London. The Remain campaign itself failed to emphasize the EU’s development projects in Cornwall, Wales and South Yorkshire. Stereotypes and classism have been a standard feature of political discourse on the North-South divide. Journalist Ian Dunt said he was “sick and tired of sending out cash to the rest of the country so they can whine about London and the immigrants who made it for them”.

Insofar as it can be measured, open racial prejudice is more prevalent outside London but racism is hardly confined to a specific region. Dismissing “the rest of the country” as racists is an unhelpful generalization. It inaccurately assumes racism doesn’t occur in the capital itself. In 2013, polls showed 26 per cent of people in Greater London held racial prejudices, compared with 30 per cent in the North on average. Anti-racists North and South have their work cut out. Still, it’s worth remembering there are immigrants who live in cohesive, multicultural and Northern communities that are simply erased by Dunt’s simplistic generalizations.

Furthermore, the notion that London is Britain’s benevolent money-maker that generously spreads prosperity across the country is not only harmful but false. The North suffered economically and socially from the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years. More recently, research shows that austerity cuts have hit poor Northern areas harder while the Home Counties have been “cushioned”. George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, announced with much fanfare, was supposed to bring prosperity back to the North. Yet its offices have been relocated to the capital so 97 per cent of its civil servants now work in London. A study by the University of Sheffield revealed that London receives “significantly” more infrastructure investment than the rest of the country. Major infrastructure investments outside of London tend to want Northern cities with the capital. For example, New Labour’s High Speed Rail 2 – backed by the Conservatives – sought to connect London to Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Despite backtracking later, Jeremy Corbyn’s aide was correct when he said that HS2 “benefited the few rather than the many”. Shortening travel times to London may help the few get to meetings and conferences, but it is not going to help the many get to work in cities like Leeds, Manchester or Sheffield. Rather than bringing growth to the deindustrialised North, successive governments since Thatcher have wanted Northerners to “get on their bike” and move to London where the high-paid jobs are. This scuppers prosperity and community cohesion – perhaps a factor in the Brexit referendum result. As alluded to, investment in infrastructure – specifically in the North – would be much more welcome.

Rachel Reeves has served as the MP for Leeds West since 2010. (Photo: Wikimediacomms)

Rachel Reeves has served as the MP for Leeds West since 2010. (Photo: Wikimediacomms)

Many who represent the North politically have perpetuated the false Brexit binary. Rachel Reeves MP for Leeds West, for instance, compared her constituency to a “tinder box” and warning of “riots”. In prophesising nothing less than race riots, she eerily echoed the sentiment of Enoch Powell’s infamous rivers of blood speech. There were racist attacks on the Polish community in Reeves’s constituency but seriousness and sensitivity rather than alarmism was required. Many of Reeves’ working-class constituents were shocked by her comments. “She obviously doesn’t think very much of people if she thinks they’re going to start rioting in the street”, one of them said.

Don Valley’s MP Caroline Flint also leaned on her Northern constituency to come out against freedom of movement. She explained on Newsnight that her constituency was, on a cultural and social level, unable to deal with the inflow of migrants. “Don Valley, back in 97, it was 99.5 per cent white…” she went on, “in the last few years, ‘non-British’ has gone up to five per cent”. Her conflation of Britishness with whiteness betrayed her argument’s racist undertones.

Further to the Left, ex-Elmet MP Colin Burgon offered “a View from the North”, a socialist case against freedom of movement. Yet it’s difficult to see what his view had to do with the North as such. His economic analysis of neoliberalism and his critique of New Labour and UKIP should be commended but on immigration his argument falls down. Burgon’s claim that immigration drives down wages was debunked in a study by the LSE. He ultimately drew on the same harmful Brexit dichotomy of the Northern, white working-class versus the liberal metropolitan elite. Contrary to Burgon’s framing, ending freedom of movement is far from simply a Northern working-class issue. A more thorough analysis reveals that plenty of middle-class people from the Home Counties voted for Brexit in the hope of ending freedom of movement.

The Brexit binary then allows the North’s otherwise left-wing political representatives to come out against freedom of movement. It also allows elitist liberals in parliament and the media to dismiss Northerners as racists sponging off their hard work. Prosperous Home Counties, with significant minority Leave votes, escape the blame for inflicting Brexit on the Remainers. Deindustrialisation and lack of investment and prosperity in the North are therefore almost a just punishment. The endpoint of this liberal elite logic has manifested itself across the pond: Midwesterners deserve poverty for not being smart enough to vote the right way. To avoid this problem, Anglo-American liberal elitists flippantly suggest the Blue States and London alike need to secede. Tongue in cheek though it may be, it betrays the classism at the heart of the new Brexit binary. As well as investment in deprived areas, appreciation for the nuance and complexity of Brexit and the politics North-South divide wouldn’t go amiss.

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James Whittaker

Political Correspondent at Filibuster UK
James Whittaker is a 21-year old student from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. He holds a bachelor's degree in politics from the University of York, and is currently studying for a Political Theory Masters at the University of Leeds. A socialist, he joined the Labour party in 2015 in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn and remains an unrepentant (though sometimes healthily critical) Corbyn supporter. James is also a keen reader of Hemingway novels and the poetry of Simon Armitage. He's an always optimisitc Huddersfield Town supporter and tweets at @jmwhittaker95.
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