I rarely finish books. That I finished this one in three days after work is a credit to its engaging writing, crisp editing, and short length.
With the notable exception of Grace Blakeley, whose whirlwind shift at IPPR North put her ahead of the pack, the Corbyn-proximate left hasn’t thought much about regional inequality since Britain's deindustrialisation became irreversible. All inequalities matter, they would usually argue, and once inequalities are reduced in society they will reduce regionally too.
Bright rightly rejects this argument and in doing so has written the first serious book I’ve found from the “very left” to consider modern regional inequality on its own terms. For this reason it is worth reading, both for those, like me, with slightly different politics and for the majority of those who share Sam’s politics who rarely consider this issue.
We begin on the rare train from London to Bradford that doesn’t go via Leeds, and we spend much of the rest of the book avoiding Leeds similarly. I read the first few chapters with a growing hope that the book would continue to so conspicuously avoid naming the largest city to the author’s upbringing; it would have made this review much easier. But Yorkshire’s largest city appears on at least three occasions later on.
Now onto the substance, with two caveats. I had to look up the meaning of “polemic” on Google Define after seeing it on the back cover. And my only previous book reviews have been a few sentences on Amazon. If there is an etiquette for such things, I am no doubt breaking it.
Bright has spoken to dozens of thinkers about regional inequality from across Great Britain. He has found the right people and he reports their views clearly and accurately.
The book does less well at crafting a coherent story from the variety of views. Nowhere is this lack of coherence and consistency more visible than in the identification of the main divide of interest to the book. In some chapters the important divide is London and its hinterland vs. the rest of the country, with supporting opinions provided by Philip McCann. In other chapters the important divide is cities vs. towns, with supporting opinions provided by Lisa Nandy.
I like and deeply respect both McCann and Nandy and I know from experience that their views are closer than my simplification above suggests. But their opinions remain importantly incompatible. They are identifications of two different problems that imply different and conflicting action.
If the purpose of the book is to report these two visions, it succeeds. If the purpose is to pick a winner and thus a path to prosperity, it does less well.
A strong part of the book is where it considers the UK’s position on regional inequality internationally. Most popular British economics books cast a quick glance at the USA if anywhere.
Here we enjoy comparisons with the USA, France, and Germany. The points made about the USA are good, and the model is rightly skipped over for our European equivalents.
The comparisons with France and Germany are sound, though again frustratingly unclear in what the divide of greatest importance is. Is Paris pulling away too much from the rest of the country or are France’s cities (most with stronger economies than their British equivalents) pulling away too much from the rest of France?
Without some clarity on this it is very hard to think usefully about what measure of regional inequality matters most. Is it regional inequality of income (thanks to huge redistribution of income, France is notably equal on this measure) or regional inequality of economic output (France does just as badly as the UK though with a notably different pattern)?
The book is right to say that the UK has not taken the issue of regional cohesion as seriously as France or Germany. In admiring the German model over the French the book seems to prefer regional inequality of economic output as the most important measure and the Capital city vs everywhere else definition of inequality (rather than towns vs. cities) as the greater problem. Though I still wonder if this is just me projecting my opinions onto the page.
In all cases, as throughout the book, there is ample acknowledgement that regional inequality is inevitable and hard to reduce. It is a refreshing achievement to do this without ever falling into the lazy and self-congratulatory pattern of dismissing the problem as complex and nuanced and thus impossible to make progress on.
The author draws heavily on their own experience in the media, a profession which is necessarily heavily centralised in the UK’s capital city due to the unusually high level of centralisation of the UK’s government and national institutions. I might have chosen a different field, one such as the fashion industry, pharmaceuticals research, or financial services which less inevitably require concentration in the capital and its hinterland and yet are still concentrated there. But the author’s choice of their own field works well and gives an insight into a sector that almost everyone sees the outside of, but few see the inside of. It also keeps the book short which is the right choice.
The book reports on the losers from the concentration of the British economy in the capital and importantly highlights that the biggest are the residents of London themselves, largely via exorbitant housing costs that lead to very high poverty rates. In my experience it is impossible to make this point frequently and strongly enough to protect from unfair accusations of ignoring the plight of Londoners, but Bright deserves to avoid the worst of that.
