A journey that ends in Northumbria?
by Ian Martin (Same Skies)
I knew that we’d been let down. I knew that our talent and our ideas and our potential was being wasted. I knew that things were starting to change in Scotland so I thought I knew what I wanted – a Yorkshire assembly elected by PR on the Scotland model. I thought that partially because I thought that East Leeds may remain part of the UK and EU. So I thought that to challenge London Hegemony, we needed to build our autonomous civil society where we are, we needed to build Regional Democracy from below to meet any devolution coming down from above. I still know what I don’t want – East Leeds to be subject to the whim of a unitary English Parliament. Given how Brexit has concentrated even more power for the foreseeable future in the hands of Westminster, especially those with the least interest in addressing regional and other inequalities, I accepted that Regional Democracy for now meant engaging with the election and role of the West Yorkshire metro mayor as a building block. But given Brexit and likely Scottish Independence, there is a danger of an English Parliament as part of an independent England. It may be that eventually there is a federal England. But not soon. And it will be on the terms of enthusiasts for the idea of England. And so maybe the future is an independent Northumbria? An independent Northumbria that empowers regional democracy within and builds a positive relationship with other states, including as part of the EU. Maybe that’s what I want now. But how do we get there? Before independence makes it almost impossible, how do we make sure that the institutions at the heart of London Hegemony recompense Yorkshire and the North for the way in which their decisions and actions have made them comfortable at the expense of people and their prospects here? I still think building regional democracy has a key role to play, building on the basis of the tiny amounts of devolution already in existence to develop autonomous civil society capacity and to advocate strongly and convincingly for justice prior to and after Northumbria or England becoming independent states. A civil society that doesn’t only consist of white men. Regional Democracy in Yorkshire and the North and independence for Northumbria don’t have to be incompatible if we don’t want them to be. And that is my hope for East Leeds.
Back in 2014, I stood in awe of what I had seen in Scotland. But I wasn’t standing in Scotland. I was standing here. In East Leeds. I stood up where I live and asked some questions. Questions inspired by the democratic renewal and quest for inclusion that appeared to be a clear outcome of people living in Scotland being asked a question themselves. A question of what kind of country they wanted to live in. A question of self-determination.
So I asked what kind of region we wanted to live in. I asked this question because I was aware that if we wanted to do things differently, if we wanted to do things better, we had to find a way to act beyond the scope of London Hegemony. At that time, I hoped East Leeds might remain part of the European Union. Even though I understood why many in Scotland wanted to leave the United Kingdom, I also thought that East Leeds was likely to remain part of an EU member state called something like the ‘United Kingdom’.
Since 2015, I have had the pleasure of having fun alongside some brilliant people who all live and work here in West Yorkshire asking our fellow residents that first question (such as in Manningham in November of that year) and developing our vision for Regional Democracy (as described in our book from 2019). Over the last few months, Same Skies have been developing our Alternative Manifesto Process for the planned election of the first West Yorkshire metro mayor in May 2021.
But now things are different, now that Brexit and an independent Scotland are close, I need to ask myself if Regional Democracy will be enough. In particular, whether our vision for Regional Democracy could survive if East Leeds was part of an independent England. We may have no choice, it may be a default outcome of state failure. But what if it’s not what we want. Could we, should we, look at alternatives?
The idea of England
There are many people whose vision for progressive politics includes the idea of an English Parliament, many in fact who are inspired by Scotland’s independence movement to campaign for an independent England. Over the years, I have debated with many of them and fundamentally their argument is based on the idea of harnessing feelings of English national identity to bring about progressive change. This means that people in East Leeds and all across Yorkshire and the North are assumed to be English and told that we should feel proud of being English. In fact, this seems to be the only argument used in favour of an English Parliament, “the only nation in the UK without a parliament”. But that argument would only work if it was universally held to be true. If it’s not, other arguments would need to be deployed. The truth is that identity is contested in Yorkshire and the North.
