Under-represented and under-funded: London politicians can’t keep ignoring the south-west

The most southerly point of the UK. Confusingly also known as the North of the South. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Long before England was divided over Brexit, commentators argued about the political differences between the North and South. For southerners, dragons lurk any further than Watford; while terrible beer and folk with the fortitude of Kenneth Williams in a Carry-On film await northerners venturing below Birmingham.

People mostly know when something newsworthy happens in Wales, while Northern Ireland is currently getting its 15 minutes of fame, and Nicola Sturgeon is straight on the phone the minute Scotland slips out of the news.

But what about the south-west, the ‘North’ of the South. A place, according to YouGov, with a regional identity as strong as Yorkshire’s.

For most Londoners, the south-west is one of two things. You’ve got Bristol – a (slightly) more affordable, yet still trendy, smaller version of London – and the Cotswolds, both of which provide many a Kensington resident with a weekend retreat. Then everywhere else is a patchwork of fields and muddled pirate/farmer accents.

Unfortunately, these both leave the south-west somewhat overlooked in London’s political circles.

Traditionally the 258-mile stretch between Land’s End and Chipping Campden in the region’s north was something of a Lib Dem stronghold. In 2010 the south-west had 15 yellow seats, 36 blue, and just four Labour. Despite national losses in 2017, Conservative seats rose to 47 and Labour climbed to seven, leaving the Lib Dems with just one MP – the newly-elected Wera Hobhouse in Bath.


Devolution hasn’t been fruitful. Although in recent years Bristol has been thriving, first under former mayor George Ferguson and then his incumbent successor Labour’s Marvin Rees, there’s few else championing the interests of the south-west to Whitehall. Inexplicably the role of the West of England’s metro mayor, Tim Bowles, also covers Bristol, along with bits of South Gloucestershire and north-east Somerset.

Rivalry in the region is strong – don’t confuse a Bristolian and Gloucestershire accent* in the presence of natives – yet the policy problems are shared.

Regional income per head is higher than in parts of the North, but so are house prices. Yet it’s often overlooked that market prices in Bristol and Bath, where young professionals might look to escape the capital, skew the numbers.

Cornwall is one of the ten poorest regions in the EU, with pockets of Gloucestershire and Somerset not far behind. Despite often being forgotten by our urban-based media, rural poverty is a real problem, with economic and cultural opportunities thin on the ground.

Transport only makes the problem worse. I grew up in a town 20 miles from Bristol, not much more than half an hour in the car. Yet the train takes over an hour, with the Cam and Dursley train station an inexplicable five miles out of the town. Bus services might come once a week, but they aren’t guaranteed to bring you back. Cuts to local government have made many services unviable. It's little wonder that in Dursley JK Rowling found inspiration for Harry Potter’s cruel relatives.

Tourism offers a local economy boost; people come from all over the world to enjoy Somerset Scrumpy, Cornish coastline and Cotswold cottages. But weather on the western front is an unreliable business partner, and second homes push up living costs for locals.

The south-west gets the investment its national presence deserves. Whilst local politicians are trying to deliver for local people, there’s been a lack of join-up between its MPs.

The Lib Dems struggle to marry their liberal pro-EU messages with the more conservative region, whilst Labour doesn’t have the support outside of cities to recognise its problems. Media darling Jacob-Rees Mogg has hardly used the national spotlight to find solutions for those struggling in his North East Somerset constituency. Liam Fox prefers to make the case for investment in the Philippines than Portishead.

Devolution has struggled to appeal. That London policymakers tried to lump Cornwall and Devon together says it all. There is also a deep-seated indifference to politics; Brenda from Bristol isn’t the only one who’s had enough.

But the south-west needs a champion. Marvin Rees could do more to talk about the importance of connections throughout the south-west to benefit both Bristol and its surroundings. Theresa May could even use investment in the region to sure up her reputation with Tory backbenchers.

As local press dwindles, national commentators should take more trips down the M4 and M5 and find out not everything in the UK has to be binary between North and South, Leave and Remain.

*Gloucestershire accents are slower and lower. Bristolians pepper rapid speech with phrases not heard anywhere else in the world.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.