The break-up of Britain?

Paul Salveson surveys views of post-Brexit Britain

It’s about Brexit but it’s more. What’s going to become of the North of England in the next ten years? Assuming that Brexit goes through in some shape or form, the economy of the North will take a big hit, and it’s unlikely to be short term. Some major companies have already said they’d up sticks and leave. Replacing those, and the jobs that will be lost, with thousands of new, dynamic SMEs seems a bit unlikely. A recent Guardian article by Aditya Chakrabortty speculated on the destructive impact of Brexit on the integrity of the UK, particularly through Scottish independence. Other commentators have suggested that a united Ireland will become virtually inevitable, and Wales may well follow Scotland’s lead. The assumption that ‘England’ will soldier on, embattled, alone and increasingly right-wing and isolationist, hostile to its neighbours, is widely shared.

In much of the debate on Brexit and ‘the break-up of Britain’, it’s assumed automatically that ‘England’ will continue as a single entity, with perhaps a bit more devolution here and there to ‘city regions’. Real devolution is not on the Tories’ agenda.

The North of England will be the biggest losers from Brexit, despite having largely voted Leave in 2016. The reasons for that Leave vote were many and complex, not least a deep-rooted sense of abandonment by an ill-defined elite. The decline of the great traditional industries of the North, roughly coinciding with joining the EU, created a potent but often unconscious sense of grievance which lacked a clear focus. ‘Europe’ provided it, encouraged by the rhetoric and bigotry of the Leave campaign.

Across the North of England there is a tangible sense of ‘victimhood’. Whether it is lack of investment in transport, poor health care or the decline of once-great towns, it’s there. The perpetrators of this are sat somewhere ‘down south’, perhaps in the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. ‘They’ don’t care about ‘us’.

Why doesn’t this find political expression, in the way that Scottish and Welsh grievances have coalesced into support for progressive nationalist parties? The Scottish historian (and passionate European) Chris Harvie once described English regionalism as “the dog that never barked”. Of course, ‘The North of England’ isn’t a nation; you could even argue whether it’s a ‘region’ or an amalgam of three separate regions (Yorkshire, the North East and the North West). Yorkshire, with perhaps the strongest identity of the three regions, has a young but growing ‘Yorkshire Party’ and has a handful of local councillors. In local elections it typically gets about a third of the vote, which isn’t bad. There is an equivalent in the North East but nothing that aims to represent Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria. Perhaps there was a time that the Labour Party could claim to be ‘the voice of the North’ but that is becoming less and less the case.

The different parts of ‘The North’ as a whole have much in common with each other, notwithstanding the myth of Lancashire v Yorkshire antagonism. And it is a myth, played out in county cricket and good-humoured banter, but not much else. At the time of the Scottish independence referendum, there was much traffic on social media about ‘the North’ joining with an independent Scotland. It got hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’, though it misses the point. ‘The North’ has much in common with the Scots, but joining an independent Scotland probably isn’t a sensible approach, even as a debating room topic. For one thing, it’s three times as big as Scotland, in population terms. But – for the long-term – the idea of a quasi-independent ‘North of England’ may not be quite as fanciful as it seems. Put aside the jokes (and the potential is massive, e.g. of cloth-capped soldiers on border patrols) and there could be something in it.

In his Guardian piece, Chakrabortty quoted the work of Benedict Anderson who wrote in Imagined Communities that the nation “is an imagined community”. In other words it is created; no ‘nation’ has always been there and many across Europe are quite new. Many have disappeared or become parts of different nations, willingly or unwillingly (often the latter).

Whilst nations often begin as works of imagination, taking decades and sometimes centuries to emerge as real, existing nations with a state apparatus, sometimes the process can be accelerated by external events, typically wars and revolutions but also major shifts within existing states. I would argue that the United Kingdom is going through just such a change, albeit a largely non-violent one (putting aside the legacy of the Troubles in Ireland).

A distinctly ‘Northern’ consciousness is taking shape which in years to come may find political expression in a party which could have similarities with civic nationalist parties within and beyond the UK. As the prospect of a Tory England which enshrines free market economics with a myopic, isolationist approach to the outside world becomes ever more possible, the alternative of a progressive and outward-looking federal Britain with the North of England working with Scotland, Wales, Ireland and other English regions may become increasingly more attractive.

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