For successful autonomist movements, politics is a spiral. There are achievements. There are also setbacks. But campaigners learn from them and when the debate begins again they have already moved it up to a higher level than it occupied before. We can see that process at work in all the Celtic nationalist movements. None is where it wants to be. But all are well beyond where they were 30 years ago.
It’s a course of action that we plan to follow. While we work away for a political breakthrough that may seem as if it will never come, or come too late to save Wessex from its ill-wishers, remember Alfred in Athelney. Remember too the little achievements that are the stuff of which history will one day be written. Take the Wyvern flag. The modern design dates from 1974 but until 1997 no-one, so far as we know, had taken the design off the page and used it to make a real flag. It had its first unfurling in public before Wells Cathedral that year to welcome the Keskerdh Kernow 500 marchers to Somerset’s diocesan co-capital. Over the past decade, it has gone viral, up flag-poles, onto merchandise and websites, and into the Flag Institute’s UK Flag Registry. This year the London regime had to acknowledge these facts and we are now free to fly it. One day it will fly over a Wessex Witan once more and if now is our Athelney, that will be our Ethandun.
So let’s keep moving up the spiral. Meanwhile, let’s also ponder the fate of another region that isn’t spiralling upwards but just going round in ever-decreasing circles. Poor old Northumbria. If England is a nation placed within the British nation, then Northumbria is as close as it gets to a nation placed within the English nation. Geographically, historically, ecclesiastically, linguistically, even gastronomically, it’s a land apart. Objectively, it often shares more with Scotland and Wales than with the ‘soft south’ of lowland England. Scottish radical Hugh MacDiarmid gave one of his poems the lines, ‘The official frontier has whiles been changed; Frae the Mersey to the Humber it sh’ud be’. So where’s its regionalist party been all these years?
It’s a sad story. In 1973 the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution reported and the following year Labour came to power with proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution in its manifesto. Alarm bells began ringing among those who realised the extent to which the northern parts of England might lose out if powerful national assemblies were created. Some Old Labour types dug their heels in and opposed devolution for anyone. Others were more constructive. In 1975 a small group of radicals, led by a Liberal academic, Michael Steed, set up the Committee for Democratic Regional Government in the North of England and launched a magazine, Northern Democrat. Two years later, with money from the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, they re-badged themselves as the Campaign for the North, with an office at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and a full-time Director, Paul Temperton.
With savvy use of the media, CfN’s profile rose and its membership, soon in the hundreds, included leading local politicians, MPs and prospective MPs, mostly from Labour and the Liberals, though Conservatives too saw the case for regional pride and even a measure of regional autonomy. In 1978 CfN published Up North!, sub-titled ‘how to unshackle a forgotten people’, 47 pages of facts, figures and arguments about what it described as “one of the most important regions not only of Britain but of Western Europe… suffering from the over-centralisation of government (and of everything else) in London”.
The London Left press sneered at the ‘special pleading’ (a term used for anything that challenges their self-assumed right to preside over the allocation of the common wealth) but they needn’t have bothered. Labour wasn’t that interested. Most responses to its discussion document, Devolution: the English Dimension, simply agreed there was no demand. Nobody was asked. Well, actually, they had been asked: the Kilbrandon Commission produced a mountain of evidence that the demand was indeed there, and at a level comparable with Scotland and Wales. The politicians just couldn’t be bothered to organise it.
In 1979 everything screeched to a halt. Devolution stalled in Scotland and Wales. No 10 was now Maggie’s den. And, for CfN, the chocolate money ran out too. Paul Temperton’s last task was to give himself the sack. CfN crawled along for years on a voluntary basis but never regained momentum. Cynics claimed the bigwigs had just used it to advance their careers and then let it flounder. When devolution was put back on the agenda by Blair and Prescott, no-one in the Labour establishment cared what CfN thought.
