Whither Britain? Search me, although I really think it’s time to ask the question, if only because if we leave things to drift, we could end up anywhere (metaphorically, I mean.
Physically we’re stuck in a smallish, often beautiful, immensely varied archipelago on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. We could do a lot worse).
The question arises because the former Sun editor and bigmouth, Kelvin MacKenzie, sounding off in the Daily Telegraph, thinks that London and the home counties are being ripped off by layabouts from the rest of Britain, who slob around in their subsidised council houses watching Sky TV and stealing welfare payments from out of the mouths of stockbrokers (well, I’m paraphrasing, but not much).
He thinks there should be a new grouping, on the lines of Italy’s Northern League, to look after the needs of “hard-working, clever and creative people living in London and the South-East.” (Isn’t there already such a grouping, called the Conservative Party?)
We can dismiss MacKenzie’s rantings because there could be no more toxic words on a CV than ‘former Sun editor’, but we still have to decide whether the Britain most of us grew up in is on its way out – and, in the case of Scotland, could be gone very soon.
The MacKenzie approach reflects a kind of South-Eastern triumphalism, a view (much encouraged, incidentally, by Tony Blair and New Labour) that the core of the country, the source of its wealth and moral probity, lies in a place called Middle England, which, apart from a few well-off suburbs, doesn’t mean the English Midlands – they have been as much hit by industrial decline as the North – but rather, say, Buckinghamshire or Kent.
I once visited the splendid non-conformist church built by Sir Titus Salt in his company village of Saltaire near Bradford. Sir Titus made his millions in a very northern way, by producing cloth for the world, including the South-East.
In the church, a woman volunteer helper who (this was a few years back) had worked in the mill when it still made textiles, said that one of Sir Titus’s descendents, who was “very well-spoken and came from down south” had visited, although the visitor didn’t look at all interested and left very quickly.
This shows how gravity works; money made in the north has been going south for centuries and it’s what’s built many a half-timbered Victorian mansion in Buckinghamshire. Southern talent and ability didn’t come into it.
Mind you, if you were looking for Kelvin Mackenzie’s “hard-working, clever and creative” people, you wouldn’t have to travel south; you’d be better looking at how hopeless northern dopes have created, in the industrial wasteland of Salt’s Mill, one of the most stimulating buildings in the land.
But the lesson surely is that unless everybody takes a one-nation approach, the nation could fall apart. Southern right-wingers like MacKenzie might be in the ascendency at the moment, but (cross fingers) there could be a reckoning for the financiers and their hangers-on in London and the South-East.
The thing is that you can collect all sorts of commissions and percentages from, say, the making of bricks, but someone still has to make bricks. The time may come when the old northern manufacturing model reasserts itself, in which case Kelvin MacKenzie would look as utterly irrelevant as he deserves to look.