England, Scotland and the North: a view from 'flyover country'

With Scotland on the road to further devolution if not independence, and the cuts set to deepen, its time to talk about the oft-forgotten North of England.
John Baxendale
7 December 2011

As the cuts bite deeper, predictably affecting some regions more than others, we are going to hear a lot more about the North/South divide.  Once again, as in the 1930s and the 1980s – and not without reason – the North of England will be depicted in terms of decaying towns and workless people: the betrayed promise of New Labour’s urban renewal.  Already the political schism of the Thatcher years is reappearing, with Labour strengthening its dominance in the North at the expense of both government parties, while making few inroads in the South. 

But it’s not the economics or the politics I want to discuss: at least, not much.  Instead, I take my cue from J B Priestley.  In 1934, after touring the country at the depth of the last great Slump, he vividly described the dereliction of industrial England, alongside the prosperity of its less afflicted parts.  Yes, he concluded, this was an economic problem – or rather, although he didn’t use the term, a problem of political economy, economics  combined with power.  But it was also a problem about the nation.  ‘Was Jarrow still in England or not?’ he demanded. ‘ Had we exiled Lancashire and the North-east coast?’

These questions popped back into my mind last May, not because of the recession, but because of the Scottish elections – or more precisely the reaction to them.   A few observers noted the Northern results, the defeat of the Lib-Dems and the absence of any Tory revival, signalling the the North’s rejection of the coalition, and England’s widening North/South political gap - but who was listening?  Everyone knew where the main action was, and it wasn’t in Manchester or Sheffield.  As the TV cut from Westminster to Edinburgh and back again, the North of England felt more than ever like flyover country.

Since then, faced with the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, we English have been told repeatedly (usually by Scots) that we urgently need to have a conversation about England: this strand is one of the outcomes.   But if so, the North needs to be at the heart of this conversation.  After all, who in England has more to lose from  Scottish independence?  For decades, Scotland and the North of England have been tacit allies within the polity of the UK, resisting with a greater or lesser degree of success the hegemony of the south-east with its wealthier finance and service based economy. 

This unspoken alliance, based not just on economic interest but on cultural, social and ideological commonalities, resisted Thatcherism and over thirty years has made Tories an endangered species across much of the northern half of the island.  Southern middle-class votes may have tipped the scales for New Labour, but the Scottish/Northern alliance was the foundation without which Blair and Brown would never have gained and retained power: in 2005, if England alone had voted, Michael Howard would have become Prime Minister, and in 2010 Cameron would have had an overall majority.  The number of Scots in the upper reaches of the Labour Party over the past two decades speaks for itself.

Devolution threatens this alliance, and independence would destroy it.  An English Parliament, or a UK Parliament without Scotland, with an almost perpetual Conservative majority, would set the seal on the political subordination of the English North in a way which William the Conqueror, who favoured more direct methods, would have to admire.  Scotland under devolution already has far more political clout than the North of England despite having a third the population: not just more control over its own affairs, but more money per head from central government (despite a higher average income than the North), and powers to raise its own finance which enfeebled northern town halls can only dream of.  And it is listened to: the North has plenty to say, but it might as well be talking to itself.

It’s not my purpose to moan about this neglect, still less to tell the Scots they should shelve their ambitions in order to help out the North of England.  But I am interested in what it tells us about England, and the North’s place within it.  Devolution has sharpened perceptions of Britain’s diversity, but the diversity of Englishness seems to have disappeared from view, as if England were one homogeneous lump which for simplicity’s sake can be identified with London. 

Here’s Niki Seth-Smith, for example, criticising this year’s anniversary celebrations for the Festival of Britain: ‘To have hosted the festival outside of London would have acknowledged Britain as a civic nation’ – quite right, but read on: ‘hosting in London disregards Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast as centres of state power’.  Disregarding Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle, all part of our ‘civic nation’ last time I looked, is OK, then?  I’m quite sure this isn’t what Niki meant, but the subliminal message is that devolution to Scotland and Wales has dealt with the internal diversity issue, and the rest of us can settle back to a future as satellites of the great metropolis.  Flyover country.

Part of the civic nation, yes, but not ‘centres of state power’.  There’s the rub: Scotland is a nation, and the North of England isn’t.  Of course, this state of affairs is neither natural nor inevitable, but it is the reality.  Had the medieval kingdoms of Northumbria and Yorvik survived a few centuries longer, or had the English crown succeeded in conquering or absorbing Scotland as it did those other northern territories, then we would be looking at a completely different set of political arrangements and national identities and telling ourselves very different stories about how they came to be. But Scotland survived long enough to become recognisably a nation like other nations. 

