Britain’s Unbridgeable Divide

Britain has taken back control but has yet to exercise much of it.

A drawing of the Union Jack with the red lines turned into arrows pointing outward
John J. Custer

Britain today is a poor and divided country. Parts of London and the southeast of England might be among the wealthiest places on the planet, but swaths of northern England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are among Western Europe’s poorest. Barely a decade ago, the average Brit was as wealthy as the average German. Now they are about 15 percent poorer—and 30 percent worse off than the typical American.

The great project of Boris Johnson’s government is to “unite and level up” the country, bringing the rest of Britain into line with the southeast. This is a mission explicitly tied to Brexit and the threat of Scottish secession, the two great revolutionary challenges facing the British state.

Johnson is not alone in believing that the division between the south and the rest is so big that it threatens the very integrity of the United Kingdom. Yet for him, Brexit was both an expression of Britain’s great divide—a vote against the status quo—and an opportunity to fix it, by giving the government new “freedoms” that it did not have within the European Union.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum and then in the 2019 general election, Johnson offered voters the chance to “take back control” of their destiny, to rebalance the country and to pull it together again. On both occasions, he won.

Six years on, however, we can safely say his project is failing. His government is busy trying to wrest back more control rather than exercising what it has regained. It has not united the country. It has not even begun to level it up.

The truth is, this government won’t accomplish any of that. Until Britain stops trying to restore a vanished past—whether the one imagined by its pro-Brexit Leavers or its anti-Brexit Remainers—and begins to construct a viable future, the country as a whole never will.

“So now, tell me how was Yorkshire?” Cardinal Wolsey asks Thomas Cromwell in the opening pages of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, her fictionalized biography of Cromwell. “Filthy,” Cromwell replies. “Weather. People. Manners. Morals … Oh, and the food. Five miles inland, and no fresh fish.” Appalled, Wolsey asks what they do eat up there. “Londoners,” Cromwell says. “You have never seen such heathens.”

In much of the self-excoriating public debate since the referendum, the image of the heathen northerner has once again risen in the national consciousness, blamed by liberal Remainers for dragging the country out of the EU. Today’s northerners might be able to find fresh fish, but they dwell in “left behind” towns, apparently voting for revolution out of desperation because they have so little to lose. Never mind that the bulk of Brexit supporters were comfortable older people, many of them in the prosperous south; the image of the poor Brexit-backing northerner, said to have been conned by clever salesmen like Johnson, is the one that has stuck. The implication is that the 48 percent who voted to remain were smart enough to see through Johnson’s lies and promises.

In some important senses, however, the pledges made by the Vote Leave campaign—the official movement calling for Britain’s withdrawal—have been delivered. In its pitch to the country, Vote Leave claimed that Brexit would achieve five key things: It would save Britain £350 million a week that it could spend on its own priorities; reclaim control of the country’s borders, as well as its immigration system; and leave it free to strike trade deals independently of the EU, and to make its own laws. Of these, only the £350 million figure remains contentious as an outright “lie.” (The real amount Britain contributed to the EU was lower, once various deductions were taken into account.) The other pledges, however, have been largely fulfilled: Liberated from the EU’s “freedom of movement” principle, Britain now operates its own border outside the EU and its own immigration system; no longer part of the EU’s trading bloc, it operates its own trade policy and manages its own internal market, governed by its own laws; and, of course, it no longer contributes to the EU budget. For good or bad, Britain has taken back control. Well, up to a point.

On laws, Britain can be said to have only partially taken back control, given that EU law still applies in one part of its territory, Northern Ireland. (Since Brexit, both Britain and the EU have sought to ensure that no border is erected between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a separate sovereign state. The result has been a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, with EU rules and regulations still applicable on one side but not the other.) This means that every time London wishes to scrap an EU law that would continue to apply in Northern Ireland, it risks dividing its own country. Partly for this reason—but more likely because a lot of EU laws are either sensible or popular—the government has only sparingly used its control to diverge from the EU. Britain continues to run a distinctly European social and economic model, but without the benefits of being in the EU’s single market.

On trade, Britain has essentially rebuilt the network of deals that it had as a member of the EU, but it now has a much worse relationship with its biggest trading partner, the EU. It has not pursued a radically different strategy with the goal of changing the nature of its economy—using protectionism, say, to build domestic capacity, or unilateral free trade that would sacrifice inefficient industry. Ironically, the one trade deal that might have made at least something of a difference to Britain—with the United States—is now politically impossible, in large part because of Washington’s opposition to Britain’s efforts to take back some of the legal control that it has lost over Northern Ireland. And instead of trying to liberalize global services trade, which would have a huge impact on the British economy, it has prioritized symbolic trade deals with faraway countries such as New Zealand, which make almost no difference.