When social media is full of clickbait articles asking ‘Where is the North?’, it always seems most clearly defined to me as the area governed as England where at least some of the people that live there doubt that it is part of England at all (and know that it is not part of Cornwall). To me, the North begins where at least a significant minority of people born and/or raised in a town don’t think of themselves as ‘English’, even if others think of it as the very heart of England. When Arianna Giovannini hosted a Northern identity workshop at the People’s Powerhouse convention in 2019, she discovered, “little sense of attachment to Englishness. It is perceived as an exclusive/excluding identity that does not cater for ‘Northernness’”. Following that event, Oli Bentley put his own ‘These Northern Types’ project in the context of “all identities, including Northern, being myths that we create”. A theme also investigated by John Baxendale in 2011 when he described how “The North has even forgotten it was defeated”.
Nevertheless it is also important to recognise that for many people in Yorkshire, their primary sense of identity is not Northern or English, but Yorkshire. English parliament supporters often point to the 2011 census and use it to suggest increasing numbers of people in Yorkshire feel primarily English. In reality however, the census doesn’t give people in Yorkshire a fair opportunity to identify with identities other than English or British. When the option to identify as Yorkshire is given, as described by Pete Woodcock, the overwhelming majority identified as Yorkshire with only a smaller proportion identifying as English as well. The most common identity was ‘more Yorkshire than English’ and around 15% of residents surveyed rejected the idea of English identity completely.
In the BBC’s award winning Rugby Codebreakers documentary about black Welshmen who moved north to get a fair chance to realise their rugby potential, Carolyn Hitt described how people in Wales saw rugby league (RL) as an ‘English’ game. But many who see themselves as proudly English (that is to say they want their sport to proudly and clearly reflect their sense of English identity) disown rugby league as being ‘just a Northern game’. In further interviews following the documentary, Carolyn also described how the Wales rugby union (RU) team was a rare source of pride during 1980’s industrial decline. The same decline happened here in a similar industrial landscape but the idea of ‘England’ meant we could never had that same source of pride. Until the emergence of the Yorkshire international football team, Great Britain Rugby League was the closest people in Yorkshire and the North got to an international sporting team that didn’t force them to identify as English.
In sports historian Tony Collins’ podcast interview with Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney about RL and GAA (Gaelic games, including gaelic football, hurling and camogie), both referred to how the sports’ development and profile had been affected by the idea of what is and what isn’t a nation. Fundamentally the idea of England has worked against the best interests of RL (and the North) more generally. The counterintuitive appeal of RU in Wales is because Wales exists. By playing RU, Wales could beat England at its own game but operate free from RFU interference. In fact, throughout his career, Carney has shown a good awareness of the arbitrary nature of borders and the need to ensure that they don’t lead to identities being forced on people. Rugby League in particular has a (perhaps accidentally) progressive approach to identity and the prospects for international teams representing Yorkshire and the North were discussed on page 24 of Same Skies’ report on the future of rugby league in West Yorkshire.
I love where I live, I am proud of what we have achieved together over thousands of years of migration, settlement and its legacy. To me it seems entirely legitimate in self- determination for any individual or group of individuals to express an identity, whether that be European, British, English, Northerner, Yorkshire, Loiner or something else. For most people the evidence seems to suggest it is a combination with different emphases for each individual. Equally there are many who argue that just as an English parliament would do nothing for the North by simply keeping power in the hands of those who have already let us down, I agree with those frustrated that non-South Eastern identities and experiences are not acknowledged but simply subsumed into ‘Englishness’, especially by those in power. Social media is full of English parliament campaigners telling Yorkshire parliament campaigners that they must feel English and so accept an English Parliament whilst others tell us that we must feel Yorkshire and accept a parliament based on historic boundaries. I respect those views and personally am very sympathetic to a Yorkshire Parliament but all these man-made boundaries have no more or less legitimacy for many people than a West Yorkshire/Elmet or Northern assembly or identity. Each border is a record from a point in time when that border suited the most powerful people at that moment. Over time, that border then became something to which people felt an attachment. Each individual has a right to determine their own identity and not be told they should feel something and that ‘something’ means only certain boundaries are legitimate. If the best option for devolution is Yorkshire, the argument must also be made on merits beyond identity and respectful links must be built with those who respect Yorkshire identity but see it as no more relevant than English, Northern, Elmet, Loiner or whatever else. We must create a big, welcoming space within devolved democracies for those who feel various identities.
