February 17, 2023 - 7:00am

I bring you this dispatch from the train back home to the North East. Out of my window are the familiar sights of Middle England: the pylons and farms, hedges and caravan parks. This is the great expanse of Tory blue that washes across the map, broken by the islands of Labour red which wind their way up like some Micronesian archipelago. Surveying this political map of England, it is hard to avoid the Disraelian conclusion that there are two different nations living side by side, Labour and Tory, metropolitan and provincial, each going about their lives in different ways.

At first glance, UnHerd’s polling readily confirms this view. Take the latest example: when people are asked whether they agree that “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”, the enduring geographical divide emerges. Joining urban England in its conspiratorialism are two of the old heartlands of Labour power, neither of which are particularly metropolitan or diverse: South Wales and North East England. 

Both are poor, both overwhelmingly white, and both supported Brexit. The North East, in particular, jumps out, running in dark conspiratorial green from Redcar in the south to Wansbeck in the north, broken only by the prosperous island of Tynemouth — perhaps the most liberal-metropolitan piece of real estate in the region. Just like the residents of Birmingham Ladywood, Leeds Central or Barking, the people of the North East tend to believe the world is not ruled by people like them, but instead an elite of others operating out of sight somewhere else. 

The dark conspiratorial green of the North East

But are they really wrong to think this? Unless by “a secretive elite” we are talking about a bunch of lizards or Bilderbergers, it’s not clear to me they are. In a much more prosaic sense it surely is the case that an unaccountable elite controls many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. From an economic perspective, this really isn’t even controversial.

Reading Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World is particularly eye-opening about the reality of the modern global economy in this regard. For many people employed by a multinational corporation, their job security is controlled far less by who they elect than by the board of some company sitting thousands of miles away. When the financial crisis erupted in the United States in 2007, it spread across the world, crippling banks across Europe who, it emerged, were utterly dependent on the US Federal Reserve, which in turn provided guarantees without informing Congress. None of this points to a malign conspiracy, but it does point to a certain reality about our lives today: that we live in an era of global capital, over which most states and people have very little power as things stand.

For an ordinary employee living and working in the North East, far from Westminster and the boardroom of Nissan, decision-making does not just feel far away, but actually is. The reason why the North East, South Wales and the inner cities feel this way particularly is perhaps because they really are further from the levers of control. The simple reality is that the managerial middle class is smaller in the North East than it is in the Home Counties. As such, the sense of empowerment that comfortable middle management provides is harder to find.

Once upon a time, politics provided a tool to wrestle back some control. This, in fact, was the very purpose of democratic socialism. The idea was that the universal franchise gave working people the tool they needed to control parliament, the sovereign governing board of the nation. Through the Labour Party, people could take back control of their lives by nationalising the industries in which they worked. 

It was for this very reason, in fact, that the Labour Party so vociferously opposed British membership of the nascent European project when it first emerged. Why would a Labour government which had nationalised coal production place it under the control of an unaccountable European coal and steel community? By the late 1980s, and the emphasis on a “social Europe” which would take the edge off Thatcherism, Labour changed its position.

Today, though, we are as far from Jacques Delors’s late-1980s vision of a social Europe as he was from the beginnings of a federal Europe in 1951. We are in a new global economic system dominated by the dollar and the rise of China. People are entirely correct to demand more control over their lives, but nobody has yet provided any credible answer showing how they can achieve this. And so resentment builds.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.