The State of the North


The Archbishop today spoke in the House of Lords debate on the report from IPPR on the state of the North: 

My Lords, you will not be surprised that an Archbishop of York is keen to contribute to this debate on the state of the North of England.

But, as I remind myself, one title held by all Archbishops of York is “Primate of England” – and, in focusing on the north, I want to avoid any suggestion that north and south of England can be spoken of as if a latter-day Hadrian’s Wall had been built from the Dee to the Humber.

We are one nation and I for one want to see the bonds and sympathies between all people of this land strengthened.

It is very good that the state of the north is being debated today in your Lordships’ House.

(Few things in this report are unique to the north, in the sense that they are never experienced in the south.

But some factors are exemplified more acutely in the north.) The state of the north is important because, unless we get things right in the north, the whole country will be more divided, less prosperous and more unhappy.

In short, the whole country needs the north to flourish.

(This report, quite rightly, focuses on the economy of the north – or, I should say, the economies of the north, because it understands that the north is not all the same. I am very pleased to see the attention it gives to issues that affect northern rural communities. The open spaces of Northumberland are as much “the north” as the conurbations along the M62 Corridor.)

The report looks, in very interesting ways, at the variable economic resilience of areas of the north.

My Lords, I want to focus on another sort of resilience which is just as important as economic resilience.

That is human resilience, the resilience of the people of the north.

Any plans for greater prosperity and flourishing in the north must build on that vital characteristic – the resilience of the people.

Over more than 30 years, the economy of this nation has shifted from manufacturing industry to services. Successive governments have seen the City of London as the economic powerhouse. And the result has been to suck energy and resources southwards.

London has become an exceptional capital city – it is an exception to the ways of life and the economic prospects of the rest of the country, especially the north.

(My Lords, this leeching of the north cannot go on if we are to remain a nation at one and at ease with itself. High Speed rail links running north-south might perhaps bring some of the wealth of London to the north – but are they not just as likely to make it quicker for the talent and the energy of the north to be sucked more quickly down to London?

That would leave the people of the north with even less – thrown back on their own natural resilience, as they were in the Depression of the 1930s. And through two World Wars. And as they have been since the post-industrial ‘80s. With that history, no one can say that the people and the communities of the north are not incredibly resilient. My Lords, that is a national asset that we have been squandering for much too long.)

The report from IPPR North warns us that the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit vote could set the recovery of the north back very badly. (How this will end is one of the mysteries of our times – we have embarked on a voyage with an unclear destination and with a somewhat dubious compass.)

But the status quo before June 23rd was not serving the north well.

If we are, indeed, poised to “take back control”, I ask, my Lords, how will the people of the north be offered the chance to take back control of their own lives and communities? Brexit cannot just be about more control for London.

It is certainly heartening that the government has understood the need for an industrial strategy.

Making things matters.

So do good employment practices. Our economic system is supposed to reward risk-takers. But the people who bear the greatest burden of risk these days are being rewarded with zero-hours contracts, fake self-employment and low pay.

Much of the resilience of the north and its people stems from the long history of pride in the job that our industrial past created. We may not get the old industries back, but we do need jobs in which people can take pride, and which reward their resilience.

The report expresses cautious optimism about the Secretary of State’s approach to a “place based” industrial strategy. I share that optimism.

It is significant that the Secretary of State comes to this role with a background in community policy. If, as I think he does, the Secretary of State “gets” communities – if he “gets” the way in which the resilience of the people is an asset on which the economy can build – then there are some sparks of hope for a resilient northern economy to emerge.

We need economic policies which build on the assets of people in community. ( People are not just units to be moved around the country to wherever they are needed. People become human among their neighbours and in their communities.

The north is not a pool of labour to enrich the south.

It is not a burden which the prosperous have to shoulder.

It is not a foreign country where they do things differently.)

The people of the north cherish their history, their toughness and their contribution to the well-being of the nation.  That is what has made the north resilient for decades – even for centuries! Our economic policies must build on those assets and not undermine them.

We need more devolution from south to north.

Devolution of powers and devolution of institutions.

We need cabinet-level figures to champion the north – people who know the qualities of the north from experience of their own.

We need a more diverse economy that draws on the skills of the northern people.

If Brexit prompts a shift in that direction, it may just have been worth the uncertainty we are currently experiencing.

(My Lords, the resilience of the north is an asset to us all. But it is an asset that we have ignored for decades and it is an asset that we could build upon now -- or squander.)  I am grateful to IPPR North for this excellent report and I urge your Lordships to reflect carefully upon it.

(Text shown in brackets was not delivered)