Being a nation is a bit like living on the Galapagos Islands: in time, separation produces distinctive evolutionary outcomes which might not otherwise have happened.  Fostered by the institutions that flourish behind national borders - monarchies,  parliaments, nobilities, laws and law courts, churches, schools and universities - culture becomes distinctive and national, languages are codified, historical narratives and traditions are identified and elaborated, shared experiences celebrated, and people come to consider themselves as members of the nation, an identity they regard as timeless and natural.  Nationhood can be expressed as a positive feedback loop between state institutions, culture and identity, each in turn enabling, validating and reinforcing the others.  Despite the Union, much of this process persisted in Scotland within the UK.

None of this happened to the North, or to any part of it.  No national institutions, little by way of shared experience and culture, and so a very weak and subordinate form of identity.  The northern kingdoms south of Scotland did not survive, and the North became English, through a prolonged process in which force, often brutal, played a major part.  It is a story of repeated military conquest, resistance and suppression over a period of centuries, whose bloody highlights include the Normans’ ‘harrying of the North’, and the stubborn resistance to Henry VIII’s Reformation.  The ‘Englishing’ of the North offers a violent contrast to the genteel union of crowns and parliaments which assimilated Scotland into the UK, which some people even so regard as a form of national violation.  In different circumstances, it might have provided the basis of a proud and bitter national history and mythology, but instead it is almost completely lost to popular memory, yielding not a single memorable victory or defeat to rank alongside Bannockburn or Culloden.  So it goes.  As Auden said of Spain, ‘History to the defeated/may say Alas but cannot help or pardon’.  The North has even forgotten that it was defeated.

Maybe that’s for the best.  Northerners today are in no doubt about their Englishness, and having missed out on the Galapagos experience are happy to regard English history, culture and institutions as their own, as indeed after all this time they are.  Northern identity consists of a firm but rather sentimental belief that they are not like Southerners, but few traditions or institutions through which to foster and celebrate this distinctiveness.  Even the English know about St Andrew’s Day and Burns Night, but how many people even in Yorkshire know about Yorkshire Day,  which is on 1 August, and whose historic roots go back through the mists of time as far as 1975, when it was established as a protest against local government reorganisation, which is what passes for harrying the North in these latter days.  Media coverage of this non-event, even when delivered by Yorkshiremen, is sparse and largely humorous, with much play made of whippets, flat caps and ee bah gum, the music-hall jokes through which the subordination of the North is routinely reaffirmed.  It’s enough to make even this Lancastrian yearn for Eric Bloodaxe to arise again, bloody axe in hand.

Happy to be English, northerners are nevertheless expected to buy into a story which tells them that they are not the real England: that proper Englishness resides elsewhere, further south.  This story arises from another of those unconscious alliances, this time between the Tory right and the anti-nationalist left.   In the blue corner we find Sir Roy Strong, whose entertainingly preposterous book Visions of England published earlier this year is quite explicit about the matter: England, which it seems has a lot to do with Elizabeth I and not much at all to do with the Industrial Revolution, is really the countryside, and not just any old English countryside, but ‘the landscape of southern England, the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ – a vision for which, it seems, young working men from Accrington or Barnsley who had never seen the south cheerfully volunteered to be slaughtered on the Somme.  This is not only untrue but grossly impertinent; but at the end of his book Sir Roy makes amends: the North, he finally remembers, ‘has retained its own identity which calls for tact and respect’.  But not, it seems, inclusion in any ‘vision of England’. 

Many on the left have unwisely embraced this narrowly snobbish version of Englishness in their eagerness to discredit the whole national identity business.  As Michael Calderbank recently observed,  if Oxford is regarded as more English than Hull, isn’t that good enough reason to forget about Englishness altogether and move from a national to a global framework? The trouble is, English people do stubbornly believe in England, and who amongst them regards Oxford as more English than Hull?  Roy Strong, perhaps, but not me.  To me, and I’m sure to many northerners, the English landscape I think of first is the Pennine one I grew up with, and Hull, Halifax and Hexham are every bit as English as anywhere south of the Trent.   There is something exceedingly problematic in the way the cultural Left has conceded Englishness to the Right.  It imposes a spurious uniformity on national identity and bypasses and marginalises very many English people who have a very different vision of their country.

This problem is exacerbated by our dysfunctionally monolithic political system.  Before devolution, we lived in the most centralised of all large modern states.  After devolution, if you live in England, you still do.  Alone amongst the big European nations, England – fifty million people constituting 85% of the UK - is governed in a way which makes no concession whatever to regional differences, identities and interests.  It’s one big first past the post system, and the same side always wins.  This political centralisation is reflected and reinforced by a pathologically London-centric and Westminster-obsessed media.  In 2004, voters in the north-east – those who bothered to vote, anyway – emphatically rejected John Prescott’s proposal of an elected regional assembly, thereby killing off any immediate prospect of regional devolution in England.  Why?  Two possible reasons: it wasn’t proper devolution but a toothless talking-shop imposed by outsiders; and the region lacked the clear identity, distinctive political culture and functioning political class which would make devolution credible as it was in Scotland.  In another feedback loop, this time a negative one, institutions, culture and identity mutually reinforce their common weakness.

