One of the great English novels of the 19th century is North and South. It was written by a Christian minister’s wife, Elizabeth Gaskell, and published in 1854 in a magazine run by Charles Dickens. Mrs Gaskell wanted to call the novel by the name of its key character, Margaret Hale. Dickens (rightly) insisted on calling it North and South.
Its focus is the great differences between the prosperous rural south of England and the very different lives of people in the fast-industrialising towns of northern England. The story is of a woman who moves from the south to a fictionalised version of industrial Manchester in the harsh times of the Industrial Revolution. She meets northerners from her own country, England, who speak her own language, English, but who lead completely different lives to those Englishmen and women in the south. The northerners work endless hours in dangerous and filthy factories, their lives on the edge of poverty and despair.
I’m re-thinking this novel now because in 2022 England is yet again a tale of divisions North and South and other divisions too. My life in the south of England revolves around the economic, financial and political centre of London. But because I’m travelling to literary and other summer festivals I happen to be writing this in York, in the north of England. It’s a city of stunning beauty in the heart of Yorkshire, a place so glorious Yorkshire folk call it "God’s own country."
It does seem blessed. The street markets are bustling. The shops, crowded. The university is holding a "Festival of Ideas" with contributors discussing, arguing, debating from around the world. But I’m also listening to the news and reading newspapers describing another England.
There’s a shocking report of the increase in food banks. There are economists and pollsters agreeing that so many more of our citizens are finding price rises that bust their budgets. Inflation is forecast at 11 per cent or more. Basic foods from pasta to cooking oil are already much more expensive. So are electricity and gas.
One woman helper at a food bank confessed that she is finding times so hard she herself needs to take home food from the food bank. Local councils fear massive funding cuts to school building projects, libraries and swimming pools. Carers and other lower paid workers speak of petrol at £2 a litre being too expensive to fill their tanks to drive to work. But this is not Mrs Gaskell’s North-South divide. This is all of us. Yet politically there is a different divide.
Near York, in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, northern voters go to the polls on Thursday in a seat vacated by a scandal-hit Conservative MP of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He resigned after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a young man.
In the south, Tiverton in Devon, voters also go to the polls after the resignation of their own scandal-hit Conservative MP. This man was caught watching pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons. These two vastly different parts of North and South in England are united in the sense that after 12 years of Conservative governments the scandals involving Mr Johnson and his colleagues seem endless. Polls predict Labour will win the Wakefield seat, here in the north. In the south the Liberal Democrats have a mountain to climb to overturn a 23,000 Conservative majority but no one is ruling out a massive upset.
In the last month I’ve been in Sussex, Kent, Yorkshire, London and Scotland and am off to Belfast and the Midlands later. Everywhere I have been I think I am lucky to live in such a beautiful country. But in many conversations at public meetings and elsewhere I’m struck by how worried people are about the months ahead. Trust in political leaders is hard to find. Mr Johnson may have still have some support, but beyond those directly on the government payroll, such support is often unenthusiastic, grudging or silently embarrassed.
When I ask people about energy prices, household budgets, and the behaviour of the most powerful people at Westminster, it’s as if great clouds appear over the English summer sun. Politicians and political experts speak of the difficulties any political party has in appealing to voters in both Mrs Gaskell’s two regions, North and South.
Conventional wisdom talks of a "Red Wall" of old Labour working class socialist England in the north and a “Blue Wall" of richer, middle class mostly Conservative England in the south. These descriptions make for entertaining newspaper articles but I see something different – a distressed and disappointed England from north to south full of hard working, decent people who think their country should be better than it is now. Mrs Gaskell’s book is superb, but Charles Dickens was right to change its title in 1854. Dickens also produced in that same year my favourite of his novels. It’s called Hard Times. I’m about to re-read it. I also believe we are all about to re-live Hard Times too.