Whilst I sheltered in a barn from the never-ending misty rain, my good friend and local farmer Karl, commented on how ‘dreich’ it was. A strange turn of phrase for an Englishman but Karl, like so many in East Lancashire’s farming community, crosses the Scottish border both for trade and phraseology.
Lancastrians understand the complicated and sometimes bloody history of the borderlands. In 1351, King Edward III gave Lancashire Palatine status, to create a powerful protective buffer against the Scots. 670 years later, relations have improved and that is why so many in Lancashire and more widely in the North of England are dismayed by Nicola Sturgeon using the Covid crisis to further her ambition to Balkanise the United Kingdom.
Just like separatism in Scotland, the Covid crisis is now fermenting a spirit of radicalism in the North of England which, if Government fails to tackle, will spell trouble.
The first signs came during the Brexit referendum, when Northerners defied the establishment in London to vote Leave. December 2019 gave further proof of this radicalism, when voters rejected the Labour Party to back the Conservatives. That election transformed the Conservatives, from a party of the South with a few Northern seats, to one with its feet firmly planted in Northern communities.
Before the last election I visited South Yorkshire with the Prime Minister to be greeted at Doncaster Market by a crowd of people chanting ‘Boris for England’. No one on that trip could have failed to spot the signs of a seismic change in British politics. Our new Conservative voters were angry with the political elites who were straining every sinew to overturn their Brexit vote; they were angry with the Labour Party after decades of neglect and now they are becoming angry about Covid.
Even before the pandemic, there existed a 19-year healthy life differential between the most prosperous areas of the South and the most deprived areas of the North. Northerners are also more likely to be infected with and to die of Covid. Lockdowns have lasted for almost twelve months with little or no time off for good behaviour and in the last year Covid has exacerbated and laid bare the stark inequalities of the North and South divide.
The new generation of Northern Conservative MPs had these facts in mind when, following the logic of the House of Stark in the Game of Thrones, we decided ‘the lone wolf dies but the pack survives’. That is why we have banded together to form the Northern Research Group. As a group, we are the single largest lobbying force in Parliament and we have recently led calls for a roadmap out of lockdown, the retention of the universal credit top-up payments and a Northern Economic Recovery Plan.
Now our hardest task lies ahead, to change the Conservative Party to be one that fully reflects the priorities of both its Northern MPs and our voters. We know who we work for and our voters are impatient for real change. That’s why we are calling for a Northern Economic Recovery Plan that is truly transformational rather than a ‘government as usual’ incremental approach.
We want a tax regime that favours the North’s prime capabilities for high-tech manufacturing coupled with bold interventionist government investment into our creaking Northern infrastructure. The recent creation of a new cabinet subcommittee called the ‘National Economic Recovery Taskforce’ suggests the Whitehall leviathan is finally stirring with thoughts of life after Covid.
But take note, ‘Building Back Better’ will simply not cut it in the North. We want to build back differently, with a recovery that also tackles the burning injustices that typify the North-South divide.
Now is the time for bold leadership from the Prime Minster as he shrugs off the shackles of the Covid crisis and pushes for growth. The North is a land of economic opportunity, which could energise Britain’s economy after Covid.
For the Conservative Government the political stakes could not be higher. If we fail to set out a radical plan to rebalance both economic and political power in the United Kingdom it won’t just be Scotland that is in jeopardy, it will also be our hard-won gains across the Red Wall.
The Rt. Hon Jake Berry MP is Chairman of the Northern Research Group