If I sit in on general meetings of the Northern Independence Party, I make sure there’s a Wyvern draped somewhere in the background. The point isn’t to over-emphasise our equivalence with the newly-founded party now channelling mounting anger against the London regime. It’s to challenge a stereotype. Not the southern stereotype of the North but the northern stereotype of the South. We’re not all Tories and the South – even after deducting the oft-missed Midlands in-between – isn’t all one place. The regions east and west of London have their own identities, and their own grievances against metropolitan dominance.
Looking at the gaunt statistics, the question is why the NIP never happened earlier. Wessex has had its own political party for over 40 years, nurturing ideas for a better time. Northern radicals meanwhile have clung to liberal and socialist traditions expressed through London-based parties, only now realising that these can’t deliver hoped-for change. In 1975, when devolution for Scotland and Wales first looked like it would happen, a group of Labour and Liberal party members formed the Committee for Democratic Regional Government in the North of England, to point out that the North faced similar problems and needed the same solutions. In 1977, it launched publicly as an all-party pressure group, the Campaign for the North, which blazed brightly before fading under Thatcher. CfN was always held back by not being a political party – too many careers were at stake among its MP members – and would never commit to the North being a unit or else divided in two, three or even four.
The NIP has finally plugged those gaps, demanding an independent state under the old name of Northumbria, with the banner of St Oswald as its flag. That can only be good news for Wessex and the Wyvern: a rising tide lifts all boats. NIP has sparked renewed interest in some degree of self-government for Mercia, and maybe for East Anglia too. Post-Corbyn, the politically homeless up north now have somewhere to go, their fellows elsewhere are demanding the same and the outcome could well be a new template for British politics. In place of Labour’s one-size-fits-all, we can envisage a loose network of civic nationalist and regionalist parties, each with its own emphasis reflecting its circumstances but united in being anti-Tory and anti-Westminster. We don’t need total agreement on policies, let alone an inter-regionalist committee to keep all our thoughts centrally co-ordinated. We know that one voice for all regionalists would be whatever a London press office decides. Our greatest strength comes from looking at the same problem from different angles. The Labour approach of ‘royal socialism’ – briefly borrow the United Kingdom to run it better – has failed, again and again. It was bound to do so, because the view from the centre looking out, however benign, can never grasp what it means to be the view looking in.
Chris Veasey, one of CfN’s stalwarts in the 1970s, is now active in the NIP. Chris always favoured the separatist option, remarking that “A nationalist is a regionalist who means it”. Ask for twice what you want and half may be the concession won. That would be huge progress on today and it begins with demands designed to startle. It may mean that NIP are not all separatists, but realists prepared to kick a few things over to challenge the smug status quo. If Northumbria is to be independent, discussions are now turning to what to call its inhabitants. After a generation in which ‘English not British’ was edgy, ‘Northumbrian not English’ may be set to take its place. Others have sensibly pointed to the possibility of being culturally English without being politically so, or vice versa. Bede would surely have understood that world. It’s much like Austrians and some Belgians and Swiss being culturally German, without bowing to Berlin.
The radicalisation now underway is bound to have implications for Wessex. Between the 1950s and the 2010s, Scottish and Welsh nationalists could be seen as our allies in moving the debate in the right direction. Their long-sharpened arguments about Westminster neglect added weight to the case for regional devolution within England, however far one supported their separatism. In return, many nationalists could sense the injustice in proclaiming that all England belongs to London, by right of sovereignty, but nothing beyond. British federalists could see something useful in all of these causes, but their own now appears dead. New Labour bungled English devolution because they thought they knew best and instead of the regions catching up with Scotland and Wales they’ve fallen so far behind that for some it’s too late. To hell with England; we’re leaving too.
That’s not the WR view. We’re regionalists for good reason. We seek the maximum practical decentralisation of power, without trying to divide the indivisible: an ideal that Plaid Cymru termed ‘a community of communities’. There are multiple ways to reach that goal and nationalism has acquired the wrong connotations to suit everyone. We seek a Europe of the regions, one that recognises the importance of continuous, constitutionally mandated co-operation across our continent on those matters that lie beyond the capacity of individual states. It’s not a huge list but it includes some important stuff: defence, foreign policy, international trade rules, human rights and the ecosphere. Unreasonable attempts to expand the list can and should be resisted. As with NIP’s vision of an independent, socialist Northumbria, we’re not future-neutral in defining the Wessex we want to see, nor the world in which we set it.
WR worked closely with CfN in the 1980s and 1990s, meeting regularly and jointly sponsoring ‘The Regionalist’ magazine. A massive amount of the groundwork needed has already been done. There are still grave risks ahead, of splinter groups and ideologically charged egos, but the time has never been more propitious for a policy of Home Rule all-round. Just as there’s much goodwill towards NIP among radicals in the South, so we’d like to ask a favour. It’s to recognise that North and South are natural allies, not natural enemies. Wessex, no less than Northumbria, fails to get the government it needs from the London-centred system.
In a sane country, the national interest is the sum of the regional interests. In the UK, it can be their opposite. Northumbria’s economy, sacrificed on the altar of high finance, is denied the infrastructural improvements required to sustain its population. Meanwhile, Wessex is ordered to build, build, build, and concern for the environmental cost is sneered at as NIMBYism. The vast infrastructure-from-scratch needed to match such growth isn’t being provided, and wouldn’t fit anyway. Our devastated countryside is partly the result of thousands moving south in search of work. In that sane country we mentioned, there should be no need for them to be crowding into our back yard if their first choice was always a decent life back home.