And so a question beyond an identity must be answered, a basic question – What could an English Parliament do that wouldn’t be better done at region, island or continental level? Or at least, that was the question. This basic question itself however may change in the light of Brexit and Scottish Independence. So, what then? Could a post-UK settlement leave English Parliament enthusiasts dictating to us here? Will we in East Leeds and beyond wait for a newly created English Parliament to bestow gifts upon us? Could we be stuck with an English Parliament trying to justify itself by making an impact?
Although many here see ‘England’ as an appropriate scale for a football league or international sporting team, recent experiences with regard to Covid and financial support during lockdowns are yet more proof that the idea of England as an administrative or political space always works against the best interests of Yorkshire and the North. I have always seen Regional Democracy as radical subsidiarity in a Britain/EU context. But given Brexit and likely Scottish independence, I can see a danger that Yorkshire and the North will be trapped under an ‘England’ Parliament that is trying to justify its existence and unlikely to give power away.
Do we in the area governed as England’s North need to get organised and come up with a better alternative? Can we pre-empt the change? If we do it from the bottom up, where might we end up? Not Northern England or the North of England, but instead ‘The place that’s to the north of England’. Sometimes it gets called The North (although this often frustrates people living in The North of Scotland, of Ireland and of Wales). I usually describe it as Yorkshire and the North (recognising Yorkshire distinctiveness even within the North and avoiding the claim that it has to be the North of somewhere and that somewhere is England). In recent times however, the emergence of the Northern Independence Party (NIP) has led to an older name coming into use – Northumbria.
Northumbria is definitely a better name than anything that empowers people to claim that even the North of England has to ultimately accept the authority of England’s capital. I also like that NIP are referring to history as evidence of borders changing, interrogating borders of the past opens up questions of England’s usefulness, but also, in asking the North Midlands (where I spent the first 18 years of my life) if it wants to be included, the party’s leader Paul Proudfoot has set a tone that sees this as about the future – whatever the history, what do we want in future? What will a useful idea of Northumbria be in future? To me, discussions of all histories and their impact today help question assumptions (including people themselves motivated by any one of those specific histories). They all matter as much as each other, in that none of them matter if we are talking about what’s useful in future.
Party politics and self-determination in Yorkshire and the North
The NIP exploded on social media in October 2020 and benefited from a burst of initial curiosity from the fringes of London Hegemony media with a tone often doubting and comical that reminded me of mainstream media covering the Yorkshire Party’s emergence in 2015. YP initially struggled to get media attention much beyond RT and in both cases, a lot of the engagement on Twitter has been with the kind of social media profiles associated with Russian bot factories. Neither discredits either party but it does give a hint at the balance such parties have to strike in trying to build awareness of their challenge to the UK constitution against a media context dominated by London Hegemony, whilst also being aware of Russian geopolitical strategy to destabilise the UK and EU for their own reasons. Although the SNP and Plaid Cymru have also faced similar issues, in both cases the media infrastructure for and from those nations is much more substantial than in Yorkshire and the North.
