Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Long term cleavages and politics

Nearly three decades ago, when I began teaching comparative politics, I shared a Frontline video titled "Will There Always be an England?" with my students.

The video's thesis was "England is a country divided. One in five workers in northern England is unemployed, while in the south of the country, power, privilege prevail." Two of the examples of economic depression from the north used in the film were Hartlepool and Teeside. Guess what two examples of economic depression show up in an analysis by the editors of The Economist?

If this is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same" cleavages in the UK are very stable. What political effects do those cleavages imply?

The urban ghosts: These days the worst urban decay is found not in big cities but in small ones
Britain’s economy is finally crawling out of recession. On October 8th the IMF sharply upgraded its growth forecast for 2013. But the recovery is far from evenly spread. In London and the south-east, house prices and employment are soaring. In places such as Hartlepool, a former shipbuilding and steel town in Teesside, on the north-east coast of England, there is precious little sign of improvement. The local unemployment rate is almost twice the national average, at 13%. Last year there was nobody in work in 30% of the town’s working-age households.
Teeside and Hartlepool
Partly, this reflects the extraordinary success of London and continuing deindustrialisation in the north of England. Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in…

The divide is likely to widen more quickly over the next decade. From around 2001 until 2010, under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, much of Britain’s growth came from higher government spending. More and better-paid government employees—and welfare recipients—provided an adrenalin shot for the private sector.

Today that process has reversed, as the government tries to cut its way out of an enormous fiscal deficit. Welfare spending and council budgets are falling especially quickly in poorer small towns…

To turn around, these towns will have to attract a reliable stream of outside money…

And even with growth, the most ambitious and best-educated people will still tend to leave places like Hull. Their size, location and demographics means that they will never offer the sorts of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like. In America, cities that decline must redefine themselves, says Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank. Like a man who has lost weight, they have to get new clothes that fit—shrinking their boundaries and ambitions. Britain’s failing towns struggle on indefinitely in their old industrial shape and size.

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