Where I’m calling from

Ian Martin, a member of the Yorkshire-based Same Skies Collective rethinks devolution and regional democracy through through the frames of hegemony and intersectionality, asking if geography has been sufficiently understood as a driver of privilege and exclusion.

February 5, 2018
15 min read

The Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley

Last October, the Ridings of Jorvik Society tweeted a well known video experiment that tries to explain the idea of privilege, particularly in a US context, and asked what a ‘UK-centric one, region-focused’ would look like. I had already been thinking about how far hegemony could explain the reality of life for people in Yorkshire and the North today. I now started to think again about privilege more deeply and what it might mean for people in Yorkshire and the North. This included the extent to which campaigns for self-determination, devolution and regional democracy challenged or exacerbated such privilege.

Hegemony

In this specific context, hegemony to me means the dominance of a way of thinking, doing and being that is most closely associated with a specific region of the UK and which is exactly the same place where overwhelming political, economic, cultural and media power is centralised – London and the South East. That is not to say that all those who hold power are from London and the South East, but I believe that accepting the primacy of that way of thinking, doing and being smooths the path to power, status and financial wellbeing in the UK.

In terms of public transport, Tom Forth, of the Open Data Institute in Leeds, has described an “institutional bias” that has merely “patronised” us. This had led, for example, to most people in Yorkshire who actually welcome HS2 doing so because they have no genuine belief that London will ever offer better (e.g. HS3/Crossrail for the North/Northern Powerhouse Rail or something else).

Author, George Monbiot has described how journalists “spend too much time in each other’s company” and Paul Mason has described how this leads to people “seeing, faster than [the media] are seeing, a change in reality which [the media] are failing institutionally to deal with; and whose risks [the media] are refusing to understand”.

Ultimately however the maintenance of this hegemony is most effectively sustained by our financial dependency on London. People who benefit from London’s hegemony use London’s hegemony to make decisions that maintain London’s hegemony. These decisions perpetuate Yorkshire’s (and other regions’) dependence and make challenges to London’s hegemony seem riskier.

Whether it is about spending money (such as prioritising and investing in London’s schools or infrastructure over other parts of the UK) or it is about creating a political and legal climate (such as one that benefits types of industries concentrated in London but not one that benefits types of industries concentrated elsewhere), London continues to be economically successful because UK government has decided actively to do something to make it so. Each time these decisions are successful, they strengthen London’s case for being prioritised above everywhere else in any future return-on-investment analysis.

Intersectionality

Despite the fact that this hegemony has an impact on everyone living in Yorkshire and the North, many of our fellow citizens also benefit from or suffer disadvantage as a result of privilege. In particular there are a number of ‘protected characteristics’ (race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, age and class) which have been shown to impact on an individual’s life chances.

For example, I write this as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied forty-something male who attended a Methodist church in my youth, went on to University at 18 and has travelled widely on a UK/EU passport. I am aware of the privilege that contributed in many ways to me being able to take the time to think about, write and publish this article. I speak only for myself and from my own necessarily limited perspective.

Penny Wangari-Jones, co-chair of the Racial Justice Network, has described “overlapping and interdependent systems of advantage and disadvantage” where the “institutions that oppress are interconnected”. She suggests a need to “examine the structures of power that so successfully resist change” and that “solidarity is the key”.

How does the hegemony of London and the South East contribute to privilege?

There is increasing awareness that hard and soft power in and over the UK is overwhelmingly concentrated in London but the question is whether that hegemony affects the life chances of people elsewhere.

Given that I live in East Leeds, what does hegemony mean for us here in Yorkshire? Does living in Yorkshire mean you are likely to have fewer life chances? Does living in Yorkshire affect the range and quality of jobs available to you? Does living in Yorkshire affect your ability to bring about the changes you want to see in society? Does living in Yorkshire affect the quality of your health? In fact, does hegemony affect your freedom to be you?

For example, does living in Yorkshire mean that your opinions are valued as highly? Does living in Yorkshire mean that the choices you make and the preferences you express lead to the same opportunities?

In my opinion, living in Yorkshire has a specific impact on all of this. To take this beyond the previously discussed realm of elections, the media and political decisions about where and how money is spent, what does this hegemony mean for language for example? If the English you hear around you is not the standard English that you are expected to use in academic and professional situations, does that mean you have to learn how to use a version of English that is not your own to get on?

If you are always surrounded by such English, does that give you an advantage in academic and professional situations? Is that because the English commonly spoken by people in certain places is ‘better’ than others or is it because the people who speak that form of English play a dominant role in UK society?

Class and geography

Isn’t this really all about class though? It is definitely the case that people from middle class backgrounds in Yorkshire and the North are often described as working class by the London-centric media, perhaps because the culture most readily associated with Yorkshire and the North from outside has its roots in working class lives.

It could be argued that in many cases this element of privilege is more important but nevertheless there has to be a question about where, if at all, geography fits in to intersectionality. In previous years it was the case that citizens of Yorkshire and the North could in theory move to a better situation anywhere within the EU (even if they faced the disadvantage of “starting again” in an unfamiliar place) but now even that movement may be restricted, as it has been for the majority of people from outside the EU for much longer.

Nevertheless the UK itself continues to enjoy freedom of movement. Why don’t we just ‘get on our bikes’ to London/South East? Many do. They find themselves struggling to find somewhere to live that they can afford. Often they are doing jobs that don’t pay enough to live a reasonable life. Maybe they are doing unpaid internships to try and get the contacts and experience to find paid work.