Then we come to borders. Britain has negotiated itself into the preposterous position of operating two borders, neither of which it wants. The first, as we have seen, sits within its own country; the second sits at Britain’s busiest trading route with the continent, but which only the EU enforces. Six years after the Brexit referendum, all goods moving from Britain to France are checked by the EU, yet hardly any are checked in return, partly because Britain has not built the capacity to do so. For European businesses, this couldn’t be better: Their access to the British market is largely unchanged. For British businesses, the one-sided frontier is a disaster. London argues that the EU is punishing itself by making British goods more expensive to import. The EU simply shrugs, able to absorb this limited cost as the price of protecting its market. Either way, the result—again—is just a version of the status quo ante for Britain, only indisputably worse.

Of the ostensibly fulfilled promises, immigration is the most complex. Here, London has introduced a points-based system that, again—on the face of it—is different from what came before. Instead of there being free movement within the EU, offering priority to European citizens, Britain today operates a system open to anyone in the world, without a preference for Europeans. Yet it has used this newfound control to effectively maintain immigration levels, rather than reduce them. Supporters of this policy say the fact that Britain is directly in control of who comes into the country means people are more at ease with high levels of immigration. Some initial evidence indicates that this is true. Still, yet again—and for good or bad—Britain has chosen to maintain the same kind of high-immigration economic model it had before Brexit, rather than substantially change it.

So far, Britain has chosen the hardest, most expensive version of Brexit available, one that leaves the country divided and its businesses disadvantaged, without having bothered to do anything that would actually alter the basic nature of the economy. Brexit, then, turned out to be both more radical than its supporters claimed, leaving the British economy indisputably worse off, and far less radical than its opponents warned.

In Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey realizes he really should go to Yorkshire himself at some point, given that he is the archbishop of York and has never actually visited his see. His goal is not to help build that archdiocese, however, but to divert income from his northern monasteries to fund two new colleges in the south. How little things change.

Today, as in Wolsey’s time, almost all of Britain’s great institutions and national assets remain in the south, promoted and protected by those in charge in London: the City of London’s finance sector, Heathrow Airport, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the pharmaceutical and technology industries, all of the country’s world-class museums, its biggest media companies, its highest law courts. The U.K.’s only core economic asset that remains outside the south is the oil and gas industry in Scotland, and even that is disappearing.

It hasn’t always been this way. During the Victorian era, parts of northern England were genuinely wealthy. Thanks to the industrial revolution, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast were centers of the world. Today, they are fine cities, but have once again fallen behind their European counterparts. Although we don’t like to admit it, they are poor. As the economist Torsten Bell told me recently: “Yes, this is what failure looks like.”

In some senses, this is just a reversion to the historic mean. In The Shortest History of England, the historian and author James Hawes notes how the north-south divide was buried in the soil of the country, there when the Romans came. When Emperor Claudius looked at Britain, Hawes writes, he “only cared about the tribes already advanced enough to be making and using coins”—all of whom were in the south. By the time Cardinal Wolsey was running things 1,500 years later, the divide remained in place. We know this because the real Wolsey carried out surveys of England, which show that the areas most heavily Romanized at the turn of the millennium were still the richest in England in the 16th century. As Hawes puts it, “despite the fall of the Roman Empire, the English invasions, the Vikings, the Conquest, the High Medieval boom, the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses, the North-South divide was almost exactly the same.” And it is almost exactly the same today.

Ultimately, as manufacturing began to wilt after the Victorian boom and the Second World War, so too did the north. Every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher has tried to address the problem, and all have failed. Now it is Johnson’s turn.

Yet leveling up, like taking back control, is radical in theory and conservative in practice. Johnson proposes to close a 2,000-year-old divide with a few more bus routes, some “free ports,” the relocation of parts of government departments out of London, and a “leveling up fund” of £4.8 billion, equivalent to 0.2 percent of Britain’s annual GDP.

Brexit seems, if anything, to be making this problem worse, as London, with its service-sector economy, recovers far more quickly than the rest of the country. This, in turn, naturally leaves the Treasury more reliant on the south for its revenue, while being able to spend less to change the reality of the north-south divide than it did before, thanks to a slowing economy. So the cycle continues, nothing changing, only degrading.

Johnson seems to grasp the historic nature of the challenge while also being singularly useless at being able to do anything about it. When I interviewed him last year, he admitted that governments struggled to change the deep-seated historical realities of a nation. “It’s very, very hard to change the fundamentals,” he said. He had been reading about Shakespearean England and some of the challenges that existed then and now. He nevertheless insisted that it was possible to change things quickly. “Less than 100 years ago, Liverpool was producing more tax than London,” he told me. “The regional imbalance can shift quite quickly with local leadership, infrastructure, and great skills.”

But Johnson offers almost nothing of practical value when it comes to addressing this imbalance. He says he doesn’t support “jam spreading,” taking from the south to give to the north. Instead, Johnson wants the north to “level up” to the south without anyone suffering any pain and without his government actually exercising much of the control it paid such a heavy price to take back. There is no strategy, no plan, no vision of what Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, or Sheffield need in order to become as wealthy as the south; no idea of what major interventions the government must make to balance the playing field, what is required for the north to reach the kind of prosperity enjoyed across much of Northern Europe. Instead, his government offers ad hoc, politically driven nonsense, pulled in different directions by its voters based in “red wall” towns that will not be the engines of any rebalancing on one side, and Labour-supporting northern cities that have the genuine capacity to grow on the other.

