The North/South Divide

The North - motorway sign

It’s grim up North, or so I’m told, but for the past two years I’ve been living in an affluent pocket of Southern ideals. There are yummy-mummies and wine bars in abundance in York city centre and our neighbour, Harrogate, even has a Waitrose. You don’t get much more Southern than that.

Is it becoming irrelevant to talk about a North-South divide? Culture, business and wealth are thriving in the North, whilst London exhibits the biggest social contrasts in the country. What could really be so different about the North and South other than that we disagree on how to say ‘bath’? An accent says a lot. However, while the North-South divide is by no means the startling industrial gap it once was, stereotypes are still thrown around and the socioeconomic statistics still sit firmly in the South’s favour.

According to a profile of England, published last October by the Department of Health, the health differences between the North and South follow us from birth to death. The average Northern five year old has two decayed, missing or filled teeth, double that of the average Southern or Midland five year old, and those in the South can expect to live three years longer on average than those in the North. The average Northerner is also statistically more likely to smoke and drink to excess, and suffer poor mental health. In addition, if you grew up in the South you are far more likely to attend a Russell Group university.

In the South, house prices average £265,000; over £100,000 more than in the North, where the average house is worth just £159,000. The cost of living is higher but wages, for the most part, seem to reflect this. The average worker in Great Britain earns £11.50 an hour. For a worker living in Liverpool the average earning per hour is £10.86, dwarfed by rates such as £17.64, in the London suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames, and £15.14 in Inner London.

It sounds like it could be a pretty high-pressured life in the South, which is probably why even music tastes differ. According to a recent HMV sales survey, the number of beats per minute systematically increases as you go North. Those in the West Country are chilling to trip-hop beats of less than 70bpm, whilst Newcastle-on-Tyne embraces a culture of fast-paced dance and rock at up to 160bpm. The survey noted the difference in tastes as corresponding to regional influences, lifestyle, and most interestingly, drug use. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out which drugs are prevalent in an area where the beats slow to less than the average heart beat, compared to the dance-dominated Northern scene.

In 2007, Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at Sheffield University, redrew the North-South line using various parameters of poverty and inequality. He rated the most significant to be life expectancy and house prices, followed by others such as education and voting patterns. The line diagonally joins the Severn estuary and Grimsby. Leicester has been defined as Southern and Nottingham has been labelled Northern. The small matter of 30 miles was deemed by Dorling to be the first indicator of the gun crime, acute poverty and chronic obesity in Nottingham.

The idea of a North-South divide has been present since the Industrial Revolution. By merit of its geography the South was always one step ahead in terms of industrialisation. London led the South to commercial economic success whilst the North remained the home of industry. This study highlights the unhelpful and arbitrary nature of officially marking the division. Dorling has effectively defined North and South as socioeconomic failure and success respectively, and says for example, that London is “not really in the South” due to its high rates of poverty.

It seems ridiculous to perpetuate the idea that it is the geography of a place that dictates the quality of life. The statistics comparing the North and South are not uniform. London has the highest rates of drug abuse in the country, and the Midlands, not the North, have the highest rates of obesity. To neglect these disparities within the North-South divide, and to take this divide as law, is to ignore the real factors of socio-economic inequality.

That isn’t to say there are no consequences of the split. According to a Nouse poll of one hundred students, 49% had felt affected by the North-South divide. One student polled said: “Do you want an example of how I was affected? I was called a dirty Northern monkey when I was eleven.” I asked some students at York how they feel about the North-South divide.
Anne lives near Liverpool and seems somewhat exasperated by talk of North-South disparity. She is quick to bring up the rising profiles of the old industrial cities. “Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle; working class cities. They had docks, they were industrial, but it’s not like that anymore. Liverpool is the European Capital of Culture and Manchester is a thriving business city.”

