Whose Regions?

An earlier post this week examined the consequences for Wessex if Scotland votes to dissolve the union. It could be a unique opportunity to demand and to create a new England, with regionalism and decentralisation built in to its fabric. More likely, it could usher in a new age of political repression, economic polarisation and cultural uniformity as the British ‘establishment’ morphs effortlessly back into an English one. Yesterday’s post suggested that work is already underway to undermine the process of regional reawakening, laying claim to aspects of Wessex culture deemed seriously ‘national’, while dismissing the rest as hilariously ‘local’.

A third strategy favoured by the establishment has long been to make a fake and pass it off as the real thing. The official, authorised regions of England. What other kind can there then be? We are familiar with their most recent incarnation as the Prescott zones, themselves based on World War II civil defence regions. World War I produced a similar map and so on back to the Civil War and the Protectorate that followed, when Britain was divided into 11 military districts by Oliver Cromwell. Major-General John Desborough was in charge of enforcing centralist diktat in a south-western district that comprised the very same counties as the South West zone today. Major-General William Goffe commanded Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex – roughly half of the modern South East zone. The first instance of administrative devolution in England is believed to have been the Customs outposts set up by Edward I to raise funds for his wars of conquest. Earlier still, the Domesday Book itself was drawn up by commissioners organised into seven circuits, notable chiefly for the way they ignore familiar Anglo-Saxon precedent.

Those who would frustrate regionalism will always do so by posing as its friends. Effective regionalism cannot exist without effective regions and the definition of the region can be organised in only two ways. Of these, the preferred approach in England has always been to define from above. To define from below, as Spain did in the 80s, is judged impossible, a non-option that could only lead to chaos if applied here and so not in the best interests of regionalism and its supporters. Trust us, old chap, we’ll see you through. Usually, it’s just a matter of dusting off the set of regions used last time, tweaking here and there to add a soupçon of novelty. England ends up with eight or nine regions, roughly comparable in population and therefore in caseload for the civil service. Never mind that the Cornish identity is routinely ignored, that the north and the midlands are each partitioned or that Wessex suffers from its very own Iron Curtain with blinkered thinking either side.

If identity is to be respected, and regions generally given the clout they need, England could do with fewer regions, defined not by what Sir Humphrey says but by the basic popular geography of the country. The north – Northumbria – is as much part of the highland zone as Scotland and Wales. The midlands – Mercia – are divided from East Anglia by the Wash and the Fens and from Wessex broadly by the estuary of the Severn and the watershed of the Thames. The big, named blocks of Anglo-Saxon politics are not some thousand-year-old irrelevance. They arose where they did because that is how the land works, when viewed from within and not from London.

There is one sure way not to get this outcome. And that is to let the interests of ‘England as a whole’ prevail. Give the job of region-definition to a select committee of MPs, a royal commission of the great and the good, or even the hacks of Fleet Street, and the answer will always come back to the one Sir Humphrey first thought of. It’s because for all of these groups, what matters isn’t the region; it’s the centre and their own relationship to it. They either cannot conceive of an England where power is genuinely dispersed, or else they fear and loathe it as a barrier to personal ambition. There’s also an unacknowledged circularity in this fantasy of a national conferring about boundaries. It will never happen unless the case for regionalism is widely accepted in principle. And that will never happen unless folk can already see what it is they’re going to be identifying with.

So, of course, with the job left to civil servants the number of regions is always going to be needlessly high. The higher it is, the fewer decisions the regions can make for themselves without treading on their neighbours’ toes. Which means the more decisions need to be ‘co-ordinated’ from Whitehall. The more regions there are, the less is the ‘headroom’ between the region and its local authorities, the greater the chance of friction, and the greater the scope for Whitehall to play knight in shining armour riding to the rescue of municipal damsels in distress.

The number of regions impacts directly on their powers too. Business interests want as few points of contact with different state bodies as they can arrange, so will always lobby to keep powers centralised. Multiply the number of regions and you multiply their causes for concern. With a sparing number of regions, law-making and tax-setting powers can be devolved to real regional parliaments. With a number nearly into double figures, you’ll be lucky to get a nominated advisory council packed with old retainers. And that means that a referendum to endorse regional devolution is unwinnable. Why vote ‘Yes’ to nothing?

Decades – nay, centuries – of debate and discussion about the governance of England’s territory ought to have led us to a solemn resolution. Never to trust the establishment to draw our boundaries for us but rather to refute their patronising assumption that those on the ground can’t do a better job of it ourselves. Not by an arbitrary cutting-up of England into meaningless zones but by a careful linking-up of communities to form regions that echo real places, with names and flags and ways of speech and thought so deep that no spin doctor could summon them into being or magic them away again. Devolution, regionalism, decentralisation. Whatever you call it, it’s about making our own decisions. And no decision can be more fundamental than to define the political units to which we choose to give our loyalty.