It is all so depressing, all so familiar. In the 19th century, just a few years after Britain and Ireland formed a United Kingdom, the Anglo-Irish politician William Cusack Smith concluded that England was just not interested enough in making the union work. “Can a Unionist avoid blushing when he contrasts the performance with the promise?” The same could be said of this government.

Britain today cannot even commit to completing the first new train line outside the south since Queen Victoria died. Instead it has canceled one leg of the project, known as HS2, that was meant to go to the northeast, Britain’s poorest region, and another spur in the northwest. No one now even talks of extending it to Scotland. In London, meanwhile, a giant new £18.9 billion underground line has just opened, connecting the east and west of the capital, cutting journey times to Heathrow. Outside London, only one other city has any real metro system of note, while Leeds remains the biggest city in Europe without an underground or a tram network. If you want to travel from Leeds to Manchester—the two richest cities in northern England—you must board a train that still runs on diesel.

Even when the government is given the chance to create a regional hub away from London, it misses the mark. Leeds hosts an offshoot of the Bank of England, as well as a new state investment bank. Yet when the Treasury was weighing where to locate a new hub, it chose Darlington, a town selected in large part because it sits within the red wall—constituencies long held by Labour that Johnson won in 2019—rather than because it made any economic sense. I happen to be from Darlington and am happy for my hometown, but the decision exposes the government’s lack of seriousness about leveling up.

In all of this, we see the same story over and over again. Little bits of government get moved out of London, each to a different place, each welcomed by whichever town has won the race to attract the jobs, but each doing nothing in the grand scheme of things to rebalance the country, a task that requires commerce, industry, infrastructure, investment, and difficult choices that prioritize some places over others. Through it all, London remains utterly dominant; the economy, the political class, and the country plod on.

The truth is, it’s already too late for Johnson’s leveling-up agenda. It may even be too late for the next government, because not a single potential Conservative leadership candidate nor the opposition Labour Party has developed any kind of strategy that might significantly shift the fundamentals of the British economy.

Brexit represents the single biggest upheaval for Britain’s economic model since the country joined the European Economic Community in 1972. Yet the government seems to be largely attempting to hold the line, only under significantly worse circumstances. Today, no political party seems to be genuinely considering changing the Bank of England’s mandate, or overhauling how the economy is run by the government; building a rival to Heathrow in the north; or even relocating a single national museum away from the south. No party says the great cities of the north should be connected with a transport network the size and scope of London’s or recommends completely different tax, planning, and investment rules—either for the country as a whole, or just for the parts outside the southeast of England. Nothing radical is ever put forward to prioritize northern growth, pursue a different economic strategy, overhaul the regulatory environment or tax system, or actually do something transformative. Instead, parties propose the most minor, insubstantial tweaks to a basic settlement that already exists, has always existed, and has been failing for much of the country, leading to two successive votes against the status quo.

Perhaps the brutal reality is that the north-south divide cannot be fixed. It exists—a part of British life and history to be managed, reflected upon, and even at times celebrated (not everywhere wants to be as expensive and crammed as the southeast of England). And perhaps the British economy cannot be fundamentally altered, though surely it can be a lot wealthier than it is today.

The truth that few—whether they are Leavers or Remainers—wish to face up to is that of Britain’s economic failure. For Leavers, it is difficult to acknowledge that Brexit has amounted to a bad deal, negotiated from a position of extraordinary weakness, that has left Britain in an obviously worse position than it was before and with no clear strategy to build something better. For Remainers, meanwhile, this means accepting that the British economy, with its high levels of inequality and poverty masked by a wealthy capital, wasn’t doing very well inside the EU; it’s also difficult to acknowledge that though Brexit has been an upheaval, it hasn’t changed the basic structure of the British economy or its biggest dilemma, which is how to make the north much wealthier than it is today without undermining its only globally productive region, the south.

“Brexit means an up-front hit to the economy, although not necessarily a disastrous one,” Duncan Weldon, the author of Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through, an economic history of Britain, told me. “With the right policy choices and some sort of coherent plan, the country could still thrive. But we aren’t seeing much coherence; instead we have a scattergun of short-term, mostly reactive measures.”

Britain’s choice, as Bell, the economist, put it to me, is the same as it was inside the EU: to double down on what it’s good at—or to get poorer. Brexit will not bring back manufacturing, as some hoped, or magically turn the country into a laissez-faire trading hub like Singapore. Britain is a service-sector economy that can do well inside or outside the EU—if it governs itself properly.

But ultimately, what Britain has been doing hasn’t been working. Voters said so in 2016, and again in 2019. The country needs to start doing something different. And yet it won’t, because that would be too difficult. That would mean not simply taking control, but exercising it.