Of course, the people from London itself do have a much better chance of benefiting from having friends, family and other contacts already nearby. Maybe they are even living at home, maybe some are even paying little or no rent, maybe some have food and other things provided by parents. A job interview probably means a relatively short hop on the UK’s best funded public transport system rather than an expensive and time-consuming trip using (at least partially) the less reliable transport networks that run outside the UK capital.

Living in Yorkshire and the North means that others elsewhere have an advantage simply by living in London and the South East that will give them opportunities you are unlikely to access. Some of that may eventually lessen by moving to London. But is it OK that you have to? What does it mean for the future of our society that moving to London and/or accepting its hegemony can make such a difference to life chances? Is it OK that “the North has even forgotten it was ever defeated”? Is it true, as Jon Trickett MP has suggested, that the North is nothing less than “the last colonial outpost of the British Empire”?

The impact of privilege and the impact of London’s hegemony are not the same thing but they are related enough that I hope fellow campaigners for regional democracy take privilege seriously and fellow intersectionalists take seriously how London’s hegemony affects people in Yorkshire and the North. I believe London’s hegemony contributes to privilege and by challenging it, we can build something better together.

What does this mean for regional democracy?

It seems to me that those of us in Yorkshire and the North who agree (even if only in part) with this analysis of hegemony and privilege should be seeking to make allies of those campaigning for “liberation”. We should actively try to understand and work in solidarity with those challenging privilege on an intersectional basis.

This raises the broader question as to whether individuals in our region, unable to benefit from one privilege or another, actually want regional democracy. Our cause is no more righteous than any other, but its value is well understood by those whose regional democracy campaigning is already informed by their understanding of intersectionality.

Fellow Same Skies member, Leila Taleb, for example, has long argued that for a woman of colour trying to reach her full potential, living in Yorkshire and the North is an extra challenge she is obliged to overcome, not necessarily the most important but definitely an added one.

This has most recently come to media attention with the release of data about the intake to Oxford and Cambridge Universities suggesting that it is harder for people from the North to enter the UK’s elite (and become part of that hegemony). Ultimately, if the proposed answer is to get more Northern and working class students to Oxbridge, that means trying (and potentially failing) to succeed on the terms of those interested in retaining their own privilege. The only truly transformative approach would be to create balances against a system that puts so much power in the hands of Oxbridge graduates.

The reality of London is that decisions affecting Yorkshire and much of the North (though rarely just our region) are made there by people who spend the overwhelming part of their lives there in professional and social contact with other people who spend the overwhelming part of their lives there. There is little doubt that most of those people genuinely feel that the decisions they make are in the best interests of people across England or the UK (or Europe or the World). Many feel aggrieved at the suggestion that their decisions are not in the best interests of people in Yorkshire.

A London-centric perspective on what’s best for Yorkshire has been given a long and reasonable chance to succeed but it hasn’t worked. The future must be different. The future must acknowledge that London’s hegemony over Yorkshire, not just in the political sphere, has to come to an end and that the UK as a whole has a responsibility towards Yorkshire (and any other self-defined regions that also want to do so) to actively get out of the way so that Yorkshire (and the other regions) can determine their own futures autonomously.

To bring about social justice anywhere on this island means breaking up hegemony and creating alternative, more diverse, geographically spread, balances of power.

There are many good organisations based in London who want to be “national” but in reality having a head office in London means it’s hard for them not be part of this hegemony – living, socialising and working in London with people who do the same.

For example, in the early/mid 2000s, a number of “national” refugee charities retreated to London despite asylum seeker dispersal to places with far less provision and experience than London. Charities and pressure groups have limited funds and this hegemony means it makes most sense to base their limited resources in London, making doing things there so much easier and therefore so much more likely.

Equally political parties whose primary focus is to gain power at Westminster prioritise the power of Westminster and see everything through the prism of whether it will make their chances at Westminster better, not whether it is in the best interests of people here in Yorkshire and the North.

The argument is always that Yorkshire will only be OK when X party is in power. Yorkshire just needs to trust. Under all three of the “national” parties who have held power from Westminster, it continues to be the case that London head offices can impose their will on local branches to suit the “national” agenda. What will it take for “national” parties to challenge that hegemony?

Despite talk in the Labour party about radical change, it cannot happen without addressing London’s hegemony. In fact the only place in the UK where there is a significant challenge to London’s hegemony (a thriving, alternative civil society) is the only part where any of Labour’s 2017 manifesto has been delivered already, a place that sees its own increasing freedoms as contributing to the North’s liberation: Scotland.

Much of what I have described here could apply to many parts of the UK. But ultimately this is all about “where I’m calling from”. This is how it looks from here. A fair future for Yorkshire and the North can only be decided by those who live here. No matter the sincerity of motives and intelligence of analysis, a London-centric UK has only perpetuated privilege and injustice. Something better can only happen if London no longer has hegemony over people in Yorkshire and the North and if all of us here work towards a future where privilege plays no part.

In conclusion, I believe that:

  • we all must make more effort to address the reality that where you live/grow up affects your life chances
  • we must put the concept of hegemony at the heart of regional democracy campaigning (including its implication that we need to act ‘autonomously’ to genuinely be able to reach our full potential)
  • amidst the growth of regional democracy in Yorkshire and the North, it is essential that we all actively take responsibility for addressing the impact of privilege on our fellow citizens.
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