Devolution’s sunny uplands

Calls for more democracy for the North even extend – however unlikely – to calls for independence. Is a regional settlement manifest destiny, or pie in the sky?

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From Brazil’s gaúchos to Canada’s Cascadians to the Kingdom of Patagonia, many separatist movements – usually founded on dodgy ideas about history or race and/or around eccentric leaders – don’t get beyond flags and manifestos. In other cases the cry for freedom has led to war (Chechnya, Northern Ireland), powerful political parties (Basque National Party, SNP) and new states (Taiwan, South Sudan). Where the Northern Independence Party fits in is not quite clear, but it does highlight the growing demand for the North to get more control over its affairs.

On 24-25 November, academics, activists and members of the public gather in Blackpool for the fifth People’s Powerhouse Convention under the banner “This is the North 2021”. Local assemblies and community wealth building, as seen in Preston and Wirral, are high on the agenda. On 

4 December, devolution-focused thinktank the Hannah Mitchell Foundation will host an online public meeting with the title “Building a stronger and more democratic North”, with speakers including Natalie Bennett for the Greens and former Labour MP Thelma Walker for the NIP. 

As well as the NIP, newcomers including the North East Party, Yorkshire Party, Harmony Party and Bury-headquartered Breakthrough Party are calling for radical regionalism. Between the serious policy discussions and bold provocations is the future of the UK’s largest population and economic centre outside London and the South East. 

The last time a quasi-independent Northumbria successfully defended itself was in 1006, when Uhtred, son of the Earl of Northumbria, raised an army to take on the Scots. This was followed in the Middle Ages with pockets of extreme decentralisation called liberties, which Tom Hazeldine, author of The Northern Question, has called “feudal devo-max”. The most important was the Durham Palatinate run by the prince-bishop of Durham.

Hazeldine: the North was a “stepping stone to power where you can turn out troops, or votes”

“Richard III had a strong regional power base, building on the earlier one of Warwick the Kingmaker,” says Hazeldine. “The point is the instrumental use of the North as a stepping stone to power where you can turn out troops, or votes.”

The Wars of the Roses were a long time ago. But it can equally be argued that the current system of a hyper-centralised nation with London as a metropolitan superpower is outdated. 

“England is, at best, an anachronism and, at worst, the recent cultural daydream of a neoliberal order which really operates on the basis of capitalism, hierarchy and the denial of more radical popular hopes and dreams,” says Alex Niven, author of New Model Island.

“Regionalism is a sleeping giant that is now, after a short pause, ready to wake again out of sheer, obvious rightenousness.”

The NIP, founded by Durham-born Philip Proudfoot in October 2020, claims thousands of members and demands a referendum on northern independence “to end the centuries old North-South divide”. With a whippet on its logo, the party has adopted “Northumbria” as its working name for a future independent North.

“Political centralisation has caused massive inequality that affects so many different aspects of our lives,” says Proudfoot. “That’s the difficult part about the North-South divide – it’s not just one issue: it’s healthcare, it’s transport, it’s education. In the UK, we have the highest level of health inequality of any developed state. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a country recovering from a civil war. 

“It’s easier to go to London than it is to get across the North. Transport spending per person is a lot lower and it’s the same with education. All of these problems add up, and it creates a much lower standard of living in the North than we ought to expect.”

Highlighting the call for self-determination in Scotland, he says the time for talking about increased devolution or democracy is over.

“We are the Northern Independence Party, and we mean independence. Westminster is the problem, and taking what we can get from them will just patch over the fact that we do not have control over our future.

“We will be working to build the party, to get to the point where we are in a position to seriously contest elections and win. We now have branches all across the North, and we will be using them to identify the issues facing local communities, formulate policies to address them and campaign for those policies. We won’t be just another Westminster party dropping candidates into safe seats. We want change. Our local grassroots activists are going to be the driving force behind that.”