We did. We worked with CfN’s stalwarts throughout the lean 80s and 90s. One past Chairman, exiled to Somerset for work reasons, was WR election agent for the Woodspring seat in 1983. Another printed every issue of The Regionalist magazine at cost, on a home litho press, as well as many WR election leaflets. ‘Printed in Northumbria’ was the ultimate answer to those who accused us of wanting to set one part of the country against another. We’ve no patience with those who’d like WR to be an English inversion of Italy’s Northern League, wanting rid of the backward half of the country. There’s a common interest between those who want regenerated cities in Northumbria and protected countryside in Wessex. It’s the London regime that promotes as ‘the national interest’ NOT the sum of regional interests (as it should be) but the interests of a financial class with no loyalty to anywhere.
When Blair and Prescott set to work, they could have built on CfN’s foundations but chose not to. New Labour, like Frankenstein’s monster, didn’t have recognised antecedents. “No-one cares about the past,” was Blair’s view. So the wheel was re-invented as an act of pure will. Wholly new regions were defined, campaign groups fell into line behind them and Anglican bishops were prevailed upon to chair ‘constitutional conventions’ based on the successful Scottish model. No-one was allowed to point out that Scotland is a historic nation with centuries of relatively recent independence, while the administrative region of The North-East was created – by the Conservatives – out of nothing in 1994. In the end it mattered not a jot what the clerically-headed conventions did. They were just cheerleaders for a policy written in London. There was never any prospect that any of them might write an actual constitution for their pseudo-region. Prescott wasn’t listening to them. The rest of the Labour government wasn’t listening to Prescott. And in the 2004 referendum it became clear that no-one was listening to Labour’s laughable regional policy either.
Every so often, someone will put their head above the parapet and propose a regionalist renaissance up north. We’ve reported once or twice about these disjointed interventions. Last year saw the launch of a campaign group, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. It sounds like CfN all over again, except that this time it seems to be for socialists only (though no member of the Labour Party is likely to be turned away). And today we learnt that the latest edition of Tribune carries a major article by former Blackpool Conservative MP (and spy) Harold Elletson calling for an elected regional government. It’s remarkable stuff alright. “A new ‘Northumbria’ is exactly what the North now needs,” he writes. “Rather than an English parliament or a reformed House of Lords, what is required is a pan-Northern trans-Pennine region with its own executive and assembly. Coupled with a radical restructuring of our current inflated and inadequate local government system, a Northern Assembly, or a new ‘Council of the North’, would not only re-engage people with the politics but also provide the basis for The North to become one of England’s most successful and prosperous regions.”
Does it deserve a round of applause? Or a slow hand-clap? We’ve heard this sort of thing too often from the pathological liars of the London parties ever to be fooled again. There are usually reckoned to be three levels of devolution – executive, legislative and judicial. But there’s a fourth, which is key to the whole. And that is political devolution, the break-up of the London party machine, so that devolved administrations really are free to set their own agenda. Otherwise, for all the trappings, a parliament or assembly is just a load of puppets on a string.
There are three ways to organise constitutional change. One is the territorial party, which is ideologically committed and treats all compromise with suspicion. Of all the nationalist movements, Ireland’s comes closest to the model but all have aspects of it. Then there is the cross-party consensus-building seen in the case of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which the SNP boycotted but which paved the way for devolution to be established as Scotland’s settled will. The third approach is for the Labour Party to have an internal discussion and then seek to impose its solution on civil society. That was what happened in Wales, and the reaction was such that the referendum would have been lost but for the hard slog of Plaid Cymru’s workers on the ground.
Northumbria has already lost one referendum and it will lose the next one if it continues to regard devolution as Labour copyright. It’s a land of contrasts alright, culturally and politically. The great monastic sites of its Golden Age – Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Hartlepool, Whitby, Lastingham – continue to dominate the landscape. Yet the material culture they produced is more likely to be found locked away in the libraries and museums of London (where nationalists, British and English, are content that it stays). Its tradition of protest against national policies that disadvantage the region – from the Pilgrimage of Grace to the Jarrow Crusade – is second to none. It was once among the most significant heavy industrial regions in Europe. Yet today its anger at being marginalised and de-industrialised is dissipated in supporting a vampire party that climbs over its prone form to national power. Northumbria will rise again only when Labour gets a well-deserved stake through the heart.