For Anne it’s just a matter of time before more Northern cities catch up with London. Manchester and Liverpool, as she mentioned, are well on their way, and there’s no reason why others won’t lose their industrial connotations. Moving away from the big cities, the North also has its fair share of affluent smaller towns. York is the second most popular tourist city, after London, in the UK, and Cheshire has the greatest density of millionaires per square mile in the UK. MTV have even set Living On The Edge, their UK OC lifestyle show, there. “LA attitude, Cheshire postcode” is its tagline.

There is no doubt, Anne tells me, that people think differently of the North and the South but she firmly believes it should be dismissed as a previous generation’s prejudices. “Nobody wants to be prejudiced, but you get it from somewhere; it’s kind of handed down. When my mum, who’s from Liverpool, met my dad’s mum, who’s from London, my dad’s mum just looked her up and down and said, ‘I don’t like Cilla Black.’ My mum was like, ‘Good, neither do I!’”

When asked whether she felt affected by the North-South divide Anne asked whether I meant affected or offended. “I would say I’m more offended. It’s hard to explain. I would feel more prejudiced if I had experienced it more. As it is, it just offends me rather than being a part of my life.”

She tells me that saying she’s from near Liverpool can get a negative response. “They think scousers, common, and therefore really brash and from an estate or something.” Anne’s pretty sure that if she said she was from Manchester, she would get a more positive response and this is further evidence that it’s not just about North and South anymore. In her opinion, there are undesirable areas all over the country. She laughs and recalls an Essex girl saying, “Don’t you fink [sic.] Northern’s like an ugly talk?”

“I suppose I held some prejudices myself, but only in an insecure way. I came to university thinking everyone was posher than me, rather than from London or the South.” In Anne’s block, almost all the girls on her floor spoke Received Pronunciation (essentially Queen’s English), whereas the bottom floor girls all had regional, mostly Northern, accents. According to Anne, both sides initially acted defensively.

Her accent left her a little caught in the middle but ultimately the she feels the animosity dissipated fairly quickly.
Rachel also lived on Anne’s floor last year, but is from London. Both are tired of what they call everyone’s “reverse snobbery obsession with being poor.” No one wants people to think they’ve had an easy ride.

“I hate sounding like every other first-generation middle class kid with poor parents. Every time someone tells you that their parents were poor you just think grow up, join the fucking club,” says Rachel, who speaks with RP and went to a high-ranking grammar school. She is keen to point out that she would never have gone to a private school. “Sometimes I think if I was a failure people would think it was funny. If you sound like you might be remotely privileged, you lose any credibility in your successes.”

Anne, however, is quick to condemn the privileged and lazy, implying that Rachel might be naïve to think that if she slacked off people would forgive her accent. “I’d have similar opinions of someone who left school at 16 and worked in a shop, then bummed around a bit, then worked a bit, then didn’t do much, to some ‘yuppy’ son who stops and starts at uni, wasting everyone’s time. The only real difference is that he can go back and work for Daddy.”

I always thought people shied away from talking about class, but every student I approached talked openly about the class implications of the North and South. Both Rachel and Anne resented what they explicitly named as class stereotypes, associated with their accents. “People have mainly just taken the piss. Let’s not exaggerate; it’s mostly in jest. But it is sad that people are genuinely hesitant to be accepting of people with certain accents.” Rachel clearly feels like more of a victim in this block-related dispute, but according to our poll, only 34% of Southerners have ever felt affected by a North-South divide, compared to 74% of Northerners.

John, from Doncaster, is a Northerner who seems to have been more affected by the division. “There is a distinct difference between the world I’m in on campus, and the world I’m in at home; possibly because most people here seem to be Southern.” The random selection from our poll suggests that Northern and Southern students are roughly equal in number at York, with 34% of our answers coming from each and only 14% coming from the Midlands. It’s hard to say who should feel outnumbered, as most Midlanders complain of being called both Northern and Southern.

