Consciousness raising, if you like

The Fall’s famous song about a northern renaissance is now the title of an ambitious cultural history by Alex Niven

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If George Osborne had been a fan of The Fall – or even heard of them – chances are he would have nicked the title of their 1980 song The NWRA, with its much-quoted refrain “The North will rise again”. What sense he’d make of the lyrics – which are extensive, confusing and grimly ironic, foreseeing a northern renaissance co-opted by a slimy suit called Tony – would matter less than the usefulness of the slogan.

Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse was not the first or last attempt to coin a catchy cover-all for boosting the provinces. In 2004 New Labour touted the Northern Way. Since 2001, our ears have been burning with Levelling Up promises. But talk of a north-south divide and rebalancing the British economy, and correcting social injustices, goes back centuries.

Alex Niven has taken The Fall frontman Mark E Smith’s chorus for the title of his latest book. In his earlier New Model Island, Niven outlined the case for a new regionalism that spliced leftist anti-nationalism and anti-imperialism, populism and communitarianism. The new book continues the argument. Niven makes no claims to being an economist or political historian, offering instead “a book about the cultural and imaginative life” of the North, informed by recent history and peopled by writers, artists, musicians and others whose work projected a more hopeful, fair and inspiring region. It’s a diverse band that includes Alan Hull of Lindisfarne fame, modernist poet Basil Bunting*, Kevin Keegan, Oasis and Newcastle politician T Dan Smith.

Niven talks to Big Issue North following the Convention of the North and think tank IPPR North’s report comparing the economy of the English North unfavourably with Greece’s, as the IMF announced the UK’s economy would fare worse than any other major economy in the coming year. Needless to say, the words “rise again” were not to be found in the gloomy reports of Britain’s post-Brexit demise.

Is the book’s title a prediction or a provocation?

I guess a bit of both, though the prediction is a hopeful one. Obviously, it begins as an opportunistic nod to The Fall tune, and to the slogan which has become something you tend to see on mugs, tote bags, bits of graffiti and so on. But it does also function more deeply as a description of the central theme of the book, which is about various people and groups who have tried to make the North rise again, as well as people who have messianically believed that it will.

You note that London has centrally governed the regions since 1066. “Rise again” implies we’ll get things back. But when was the North “risen”?

There’s definitely a deep-time narrative in which the North has been marginalised since the country became radically centralised on London around the time of the Norman Conquest, perhaps slightly beforehand. It would be good if we could say “Ah well, that’s ancient history”, but unfortunately if you look at the way the country is still structured around the monarchy, Westminster and so on, the basis of our society is still shaped by this medieval history in profound ways. There was some research into inherited wealth a few years ago, which showed that a large portion of the richest families in Britain could trace their wealth and power back to the Norman Conquest, so that foundational moment in our history – which absolutely annihilated the North and created a militarised, proto-imperial capital out of London – is still sadly relevant.

But thinking more pragmatically, “rising again” simply means the North achieving something resembling parity with London and the South East – regional equality, or levelling up, if you must. I can’t really see how anyone of a faintly egalitarian bent could possibly object to this, but people find plenty of circuitous ways to do so.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for the industrial era. Do we need, as a region, to get over this fondness for our working-class fathers’ and grandfathers’ experience of Northern reality?

Yes, absolutely, though I think you can go too far the other way. It’s a bit of a pat answer, but I think it should be possible to recover the good things about industrial community – socialism, collectivism, a sense of optimism about the future – without apologising for the bad things like bronchitis and the carbon economy. A good example is the Durham Miners’ Gala, which is obviously right in that mould of classic, even stereotyped Northern industrial culture, but has in recent years become a gathering for younger leftists and trades unionists, some 40 years after most of the mines were closed.

You describe the tourism, leisure, agricultural and university sectors as “chocolate-box cottage industries”. London and the South East are powerful largely due to casino sectors like finance, banking and construction. What economic model could work for the North?

The example of Manchester is one I keep coming back to in my own head as an example of a city that has, in a sense, risen in recent decades – certainly in comparison with, say, Newcastle, let alone smaller cities and towns like Middlesbrough or Blackburn. As a socialist, I don’t think the neoliberal economic model responsible for both London’s imperious rise and Manchester’s smaller-scale revival in recent years is a good one. But the alternative is of course much more difficult to imagine, partly for obvious reasons because it doesn’t exist yet. There’s a sense in which all you can do as a writer is criticise the past and present with a view to provoking a better future into being.

Nonetheless, in terms of the economy I don’t see why you couldn’t have a more egalitarian one oriented around ecologically friendly forms of manufacturing, tech, the creative industries and so on. I don’t think all service industries are bad – it’s just the sense from the economic centre that the North can revive itself purely through things like tourism that I think is inadequate.

Alex Niven. Main photo: Swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside

You skew the book towards your beloved North East. Was that partly because the North West gets so much attention in government and the media? 

It is quite a North East-centric book, largely because it is oriented around memoir, but also because there were so many more untold or neglected narratives in modern North East history in comparison with Manchester and its environs. I think there’s a place for drawing distinctions between different parts of the North. That said, I also think there’s a sort of self-directed divide-and-rule tendency whenever the North is discussed, by which people start off by saying the North East is nothing like the North West, and end up saying Salford is nothing like Manchester, the west end of Newcastle is nothing like the east end, the centre of Harrogate is completely different from the outskirts, and so on ad absurdum.

The argument of the book is, firstly, that beyond these nuances there is a common culture and history of the North, and secondly, more importantly, that the only way forward politically is to start to go past intra-regional rivalries and try to create some form of devolved pan-North governance, or at the very least large regional governing entities. The alternative is breaking the North into tiny civic units, which is what has happened under the Tories since 2010, and it hasn’t worked out too well.

You riff on North East musicians from Alan Hull to Bryan Ferry to the Unthanks. Is there a coherent regional sound or temperament? And has the music of the North East been overlooked because Ferry and Sting, in particular, have suppressed their origins?

I’d like to write a lot more about this! I think part of it is the repression or occlusion of local origins by certain artists, though in their defence the underlying problem – and this is the heart of the matter – is that they never had local resources or institutions to fall back on and so had to migrate to London, whereas Manchester wasn’t quite so bad in this regard.

I think if there has been a classic North East temperament when it comes to music it has tended to be quite maximalist, “heavy” and, if you like, bent on being world-conquering. Partly there’s a heavy industry element here I think, whereas the North West, for example, has a slightly different culture more oriented around textiles. Sting is a really interesting example because his dad was a shipbuilder, and I think that if you look at the astonishingly dramatic pictures of ships being built in Wallsend in the industrial period, you can kind of see how that might have found its way into his music – if only in the sense of a massively far-reaching ambitiousness. The centrality of the blues – versus melody and psychedelia in Manchester and Liverpool – is another factor.

You have described the hope engendered by the Corbyn years as a “crack… in the facade of what [Mark] Fisher called capitalism realism”. Corbyn avoided schemes with names like Northern Powerhouse and Levelling-Up. Do you think these projects have served to hoodwink Northerners? 

They absolutely have. The sloganeering comes with an awareness from successive governments – Tory, Lib Dem and Labour – that they aren’t really going to do anything substantial to “level up” the country, that it would actually take a radical overhaul of governance and the economy to do this, and that in fact they are going to orient their economic strategy around continuing to boost London. It was refreshing that Corbyn’s manifestos weren’t oriented around meaningless buzzwords when it came to the North, though I do think Corbynism did suffer from being London-centric, in common with Blairism, Brownism and now Starmerism.

Both New Model Island and this new book exhibit an elegiac, occasionally threnodic, tone as if what you have warmly, sometimes feverishly dreamt at night doesn’t survive as it travels on to the stark, white page. Is that fair? 

Now you’re excavating my very soul! I’d stress that my writing really emerges from the imagination and focuses largely on imagined communities. So it’s all about dreams in the end, and how various artists, musicians and politicians have dealt with those dreams. The role of the artist in society is largely to try to work out how we’ve gone wrong, and gesture imaginatively – and yes idealistically – at how we might do things better. It’s for the social scientists and the planners and the governance experts to draw up more specific blueprints for things like regional government. Hopefully there’s productive overlap between these two areas, even if I’m firmly on the culturalist side of the fence.

It could be argued that The North Will Rise Again attempts to dream an illusory North, in the face of economic indices suggesting not just the North but the UK is a run-down, ruined, blighted corner of north-west Europe, destined to decline.

I think that pessimism beyond a certain point also quite quickly becomes “illusory”, to borrow your term, just as optimism does. So in the end it becomes a choice of which you prefer, and that’s where the argument right at the end of the book about making a – perhaps characteristically “northern” – vaulting leap of faith comes into play. That’s what I believe in, and I know that other people in the North do too, both now and in the past – and again that’s the only truth I feel capable of giving voice to with any real eloquence and force.

Conversely I think that a sort of pessimistic realism or pragmatism clearly hasn’t worked for the North, if you look at all the initiatives of the last half century, which as we’ve seen have mostly been about keeping people in the North in their place by fobbing them off with utterly specious talk of entrepreneurialism, initiative, northern “grit” and ingenuity and so on. Of course, there has to be a place for the practical, but I think that northerners have to dream big and dream better to have any chance whatsoever of rising above the absolutely towering forces which are designed to keep them on the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to the spread of wealth and power in this country. Call it “consciousness raising” if you like – this is the central motivation and driving force behind the book.

The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands by Alex Niven is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

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