Perhaps understandably given how many people in Yorkshire and the North bemoan the lack of opportunities in the place where they grew up, the Yorkshire and Northern Independence Parties were both founded by people who didn’t live in those places at the time – YP’s Richard Carter in Norway and NIP’s Philip Proudfoot in London. Proudfoot even benefited from being in the same place during Covid restrictions as the ITV (and most ‘national’) news teams to be able to film a socially distanced interview outside Westminster. Nevertheless, both YP & NIP have an inclusive sense of Yorkshire and the North based on residence not ethnicity. This is consistent with the experience of generations of newcomers who have viewed the idea of England as less inclusive than Yorkshire identity. Given this, it was no surprise that YP’s subsequent leaders Stewart Arnold, Chris Whitwood and Bob Buxton live in Yorkshire. Proudfoot has now moved back to Durham where he grew up and has announced plans for the election of a future leader.
There are significant contrasts between the parties as well. The longer established YP has stood in all elections since formation and had local councillors elected but its policy platform has been primarily limited to the ambition for a Yorkshire Parliament. Just like NIP, it has said that border areas should have referenda to choose whether to be part of devolved Yorkshire but this is based on the aim of including parts of historic Yorkshire that have not been part of administrative Yorkshire since local government reorganisation in 1974. Beyond that however, its vision is to include anybody of any political opinion within Yorkshire who supports their devolution ambitions through electoral politics. The only caveat to that has been to promote an inclusive sense of Yorkshire, which led partially to the decision to draw up the distinctive policy of supporting the UK’s membership of EFTA (including reciprocal free movement) following the 2019 European Parliament elections.
By contrast, NIP do not just promote constitutional change as part of their identity, but also identify as a democratic socialist party. At this early stage, they haven’t had chance to stand in elections or to develop broader policies but it seems very clear that they aim to be a progressive left party. In fact, one of the lines used by supporters of an English Parliament within the Labour Party to challenge them has been to suggest NIP are “disillusioned Corbynites who plucked Northumbria out of the history books two weeks ago”. Given this, it may be that it is not only constitutional issues that lead NIP to stand in elections against the Yorkshire Party, such as the upcoming West Yorkshire metro mayor election, and their counterparts in the North East Party. In the North West though, there may not be a similar contest as the Northern Party that stood in 5 Lancashire seats during the 2015 election and was founded by the nephew of the North East Party’s leader was dissolved a year later. The fact that a party only active in Lancashire identified as the Northern Party is also an indication of different ideas of regionalism in Yorkshire and the North.
Given our electoral system, I can understand the fear of many in Yorkshire and the North that the party who has the best chance of controlling the area governed as England for the foreseeable future is the same group of people who have expressed their concern at the impact of previous devolution. But nevertheless, it is still important to consider whether independence is the best option for now, or ever. And whether party politics is the best way to achieve self-determination for Yorkshire and the North in whatever form.
Civil society, regional democracy and independence
Alongside NIP, there is a non-partisan group campaigning for Northumbrian independence (appealing to non-party members and to existing activists in London based parties) and in doing so, they build on the basis of a number of other groups in Yorkshire and the North that have long campaigned for self-determination through regionalism. As well as Same Skies in West Yorkshire and People’s Powerhouse across the North, this includes the Hannah Mitchell Foundation who co-organised the Northern Citizens Convention in Huddersfield in 2015 and now lead the Campaign for Northern Democracy which ‘lobbies for democratically-elected regional governance within the North of England’. Like NIP, HMF is primarily made up of people with experience in the Labour Party and since foundation in 2011 have been co-ordinated by leading thinker on self-determination in the North, Paul Salveson.
Despite this, whether the aim of self-determination is Regional Democracy or independence, our civil society capacity in Yorkshire and the North is way below where even Scotland started on its journey towards devolution in 1979. For example, there is very little regional print media rooted in Yorkshire and the North, for the region and about the region. Big Issue North is the closest thing we have to a Northern wide newspaper of thoughtful & socially aware journalism. From an economic perspective, long-time advocate for devolution, Tom Forth told The Independent, “ Unless there was a credible plan for super-rapid economic growth, significant tax rises, and instantly deep cuts, a newly independent north would find it almost impossible to borrow money. It would be facing bankruptcy on day one.”. This suggests that independence for Northumbria might only be a possible end goal after it has secured its fair share of resources, perhaps including historical reparations from the London Hegemony. This would perhaps be the natural conclusion from Jon Trickett’s description of how London government ‘treats us like the last colonial outpost of British Empire’.
