John Harris

Journalist & Author

Instead of one-nation Conservatism, we are getting a two-tier Britain | John Harris

Catchphrase of the year goes to David Cameron’s ‘we’re all in this together’. As 2010 ends, it is evident we are not

Ending the year with little to do except wait for the snow to melt and wonder where my Amazon orders might be, I have been trying to nail 2010’s decisive catchphrase. “I agree with Nick” has become one of the most frequently used tropes on Comment is free threads, and has the added bonus of massive post-facto irony – but the unchallenged champion must surely be the Tory incantation that backhandedly captured where Britain has ended up: “We’re all in this together“.

Self-evidently, what with bonus season looming while job centres are empowered to hand out food vouchers, we’re not – something my new series Anywhere but Westminster is intended to explore. So, by way of extending the conversation slightly beyond simple matters of wealth and income, as 2010 ends, it’s worth noting the wildly diverse experiences of various parts of the country. From where I’m sitting (the south-west, for what it’s worth) one-nation Conservatism looks as distant a dream as ever, and Britain’s divisions seem once again to be deepening, at speed.

As it continues to bang away in the manner of a dull national headache, I’ve had my say about the north-south divide already: suffice to say that as we head into 2011 and the cuts kick in, the extent to which London and the south east sit apart from the rest of the country is only going to get worse. That’s not a matter of leftist troublemaking: if you don’t believe me, listen to the chief executive of Whitbread, who’s in charge of such brands as Costa Coffee, Brewers Fayre and good old Premier Inn: “It is definitely true that the London market is strong and it is definitely true that in the regional market life is tougher,” he reckons. “I would expect that to continue.” In other words, macchiatos, pub lunches and awaydays all round in the capital – but in your Boltons, Bradfords and Burys, times are hard, and getting harder.

That said, the more pinched parts of the capital and south should not be forgotten. This, after all, was the year that such towns as Southend and Hastings became bywords for the likely exodus caused by the government’s proposed cap on housing benefit (since delayed for existing claimants, though the predicted shifts in population will surely happen as of January 2012). And soon after that story grabbed the headlines, there came further proof of what a divided city London is. Thanks to Eric Pickles’s cuts to local government funding, the three biggest losers will be Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, all of whom have been hit with reductions of between 8.9%; among those who will only suffer the merest pain are such places as Dorset (0.25%), Surrey (0.31%) and Buckinghamshire (0.6%).

But to truly grasp what a sliced-up country we are, consider some other stories. When other parts of Britain are squealing their pain, people from Essex seem to be having a great time: as a recent Guardian shortcut pointed out, the county gave us the winners of Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity, as well as the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever (though before anyone gets too carried away, let us bear in mind the London-Essex borders, and the ongoing travails of Barking and Dagenham). By contrast, Cumbria suffered the long aftermath of 2009’s floods and an earthquake, Cornwall was once again swamped, and the list of what we have to call “unemployment blackspots” was headed by Middlesbrough, Liverpool, south Wales, and the often-overlooked Isle Of Wight.

Thus, millions of us end the year living on different metaphorical planets. I’ve been quoting Dickens a lot lately, so I may as well carry on; as Tiny Tim put it: ‘God bless us, every one!’ But maybe start with Hastings, Hackney, Toxteth and Teesside first, eh?

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This entry was posted on Friday, December 24th, 2010 at 11:10 pm and is filed under Guardian RSS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « In this Dickensian season, a Victorian clique still rules | John Harris | I am a Beatles obsessive. But let’s cut the Fabs-worship | John Harris »
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