Don’t Mention The Region!


A recent post on a left-leaning website makes an excellent case study, for all the wrong reasons.  Dan Holden’s piece, ‘Westminster Must Address Regional Identities’, is the sort of thing that has been written many times before and doesn’t get any better, because centralist assumptions are never challenged.

First up, the writer appears to sit on the fence over the question of whether devolution has ‘worked’.  Doesn’t it all depend on what you expect devolution to deliver?  Is it about empowering folk to make their own decisions for their own areas?  If so, calling a referendum on independence for Scotland is just another part of that new politics.  Or is it about re-engineering the constitution so that Labour control freaks can be assured bits of the UK even when they’re out of power at Westminster?  If the latter, then of course devolution has failed.  It fails every time Labour is rejected.
Labour has never fully made up its mind who are the good nationalists and who are the bad ones.  Irish nationalists are good, presumably because Karl Marx spoke up for them, considering their situation objectively different, at least at the time, but Scottish and Welsh ones are defectors from the straight and narrow path of true British-only brotherhood.
Objective differences come and go though.  So too, one might think, could the Labour Party.  Especially in Scotland, where a radical, newly independent country looks more like a refreshed Labour vision than Labour ever could.  (And here?  Labour has never won in Wessex; what if a regionally rooted radical party were to take its place?)
Labour wants to win the referendum because it doesn’t want to let go.  The potent myth peddled is that the UK without Scotland would be doomed to eternal Tory rule.  Doomed, we say.  Good old Labour.  Democrats to the core.  A ‘Yes’ vote would be bad news because then Scotland would always get the government it voted for.  And so would the rest of the UK.  How awful.
It is a myth though.  Currently, Labour has 41 MPs from Scotland, with other parties there holding the remaining 18 seats.  So the net contribution to Labour’s Westminster majority, if it had one, would be 23.  Labour’s majority in 2005, when it also had 41 Scottish MPs, was 66 seats, down from 167 in 2001 and 179 in 1997 (though there were 13 more Scottish seats before 2005).  Labour has to work only slightly harder without its Scottish donkeys but since when has Labour fought shy of hard work?
So, moving on to the writer’s next point of reference.  Some highly superficial, even tongue-in-cheek musings about Yorkshire being a separate country.  Look up ‘shire’ – it’s a division, a share, a shearing, of something bigger.  Within the area usually labelled ‘England’ there are two well-defined countries: Cornwall (the land of the Cornish) and England (the land of the English).  Just two.  There may be any number of regions, according to choice. 

It doesn’t help that advocates of autonomy don’t all agree where Yorkshire is.  The Yorkshire Devolution Movement remains true to the three ridings and York; the Yorkshire First Party embraces the Prescott zone, northern Lincolnshire and neither tea nor sympathy for those lopped off in 1974.  ‘We are about the future, not the past’, claims their leader.  Future not the past, or present not the future?  It all depends how radical a vision you wish to advance.  That both the North East Party and Yorkshire First go with the Prescott zones, flaws and all, is bound to raise suspicions; the Prescott zones are always bad news in Wessex.  The South West Party, should it rear its ugly head, has been forewarned.

Is that where the debate ends then?  Cornwall and Yorkshire?  How very convenient, because both can be linked together, and then dismissed, as county-based campaigns that are not truly regional.  That way, the hacks never need to discuss Mercia or East Anglia.  They can move on to claim that every county is a region and so all it needs is a county council.  Debate over – centralism saved.
Or let’s push on down to city level.  All cities are different, says our writer.  What a discovery!  But cities then, not counties or regions, are the future of regional identity.  An idea that leads in turn to Local Enterprise Partnerships, city-regions, unelectedcommissioners and all the rest of the quangocratic gobbledygook that gets between us and the simple, elegant solution at regional level.  Meanwhile, the countryside is locked outside in the cold; its only place in this debate is as the place that urban creatives descend upon at weekends.  This kind of socio-econo-functionalist localism seems only to offer cities limited powers on a string and the countryside a cloak of invisibility.  Overturning the constitution?  Not today, thank you.
The remarkable thing about Dan Holden’s piece is its ability to discuss regional identities in terms of not discussing regions.  Nations, counties, cities, just don’t mention the region.  It all ends up like some Sunday colour supplement spread on how grim life is up north.  So let’s celebrate gritty provincial talent.  And get it down to London asap so we can all enjoy it.  Let’s definitely not start discussing the names, the boundaries, the flags, and which of us will criticise the Labour Party the hardest for its ever-lengthening record of betrayal.
Holden suggests we ‘force Westminster into acting’.  No.  Don’t give the self-important pimples the satisfaction of imagining we even slightly care what they think any more.  They just aren’t worth it.  The news from here is that Wessex is too busy building its own future.  Westminster can catch up if it ever feels like it.

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