This might sound like hyperbole, but the same could be said of Castro’s army before it seized control of Cuba or groups like XR that call for massive change. Niven believes groups like the NIP can play an influential role.  

“For a renegade, maverick organisation, they get the balance right between playfulness, camp and anger, and the political. The party is a celebration of northern cultural identity. 

“The playful often leads to political change. Look at Greenham Common, and how a walk developed into something much more serious. The NIP knows its audience and how to use social media, and that young people want a different kind of politics.”

It’s not easy being a minor political party in the UK electoral system. The Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and smaller parties struggle to make an impact at national level. In the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party won 2.9 million votes in the North, or 40 per cent of the total. Labour won 43 per cent, the Lib Dems 8 per cent and the Greens 2 per cent, and yet the media reported only the story that the “Red Wall” had fallen. 

“Calls for outright independence for the North are really cries of frustration that the Westminster Tory-Labour first-past-the-post duopoly is now so discredited that the time for relatively minor reforms has now passed, and we need root and branch change,” says Paul Salveson, general secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

“The Westminster parliament, with its biased system and unelected Lords, has never been properly democratic but muddled through with various unwritten rules of good conduct. Boris Johnson’s Tories are tearing up that unwritten rule book, if such a thing is possible, and have shown you can run an elected dictatorship after getting 40-45 per cent of the popular vote at an election.”

Salveson: “Westminster Labour is failing the North almost as much as the Tories.”

At the Labour Party conference in 2021, 83 per cent of constituency delegates voted to scrap first-past-the-post and bring in a new electoral system with proportional representation. 

“Keir Starmer scuppered that vote and party policy remains to cling on to the old system, though Unite’s recent decision to support proportional representation offers hope,” says Salveson.

“It seems that Westminster Labour would rather lose the next general election than have to change the voting system. Westminster Labour is failing the North almost as much as the Tories.”

The North is a significant power base. At 5.3 million Yorkshire’s population is about the same as Scotland’s, and at 2.7 million the North East is just slightly smaller than Wales. At more than 

7 million the North West is bigger than both. With local government weak and subject to central government control, regional power has coalesced around the metro mayors of the largest cities.

Tracy Brabin, Andy Burnham, Jamie Driscoll, Dan Jarvis and Steve Rotheram will be on a panel on 25 November at the People’s Powerhouse convention – a non-aligned civic movement formed in 2017 as a protest against the business-led Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Chair Edna Robinson (also chair of the Big Life group, publisher of Big Issue North) says that, to date, devolution has been piecemeal and partial. 

“When it comes to the city mayors, we have to ask ourselves, have we made a lot of progress? The results are mixed. For one thing, we’ve seen evidence of the present Tory government working directly through its MPs rather than the mayors. 

“Also, the deals done between government and the city mayors take place behind closed doors, like a conversation over a used car. The general public don’t know what’s happening.  That’s not healthy for a democracy.

“Not every region has a mayoralty or a leader of the Steve Rotheram or Andy Burnham type. One size doesn’t fit all.”

Covid-19, says Robinson, has given devolution a much higher profile. “I believe Andy Burnham’s anger at what was happening during the pandemic was genuine. Covid showed up the problems with the status quo. You don’t want the negative consequences for your communities when you have no power to correct them.”

The People’s Powerhouse, like the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, is more about a conversation than a call to action. As many as 700 delegates are expected, with discussions ranging across subjects like economic and racial justice, health inequalities and food banks, all with a northern slant. 

“We’re not a campaign group and we have no backers,” says Robinson. “But we are proposing three conventions during the next 12 months to discuss better governance for the North. We want to amplify the views of the public, connect the North West with the North East – which itself is pretty novel – and, at the same time, not put people off by over-intellectualising. Our conventions will be more like festivals.”

Many obstacles lie on the road towards devolution, from the lack of a written constitution to the long tradition of centralised, Westminster-based government. What happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland over the next decade or so will have repercussions in England. Elements of the London-based financial, media, business and political establishments are unlikely to cede power graciously. Nonetheless, there is room for hope, says Arianna Giovannini, professor in local politics at De Montfort University and interim director of thinktank IPPR North.

“Something has changed, even in this last four or five years. The emergence of devolution and independent movements and the call from the metro mayors for greater devolution underline the existence of a political fracture. Regional identity is being politicised for the first time and that is remarkable.

“Let’s not forget that devolution is quite normal across Europe. Britain’s hyper-centralised power structure is not typical at all. Look at Germany, or Italy or Spain: of course power is shared out asymmetrically but it is federalised and local governments are much stronger there.”

The metro mayors, she says, are using their power base to “develop a narrative about creating a type of politics that speaks to people and gives them hope things can change”. They are also filling the vacuum left by their own Labour Party which, despite establishing the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and London Assembly in the late 1990s and trying to set up English regional assemblies in the 2000s, has no clear policy on devolution at a national level.

Giovannini: “Regional identity is being politicised for the first time and that is remarkable.”

The Johnson government will want to own this space, not least to demonstrate it influences the regions and to maintain a foothold for the next general election, in 2024.

“The levelling-up white paper [due before Christmas] is a great opportunity for the government to show a commitment to devolution to all areas and not just metropolitan ones,” says Giovannini. “Overcentralisation is the root cause of regional inequalities in the UK – which are spreading fast not just between the North and the South, but across the whole country. Therefore, devolution is key to address this issue. 

“If the government is serious about its pledge to level up the country, they must commit to deepening and broadening devolution, so that all people and places can develop from it. And metro mayors will no doubt continue to put pressure on the centre to make sure more power and resources are passed down to local communities, and not just retained and distributed by the centre.” 

Parties get started

Northern Independence Party
“Regional governments within the North will ensure that local people are in charge of their affairs and that we distribute power fairly, while recognising that we Northerners share common interests.

“… NIP defines Northumbria on our terms. We acknowledge that Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Merseyside, Great Manchester, Durham, Northumberland and Cheshire are all distinct lands with long histories and strong cultural identities. As such, we refuse to be reduced to lazy stereotypes. It’s also true that the North is a slippery concept. It is difficult to pin down on a map. For this reason, we respect the rights of anyone in ‘border territories’ to join us subject to a local referendum.”

Yorkshire Party
“We encourage further devolution, but only real devolution that has the ability to change our communities for the better. Crucially, this must include control of large budgets. Mayors have to go cap in hand to Westminster to fund ambitious projects – that isn’t real devolution.

“We would never support such an extreme solution as independence. It would ruin the economy and, while Yorkshire has a strong identity, there is very little appetite for independence. Instead, we hope to make the UK stronger and fairer.”

North East Party
“We will sweep away 12 ineffectual, hugely expensive councils and various mayors and commissioners and replace them with one regional government elected by proportional representation, so that everyone has a say and policy making relies on consensus.

“Devolution is not independence. Devolution will actually strengthen a United Kingdom where the government and members of parliament still have responsibility for defence, foreign policy, taxation and macro-economics. However, all the big decisions about health and welfare, jobs and training, education and planning would be made here.”

Breakthrough Party
“Breakthrough Party is a democratic socialist party, and we believe that people should be in control of their own destiny. We support people’s right to self-determination, and would back referendums on independence in Scotland, Wales and the north in circumstances where there was a clear mandate.

“Our view is that the UK is an overly-centralised state, and this has enabled Westminster to ignore issues of inequality and lack of opportunity across the country. We believe that our regions should have greater autonomy, and we are exploring the idea of a progressive federalist model, centred on community wealth building.”

Harmony Party
“We’re a federation of assemblies – every assembly is in charge of its specific thing. We will seek federalisation of Britain into more fairly proportioned regions to ensure better, granular democracy, furthering the devolution project started many years ago. We will hand more power to those regions to speak for themselves, as we have inside our own party structure.” 

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