Last Saturday, a ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ was held in the West Riding town of Huddersfield. Those attending shared a determination that the new politics now saturating Scotland should not stop at the border. Our Northumbrian friends have good reason to see themselves as having more in common – politically, economically and culturally – with Scotland than with London and the Home Counties.
Sadly, it only ever lasts an instant before the urge to align with Labour thinking rears up and real regionalism is silenced again. One of the tweets that emerged afterwards proclaimed that “‘English Parliament would be a disaster for the North (and south-west, Midlands…’ Need an England of the (9) regions”. Yes, we’ve seen that figure before. It’s the number of the Prescott beast, the number of the Government Office zones, originally set up by William Waldegrave in 1994 and since imposed on a cross-party basis as the authentic regions of England.
It is, of course, hugely disappointing to see these lumbering zombies rise from their graves, because a re-run of the Prescott experiment in identity-imposition will only have the same outcome as before. If the Northumbrians wish to carve themselves up into two, three or even four regions, that’s their debate. We most certainly are not happy being labelled as ‘Sou’westers’ and ‘Sou’easters’.
Nor, of course, are the Cornish. John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, appealed to them this month to join with Devon and Somerset in a new regional set-up with proper clout, Cornwall being, familiarly, ‘too small’ to go it alone. It’s the London-centric imagination-failure of these folk not to grasp that Cornwall is larger than many independent states and if it needs clout its natural associates are Brittany, Wales and Ireland, not Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a three- or four-county ‘Westcountry’ region is, following exactly the fate of the ambulance service, just a stepping-stone to the seven-county ‘South West’ of the Waldegrave / Prescott nightmare.
Hart’s intervention echoed rumblings earlier in the year about rail franchising, with a Devonwall unit now being promoted in that context too, for implementation once the current franchises expire in 2019. Border-blurring is also back on the agenda, with parts of Wessex likely to be forced to share an MP with Bude under re-drawn constituency boundaries. Cornwall, having returned a full set of Tory MPs for the first time in the history of universal suffrage, has politely indicated that it would like to be given one hell of a beating. Cameron & Co are only too happy to oblige.
The Tories are naturally loathsome, but only for what they are. Labour are much worse because they pretend to be something different. Both parties blow hot and cold on regionalism, while agreeing that the only regions that can ever exist are the bloodless shapes first drawn for civil defence purposes in 1938 (and with some striking resemblances to the districts of Cromwell’s military dictatorship of 1655). Indistinguishable as they are, neither party is worth anything but our deepest contempt. We shall continue to work, with genuine allies across the Disunited Kingdom and abroad, for their eradication from our political life. There is a third way, and together we are it. It’s small right now, but it’s the only way that offers a well-considered future for our communities.