Much attention surrounding devolution and independence within the United Kingdom is focused on Scotland – the 2014 referendum combined with the growing support for the Scottish National Party in the country has established a resentment towards England due to its disregard for other countries within the Union. Northern Ireland and Wales have growing independence movements, with Cornwall adding to this, and surprisingly for some– the north of England.
For many, the physical divide between north and south is hard to discern. Some say it is just above Watford, others exclude counties such as Lancashire and Lincolnshire in favour of Tyne and Wear and Yorkshire, whilst others believe the Midlands are in the region.
The recently formed Northern Independence Party defines the north as the ancient region of Northumbria. A leading voice for northern independence, this seems to be the clear definition of the ‘north’; they gained 50,000 members in less than a year and even ran for office in the Hartlepool by-election. But, what is it that unites these counties under this umbrella term?
Historians argue that two key periods have helped shape the northern identity: the Industrial Revolution and the economic struggle of the 1980s, creating an identity remarkably separate from the rest of England.
The north of England has been historically oppressed since 1069 under William the Conqueror, with the ‘harrying of the north’ in which he brutally suppressed northern rebellions against his rule, and systematically destroyed northern towns. The region experienced famine with much of the areas deserted.
More rebellions followed throughout the next 1000 years, and to this day socio-economic disparities are still evident. Mortality rates are higher in the north than in the south– 15% higher. Education and transport standards are majorly different to the south.
The Coronavirus pandemic is one of the many pressures adding to the calls for independence. Manchester seemed to be the centre of this, with Andy Burnham’s anger towards the government for their lack of funding given to the city. This lack of COVID-19 relief– in comparison to southern cities– added to the growing concerns over the survival of the northern industries, after it was placed under Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions against the advice of scientific advisors.
Gordon Brown, Former Prime Minister, remarked that in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the psychological glue holding the country together has come unstuck. ‘Not only do you have the Scottish minister but you’ve got regional ministers saying they are not consulted or listened to… you’ve got no mechanism or forum for co-ordinating the regions and nations’. Not only is the Scottish-English divide strong, but the north-south divide is growing stronger– and it’s not just due to decades of Tory rule but perhaps, the political system. Could independence or devolution be the answer?
Under Tony Blair, arguments and motions for devolution were brought forward. Devolved assemblies were created in Scotland and Wales. However, the 2004 referendum on northern devolution failed– with 78% voting against it.
To gain power in the north, Northumberland-born Alex Niven, author of ‘New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England’ argues that it will take a radical left-wing government to bring about devolution for the north. But rather than a completely autonomous and independent north, Niven argues for constitutional changes to challenge the ‘imperialistic’ Britain. Devolution is the answer, not total independence. A centralised approach to policy and politics in Westminster only ruins the local communities and creates a greater distrust in the government.
However, the Northern Independence Party’s manifesto states that it is London that ‘gobbles up’ the industry. They declare that London-based journalists ‘pick out the worst of us’ by perpetuating stereotypes of the north that adds to its general oppression. With independence, they claim they will join with an independent Scotland in alliances.
It poses many questions. Is Derby included? What will be the capital? The historic capital of England was York and, as Yorkshire is the biggest county in Northumbria, could it be York– or will the economic powerhouses of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool become the capital due to their resources? If so, will a feeling of resentment grow in certain regions, with perhaps a divide in opinion much like the north-south divide already prevalent? Also, structural inequality– if the capital does become one of these powerhouses, will employment be focused here rather than across the region?
Big questions include economic stability and the presence of an army. Decades of structural inequalities have led to the wish for an independent north due to the neglect of Westminster. But, this structural inequality creates a complex issue: with no real employment available already, how will jobs be created in a new country?
I believe that for now, devolution is the answer to the crises in the north. Whilst the 2004 referendum did not show much support for this, in recent years and especially with the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of the northern independence party– the time is ripe. Could independence happen? Possibly, with the aid of Scotland. But for a truly Free North to fruition, for now, devolution will aid the cause to true independence. It’s been a long time coming and whilst under Tory, Westminster rule, the north will continue to perish.
Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer