Post-election, the Conservative Party is riding the tide of success. In the wake of a victory against Socialism, many have grown complacent. This electoral victory, however, only marks the start of the battle for hearts and minds. In revisiting Yorkshire, my county of birth, I feel as if I were standing by the arches of the Brandenburg gate, peering through the newly formed cracks in a wall which had stood for several decades. Beyond this wall lays a former industrial heartland. Its steel helped us to conquer all five oceans, its coal stoked the home fires, and its people fought and died to protect our freedoms. The spirit of these proud lands has sadly dwindled. Our steel industry, priced out by crude Chinese imports, lays in ruins. Our coal mining communities were abandoned in the pursuit of the new age of services. The patriotic spirit of its people sapped by self-loathing politicians and the false prophet of the service economy.
In the large cities of the North, the decline is significant. “The Moor”, the traditional market street of Sheffield, has seen independent traders replaced with pound shops. Infrastructure has slowly begun to appear during my nine years of absence, but largely at the cost of small businesses. Most major cities in Yorkshire remain dominated by neo-liberal economics despite Conservative gains. These liberal enclaves serve simply to maintain the status-quo of economic stagnation. It lines the pockets of a select few industries, while creating a hostile high-tax bubble for any competitors. The decline of the Northern city is incomparable, however, to the decline of the surrounding semi-urban spaces. In the ruins of a former business park near Chesterfield, a paint mill and a specialist foundry have begun to crumble after years of neglect. Down the road, a small hamlet lays abandoned, the drive pitted with potholes. Where the former residents went, nobody knows. I peered in through the smashed window of a terraced house. The furniture remained in situ. Family photos, rotten, hung on the walls. The area is testament to the catastrophic impact of the de-industrialisation of the North.
In the struggle between Conservatism and Socialism in the UK, no one event has played into the hands of the Socialists as much as the de-industrialisation of our nation. The memory of Thatcher’s systematic de-industrialisation in these areas will not be forgotten any time soon. The destruction of Labour’s Northern “wall” would not have been possible without Labour’s continued erroneous pursuit of increased internationalism and liberalism. Parliamentary deadlock around Brexit allowed the Conservatives to further capitalise upon growing discontent with the Labour party. However, as noted by Boris Johnson, when he spoke of voters’ “pencils hovering and wavering before coming down on the Conservatives”, this electoral success is by no means indicative of increased Conservative sympathy. The pressure is now on. We have five years to win hearts and minds.
Voting is fundamentally defined by tribal affiliation and cultural association. If the Conservatives are remembered for their legacy of industrial neglect, no amount of shrewd political optics will win over disenfranchised Labour voters. The Brexit vote swung voters over to the Conservatives based on a demonstrable causality. Vote Tory, get Brexit. Brexit, however, will one day be a footnote in the successes of the British Conservative movement. The real battle will be the battle for infrastructure. In “repaying the trust” of the North, Boris Johnson announced an £80 billion investment plan for infrastructure spending in the North. This investment must not come at the expense of shackling the North to the economic progress of the Capital. This investment must lay the foundations for a self-reliant industry. It must not just dispel the notions of economic liberalism; it must enshrine the traditions of heavy industry which are at the core of Northern pride. Sheffield, Chesterfield, Redcar and Newcastle can thrive under renewed heavy industry.
The foundations of this industry are there. Sheffield still retains a dwindling number of specialist steel works and foundries. Industrial zones, once financial dark spots, retain high-capacity road networks for the transport of goods and materials. The specialist knowledge, needed to carry out the high-tech revitalisation, is chronically underutilised. “Powerhouse 2050: The North’s Routemap for Productivity”, drafted by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, outlined a fully costed, evidence-based guideline for modern industrial revitalisation. The industrial output of the North could be supercharged, production digitised, and the positive impact felt across the country. Heavy industry needs no longer to be associated with clouds of black smog and the oppressive drudge of the miner’s pick. The 2050 plan would conform with the Paris Climate Accords and current labour regulations. Heavy industry has the potential to offer employment in both low-skilled and highly educated fields. The liberal economic experiment in the North has failed. The North must fundamentally restructure away from the service sector, which has reduced Northern towns to faint pulses of economic activity surrounded by crumbling satellite settlements.
While the Conservatives, under David Cameron, showed promising signs of pursuing the “Northern Powerhouse” dream, they dragged their feet and never fully embraced a new future for the North. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn pledged his support for the reindustrialisation of the North and was met with a lukewarm response. The reason for the lack of commitment to this plan, is ultimately, a political one. To commit to reindustrialisation would be to admit the mistakes of neo-liberal economics. Both Cameron and Blair are tarnished by their aggressive insistence upon the virtues of a service-based economy. To change course would be an admittance of guilt. An admittance that the England does not stand proud, with London at the head, but rather drags lifelessly behind the London bubble.
Boris must now confront this reality. The promised funds for the North will either serve to aggravate or alleviate the ills of the North. Will Boris drive a stake through the neo-liberal past of the David Cameron era; investing in the North to create a thriving export-based economy, profiting on the rich industrial traditions of the Northern people? Or will his investment serve to prolong the long suffering neo-liberal economic status-quo; linking the North increasingly to London and fostering the client-host dependence between Britain’s urban and semi-urban spaces?