The weakest part of the book, and the section of this review that I suspect the author would dislike most if they read it, is where he demands greater access to London’s advantages for those from outside it. I disagreed for two reasons,
First, I reject the argument that regional origin should be made into anything close to a protected characteristic. London welcomes outsiders quickly. After two years at least, and probably five years at most, most people from anywhere within the UK or around the world who live in or near the city could usefully define themselves and be defined by others as Londoners. They may be from Yorkshire, Scotland, or Cornwall too, but they are not lesser Londoners in the way that incomers remain lesser Parisians for a stubbornly long time.
The question of the rate at which those who have left Yorkshire or Cornwall for London lose something of their Yorkshireness or Cornishness as they gain Londonness is best left to another blog post where I can moderate the outraged comments.
My second disagreement with demands for greater access to London are deeper and more important. They are a disagreement with the premise of the book itself and link back to my frustrations about the lack of consistency as to whether the important problem is London vs. the rest of the UK or cities vs. the rest of the UK.
The book asserts that Thatcher’s reforms and a resulting acceleration of the deindustrialisation of Britain pushed London ahead while leaving the country’s other regions behind. The book seems to ask how we might undo this. I wish it had asked why the North’s great cities did not benefit like so many of their equivalents across Europe from the shift to services. I'd have enjoyed it further if it then asked how the North can now win within this new reality.
I do not wish to unbuild Thatcher’s Britain. I agree with Blair and Brown who accepted the basics of her vision for the country and improved it enormously. I want to win within the Britain and the global economy that exists today in the same way as Rotterdam, Dublin, Gothenburg, Barcelona, Lyon, and Munich win, each in their own ways.
And that is why I would not have avoided Leeds on the train home at the start of the book. I would not have decried Salford Quays, wrongly I think, as detached from its surroundings and its community. I would not have dismissed Channel 4 in Leeds as quickly either.
I argue (and many disagree) that much of London’s prosperity is a result of its scale, and that much of North England’s relative lack of prosperity is a result of it failing to achieve and sometimes even rejecting that scale. Scale is certainly important when considering the density of opportunities needed to climb quickly to the senior ranks of a great profession.
For the North to thrive it should not demand, as the book does, that the UK government change its investment rules to fund lower value transport investments between its towns. We should instead demand that the UK government fund the schemes connecting our cities with themselves that their current investment rules already support. For the North to thrive it cannot reject the BBC or Channel 4 as detached foreign implants, we must instead embrace them as part of our cities even when they are in neighbouring towns.
Rather than demanding access to the “fortress” or diminishing the city inside it in any way, we should be focusing on building alternatives so that the fortress is little more relevant to our lives than it is to someone in Belgium or Sweden. If we want to do this then the North doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about towns versus cities, or of the indiscipline of flipping between that concern and the relative prosperity of London. It is the underperformance of our cities that stands out as the greatest opportunity for growth, prosperity, and the density of opportunities that can turn good careers into great ones. We should focus on that.
The book's ending suggestion of huge devolution, regional government, and moving the UK government to somewhere like Leeds is correct, but it is also vanishingly unlikely. IPPR North, upon whose work the book heavily rests, have flown this flag for two decades at least, with only mild success. My polite suggestion, no doubt one that the author considers often, is for Sam to move here instead. The quality of life is good, it is close to Huddersfield, the current success is visible, the huge potential and how easily it could be unlocked by investment is tantalising. We need a broader and larger coalition of success-hungry people investigating our issues and arguing for our right to thrive. Plus it will make an excellent plot for a second book.
In an alternate universe the author took the job that they were offered with the BBC in Salford rather than making the trip to London. I suspect they would have explored more compromises, drifted politically away from the very left, and seen investment less as rapacious capitalism and more as a route to a stronger economy, better jobs, and local empowerment. And instead of being a fresh name to the clowns who discuss these topics in the North and who have been discussing this enjoyable book in recent weeks, he would have been a valued ally for years.
Of course it is not too late. Increasingly there are excellent jobs in the media in Greater Manchester and Leeds, just as there are in many other service industries. We need help from our national government to achieve more of our potential, but we also need discipline, focus, and pragmatism internally and in our asks. Reading this book made me realise how large the gap is for a book from North England on exactly that.