If COVID restrictions hadn’t deepened the North-South divide enough, then Jake Berry MP sadly added to this when, during a speech in Westminster Hall, he said that people in the south prefer ballet and those in the north prefer football. The comments, made during an appeal to help save football clubs, have incensed arts organisations across the North. The Northern Ballet tweeted that Berry’s comments, “perpetuate tropes that culture in the north is of less value than that in London”.

Once again, an overreaching statement has been made to grossly sum up the state of the arts. Berry, who comes from Liverpool, home to the Beatles and the Liverpool Philharmonic, fails to see the wide variety of world-class arts available in the region. From Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds to the Birmingham Royal Ballet to the BBC Philharmonic and The Hallé in Manchester, there is an abundance of culture available across the North. These organisations do not just provide a centre of excellence for performance but provide many outreach opportunities to communities. Furthermore, the low cost of living is leading many young creatives to move North. Even the BBC moved many of their operations to Salford Quays, showing faith that the creative skills and opportunities needed for such a move could be found in the area. 

Many of these organisations have made a name for themselves by pushing the boundaries in their disciplines. Opera North has had several sound installations, including a sound walk across Newcastle, that are helping show the various new ways audiences can interact with art. During the pandemic, the BBC Philharmonic helped to spearhead the move from live to online performance, highlighting the skills and ingenuity in the area. Several leaders from these organisations, such as Kevin O’Hare who was previously at Birmingham Royal Ballet and is now Director of The Royal Ballet, have gone on to lead arts institutions in the South, bringing their unique approach to organisations that were honed in the North. 

It’s not just a lack of knowledge of what arts are available in the North that’s insulting but the continued need to pit art and sports against one another. Both industries have suffered during the pandemic, due to people being unable to congregate in large numbers. Whilst professional sports and some professional dance can now take place, neither can get back at the local level. With both sectors facing the same issues, surely we should be encouraging them to find a new best practice together, instead of both sectors being turned into a ‘one or the other’ fight. The Lowry Theatre in Salford has turned into a “Nightingale court”, helping to plug part of the financial gap left by the lockdown. Is there perhaps a similar arrangement that could be made with the sports venue?

This is not the first time that Berry has become a topic of contention for his attitudes towards the North. Berry, who was in charge of the political project ‘The Northern Powerhouse’, was criticised for the project stopping at Leeds and for not investing in the most in-need communities. This year, a Parliamentary Public Account Committee criticised a report in which Berry was involved in deciding which towns should receive money for The Towns Fund as part of a post-pandemic financial rescue package, with the selection of towns described as “vague and based on sweeping assumptions”. The government has rejected this report, but one could argue that a pattern is emerging as to how politicians consider the region. 

Geographical borders do not dictate what interests people have. They don’t dictate the value of those sectors or what should be available. The repeated use of stereotypes of the North and South is a disrespect to both regions. The fact that members of the government continue not to understand huge swathes of their constituents shows a lack of knowledge that would be unimaginable if this were regarding other sectors.

There is no North-South divide when it comes to where arts and sports organisations are based and the quality of the work. When will politicians stop forcing this unjustified narrative on us and their policies?

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.