Would a referendum along similar lines in, say, 1904, have produced the same outcome?  Maybe not.  In those days, there were formidable local and regional politicians – Newcastle’s Robert Spence Watson comes to mind, Manchester’s C P Scott, or Sheffield’s H J Wilson.  Northern cities had strong cultural institutions:  Literary and Philosophical Societies, newly-founded ‘redbrick’ universities, and everywhere a flourishing local press reflecting a range of local political views.  Look at those majestic town halls, the nineteenth century’s answer to the Gothic cathedrals.  All these helped to define distinctive regional identities embodied in culture and history.  Demands for devolution were heard, but local elites already ran their own affairs to a large extent, and had the wherewithal to muster their forces and make themselves heard at a national level – and more, they had the capacity to do what the English are now being urged to do – to talk to each other, and define who they were.  Of course this local public sphere was dominated by the employing and professional classes, but the early battles for working-class representation, for welfare provision, free speech and fair pay, were also fought at local level.  ‘Municipal socialism’ predated the Westminster variety by decades.

Much of this is gone.  Local government is enfeebled and demonised.  Economic power – even ownership of football clubs – has long since passed from local businessmen to national or global corporations.  Regional accents still thrive, though less so among the geographically mobile middle classes, but the universities today are less an expression of local pride and culture than cogs in a nationally-driven system of higher education, and in most places the local press is moribund and on the verge of extinction, its coverage of local politics often lamentable. 

Growing up in Edwardian Bradford and trying to be a writer, J B Priestley never dreamed that he would have to move to London to achieve his ambition.  After all, his schoolteacher father gleaned all he needed to know about current affairs from the Bradford Observer and occasional glimpses of the Manchester Guardian, and played his part in a thriving and argumentative local political culture which had real outcomes for local people, and little to do with London.  Twenty years later, and living in London, Priestley observed in English Journey the decay of such local cultures, and the flight from the cities of whole strata of economic and cultural leaders. 

Today we would not want to return to the oligarchic local cultures of the past, whose failure to democratise was one cause of their decline.  But their loss confirmed the marginalisation of the north as well as other peripheral regions, initiated by changing economic structures which took power away from localities and local elites, but confirmed by the rise of London’s financial capitalism and the centralising drive of the late twentieth century state which destroyed most of what was left of local political autonomy.  What is to be done?  Since city identities are generally stronger than regional ones,  Anthony Barnett is probably right to argue for stronger city government rather than regional devolution.  But I find his other panacea, the high-speed rail link, more problematic.  Is getting to London more quickly really the issue, or would it simply re-emphasise metropolitan dominance?  I would rather see better links between Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull - neighbouring city-states an hour apart in outdated, overcrowded rolling-stock.  Perhaps we need worse and not better access to London, so we can stand on our own feet and enjoy being where we are.

Dysfunctional centralisation and the silencing of powerful regional and local voices have concealed the multiplicity and diversity of English identities.  But it’s an English problem, not a Northern one.  As Madeleine Bunting and Gerry Hassan have both recently pointed out, alone amongst nations England has none of those national institutions which might connect its rich cultural traditions to a politics of national identity, as the Newcastle Lit & Phil once connected Northumbrian culture and history to the politics of its region.  There’s no English National Gallery, no English Library, no English Academy – they’re all British.  An English Parliament, in which peripheral regions would be even more marginalised and the south-east even more dominant, would just exacerbate the problem without providing any solution. 

So maybe we do need that conversation about Englishness.  Or do we?  Surely we know in our heart of hearts that these national narratives are all made-up, essentialist fantasies which should have had their day a century ago.  The cold light of history reveals ‘Englishness’ as a sequence of ad hoc inventions shaped to the political purposes of the moment.  Why invent more of them?  What it means to be English, what we really have in common, is that we all live together in England, and are collectively responsible for our own affairs, which just at the moment we are not running very well.  Sorting that out should be enough for a mature population to be getting on with. 

In the meantime, since England is and always has been a multicultural society, let’s hear about Yorkshireness and its roots in the Danelaw, about Spence Watson’s Northumbria, the Pendle Witches, the Cheshire of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - for that matter let’s hear about Cornwall and East Anglia.  We might not discover who the English really are, but we might stumble upon a more sensible way of talking about England – or, perhaps, find out that we don’t need to after all.

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