To do that, it would need strong political leadership within England/UK before independence. My general preference for regional democracy has always been a Yorkshire assembly elected by PR with similar powers to Holyrood (what former Yorkshire Party leader Richard Carter called ‘First Rate Devolution’). But through Same Skies, I have been engaging positively with the election of the first West Yorkshire metro mayor given Brexit concentrated even more power in Westminster for the foreseeable future and this may be our only realistic option to build capacity, what Bob Melling described as ‘taking the opportunity’.
Nevertheless, for campaigners with a specific view of what devolution should look like, the fact that London remains in control of what and how much power and resources are bestowed means engagement or detachment often feels like a game of strategy. For example, a West Yorkshire metro mayor might make a Yorkshire Assembly less likely. There is an emerging idea of a Yorkshire leaders board promoted by the One Yorkshire coalition that supported a metro mayor for the whole of Yorkshire but this would be indirectly democratic in that it would be made up of mayors elected from each sub-region rather than directly elected to a Yorkshire wide role. That though might mean that a West Yorkshire metro mayor makes an Assembly at a Northern scale more likely. But even so, would a Northern Assembly still be likely if the joint action by Northern metro mayors over financial support during Covid lockdowns leads to a Northern co-operative of metro mayors pooling power and resources from the bottom up rather than as a top down gift from London (as suggested by Bob Melling.
For the same reasons, it would also be important to ask whether a newly formed independent Northumbrian parliament would be any more likely to give power away quickly than an English one would? I think there are reasons to think it is more likely but it is still a risk. Long time activist for self-determination in Scotland, Pat Kane, wondered aloud if “the Free North itself be federal and fractal enough – or is this the “directive state” of Corbyn Labour come back in through a side door?”. Nevertheless the former leader of the Yorkshire Party, Stewart Arnold, has suggested a Yorkshire assembly within an independent Northumbria could still be possible and Newcastle upon Tyne based cultural democracy activist Stephen Pritchard has also expressed the hope that Northumbria “could become a confederated state without capital or capitals but with shared decision-making in & across regions.”
What future for self-determination?
Ultimately however, as Tom Barrett has identified, there are lots of different ways in which lines have been drawn across this island for administrative and other purposes. As Alex Niven identified in ‘New Model Island’, questioning the idea of England is an opportunity to build something better.
For most in the London Hegemony, ‘England’ is the default position. If people in Yorkshire and/or Northumbria don’t feel that to be true then they have to challenge incorrect assumptions about their identity. I can see people in East Leeds going four ways in future: Identity means some support an Independent England or an Independent Northumbria (or Yorkshire). Others might have supported England at sport in the past but will weigh up whether an independent Northumbria/Yorkshire is better for future governance and decide accordingly. I can see that an isolated England may well still be most likely post-Brexit and the breakup of the United Kingdom. If that is the case, Yorkshire and the North will have no choice but to challenge a newly established English Parliament to give up a lot of its newly claimed power and resource. A federal England might follow but it won’t happen quickly enough to address the impact of the London Hegemony. If the aim though is meaningful democracy at local and regional levels, why don’t we start there? Focus on devolving power and resources immediately and so empowering regions to decide if they want to pool any powers at a Yorkshire, Northumbria or England level or not? If regions think it best to pool resources/powers at a Yorkshire, Northumbria or England level, they will.
Being and feeling excluded is what has long happened to people here in Yorkshire and the North. Despite accusations from opponents, self-determination for areas currently governed by England is not about excluding others, it’s about dealing with being excluded. But in doing so, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of voices from Yorkshire and the North heard on these issues (and referenced in this article) are white men, just like me. Whatever our future – regional democracy, independence or both – it is surely past time that we moved out of the way and listened more to neighbours like Leila Taleb and Tiffany Holloman.