John disputes that there isn’t actually that much of a divide on campus, rather that it seems “overwhelmingly Southern”, talking about how he has “Southerned up, or rather, Southerned down” since he’s been at York. For John, as well as Rachel, the biggest source of conflict has been his accent. “People didn’t understand the way I spoke,” he says, “I was proud of being from the North, but now I’m not.” However, he harbours little actual resentment, and seems quite contemplative rather than angry about his loss of pride.

“There’s nothing in the North that there isn’t in the South, apart from, you know; racism [laughs wryly]. How can you be proud of something you didn’t even choose?” John very much sees his university transformation as a good thing, but he bristles at people, particularly other Northerners, suggesting that he thinks he’s better than them. “Just because you listen to Wagner over the Arctic Monkeys doesn’t make you a snob. I fail to see how one is better than the other, they’re merely interests. I think people just feel intimidated.” Once again students seem to feel affected by this inverse snobbery, there is a real sense that they feel like they are held back by having to “remember where they’ve come from.”

London is a recurring theme in the North-South debate. The HMV survey highlighted a desire to buck the London-promoted music trends in other large cities, particularly in Leeds. Sarah, from Kent, giggles over the “North London mafia” on campus and how people are constantly trying to bring London and its music scene to university. Anyone who’s been to both London and York is no doubt acutely aware that this will never happen.

Sarah is by far the most indifferent to the divide of the four I interviewed. She is adamant that it’s all in our heads. “People think there’s a North-South divide, but it just not really the case. Industry has disappeared, it’s not like everyone in the North still works in coal mines. It’s not the ‘80s anymore!”

The effect that the North-South divide has had on Sarah seems to be limited to during the first weeks of university. “In freshers’ week it just helped us make conversation. ‘Where are you from? The North? Ooh, say bath!’” Sarah seems to reflect the general mood quite well. People are aware of the problem but unless they’ve had personal experience, it doesn’t seem to bother them that much. The Northerners are more aware of its affect and, on campus at least, due to the indifferent attitudes of the Southerners, it seems they are pre-empting bad feeling that isn’t really there.

An obsession with such a distinction creates social paranoia, though students are aware that in the liberal “campus bubble” prejudices are diluted. As Anne said: “How it affects students is a lot less than how it affects the ‘real world’. It’s just a bubble.” She feels that the actuality of the divide comes down to little more than accent, geography and banter.

The problematic factor remains class. “The North South divide has fallen because there’s a new definition of working class in both the North and South,” says Anne. Whilst most at university are quick to establish that they are not upper-class, students also describe a change in attitude towards the working class, even if such a thing even still exists. Apparently such people are no longer “working”, but are instead seen as benefit “spongers”. Sarah says: “People are recovering from having jobs taken away from them. People expect to have money. The clamber for wealth means there’ll be one giant middle class.”

But perhaps even class is a masking factor. As the middle class grows, the gap between rich and poor will only get wider. Maybe clinging onto outdated and simplistic prejudices like class in relation to analysing the North-South divide only serves to hide the socio-economic problems. Inner-city poverty, under funded comprehensives and isolated minorities. Yet we seem unable to got rid of these inherited prejudices, and so they continue to affect students on this campus, and all over the country. On a broader scale, however, the “great” divide remains an insult to those either side of it who really are disadvantaged.


  1. Hello,
    A very interesting piece for someone studying this topic from across the Channel.
    I was wondering what the younger generations thought about it, now I’ve got part of the answer.
    Thanks indeed!

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  2. The Elitism and pompous naivety of southern c*nts stinks.

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  3. Richard Burn – LOL what an false, dated, ignorant view. I’m not even a southerner and I realise that the horrible stereotype you use is painfully wrong. Stop spouting boring nonsense

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  4. Painfully, the stereotypes that both have against one another are still generally true… northerners are still more friendly and southerners are still more wealthy. It’s a real shame… and thankfully over time things are slowly changing, though I fear they may not ever be gone.

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