Picture Credit: Wiki
I like to think I’m as Northern as it comes. I was born overlooking St James Park, and there’s a brick with my name on in the Stadium of Light. There’s not much better than chips and gravy, and I’ll have it with a bit of Henderson’s Relish if you’ve got it, ta. Despite being raised in Jarrow and educated in Sheffield, it is to my embarrassment that I now live in London. And, even more embarrassingly, I love it.
Fortunately this doesn’t disqualify me from writing about an independent North of England, as the leader of the recently formed Northern Independence Party (NIP), Philip Proudfoot, joins me as a fellow resident of the capital.
Currently unregistered, the NIP plans to stand candidates for local elections in the North in 2021, with the ultimate goal of achieving a referendum on independence for the North of England. They have put forward some ideas on what this new country would look like.
The NIPpers have chosen “Northumbria” as the name for the new separatist state. I can see why: “North of England” or “Northern Republic” defines itself by opposition. Etymologically Northumbria, meaning North of the Humber, makes sense. Selling this to the North West and Yorkshire, both with their own unique identities, will be a nigh on impossible task. I was born in what was until recently Northumberland, and even I would never call myself Northumbrian. Trying to create a nationalist movement without any national identity is either brave or stupid.
And where do you draw the border? Proudfoot justifies Northumbria’s North East connotations by saying that the thousand year-old Kingdom of Northumbria did include the North West. But even at its height, this excluded Cheshire (which has always felt a bit too far south to me anyway). The questions don’t end there: Grimsby is north of Sheffield, is that the North? Will the Peak District need splitting in two? What about Stoke-on-Trent? The meme-maps the NIPpers put out on Twitter sometimes include North Derbyshire and North Lincolnshire, sometimes don’t. They try to solve this issue by proposing a series of local referenda in the North/Midlands frontier. I could spend hours debating whether or not Chesterfield is the North in the pub, bottle of brown ale in one hand and my whippet’s chain in the other. There’s no good answer, and I’d rather the time, money and effort that would have to be spent finding a compromise was actually put into helping communities in the North.
Even though they have the wrong answer, people calling for Northern independence are asking the right questions. The North of England was decimated by Thatcher and, outside of a few urban centres, has been in steady decline since. Nothing has stepped in to replace the secure, unionised jobs in manufacturing and mining. Infrastructure is dilapidated or non-existent, especially when it comes to rail within and between our cities. The UK has some of the highest regional inequality in the world – with the North East being the UK’s poorest region in terms of income. These challenges are not unique to the North, but they are acute, and they require bespoke solutions.
What I don’t see is how drawing an arbitrary border and replacing one set of elites based in Westminster, with another set of elites based in (probably) Manchester is going to solve this.
The Northern Independence Party doesn’t offer much in the way of answers here, either. Their defining article and Twitter output proposes a kind of vague left populism: nationalisation, a universal basic income and green investment. Sure we all love a bit of redistribution, but the massive economic hit of setting up a new state wouldn’t be the only obstacle to achieving this.
Also, I’m sorry to say this, but there are Tories in the North. Now more than ever. There’s nothing about an independent North that makes left-wing economic policies inevitable – just like how there would be nothing to stop the now MP for Richmond (Yorks), one Rishi Sunak, winning the first Northumbrian Presidential election.
Westminster isn’t working for the North – this is true. But where is it working for the poorest in our society? The train line between Plymouth and Exeter regularly falls into the sea, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has the highest percentage of children living in poverty, and Jaywick in Essex has been named as the UK’s most deprived neighbourhood three times in a row. There is poverty and inequality in all four corners of our fair isle.
To say that you want the North to become independent is to say that you don’t care, that you just want to look after your own. It’s to say that it’s not your problem when people in Plymouth and Cornwall are cut off from their loved ones when there’s a bit of bad weather, or when a teenager in Jaywick misses out on going to university because they simply don’t have enough money, or when a single mother in Tower Hamlets goes hungry because she only has enough food for her children. It’s to say that you don’t think those people are worth fighting for.
The real divide in this country isn’t North-South, it’s the haves and the have-nots. Class is what separates us – how much power and wealth you happen to born into makes a bigger difference to your future than whether you’re from Harrogate or Harrow. And this becomes easier and easier to miss as the reality of the class system moves further anyway from the language we use to describe it. Splitting England in two isn’t going to do anything to solve inequality.
Anyway, the real reason I’m against Northern independence is because I don’t think a team with just Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire would win the World Cup. I’d like to keep cheering on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, and I’d quite like my friends from the South to join me too.