I don’t live in the North of England. In fact, sometimes I have to remind myself that it is a place and not just an event.
Because every time the BBC produces a documentary about Britain over the last 40 years, it seems to me that ‘the North’ is treated as something bad that happened in 1985. The pattern is consistent – pictures of places in the South of England looking a bit run down (that’s the 1970s), pictures of people in the South of England suddenly buying new things in the shops (that’s the start of the 1980s), picture of city traders in the South of England waving wads of money at the camera (that’s Thatchers economic ‘miracle’), pictures of miners and other poor people in the North of England suffering horrendously (that’s the unfortunate side effects of Thatcher’s miracle, or 1985 as people in the South seem to see it), pictures of young people in the South of England taking ecstasy and dancing in fields (thank heavens ‘the North’ stopped happening in time for rave culture).
I was very heavily involved in the Scottish independence movement. One of the most surprising things that happened to me during that campaign was how I came to feel about England. Not angrier, not more hostile but rather quite the opposite. As every campaigner for Scottish independence was forced to say over and over, ‘hating England’ has nothing whatsoever to do with having the self respect to realise that Westminster was not only mismanaging your country but frankly didn’t care that much.
And when you start to focus on that, you start to notice things. My daughter was still watching CBeebies at the time of the Scottish referendum. It turns out that a few children have Scottish accents (a couple of the programmes were produced in Scotland) but none of the children had northern English accents. I’m a hell of a lot closer to Lancashire than to Essex, but to my ears a Lancastrian accent seems exotic and rare while the sounds of voices from the South East are ubiquitous.
I was in Sheffield recently to talk about the ‘northern powerhouse’ concept. I asked a reasonably innocent question – how did ‘the north’ go about deciding that it wanted to be a ‘powerhouse’? I mean, ‘powerhouse’ seems to have the connotations of heavy industry and big factories and oily boilersuits. Did you consider and then reject ‘northern IT hub’ or ‘northern craft manufacturing centre’ or ‘norther beauty tourism hotspot’ concepts before settling on being a ‘powerhouse’? Or did someone in London make that up on your behalf without picking up the phone?
Are grammar schools a response to the needs of the north? You know all that stuff about how if more selectivity isn’t introduced, more and more middle class parents will leave the state sector for private education? People in London are always saying this to me. So is this an education policy for London or for England? (We notice this because there are hours and hours of BBC news coverage about this policy – which has about as much relevance to us in Scotland where education is devolved as the details of Slovakia’s regional agriculture policy.) How many of you get nervous when you discover (cue darkly apocalyptic infographic for the Nine O’clock News) that London house prices may be stagnating? Or booming? Or whatever?
I spent so much time talking about how London-centric economic and social security policy was bad for Scotland it was impossible not to notice how bad it was for so much of England (I met a couple of Cornish independence campaigners during the referendum). I talked so often about the cultural contempt with which Scotland was so often treated that the cultural contempt faced by the North of England couldn’t be anything other than a glaring parallel. The more I became aware of this, the more angry I became on behalf of the North of England. I run a policy think tank up here and one of the projects I really wanted to pursue (but ran out of time to complete) was a study on how an independent Scotland could form close economic ties with the North of England so we could help each other counterbalance London domination. Could a Scottish National Investment Bank invest in the North of England? Could we coordinate transport policy? Could we produce industrial strategies which were mutually reinforcing? Ultimately, could we create an economy which traded more with the North of England than it did with the financialised City of London?
During the Scottish referendum I don’t know how many times I said that the second the people of England could get their independence from the City of London, I’d be down there in a second putting leaflets through doors. So I’ve accepted every invitation I’ve received since to come down and talk to or meet up with devolution campaigners in the North and I’ve spoken at a few public meetings. My (hardly scientific) conclusion was that people are angry, but they’re not quite as sure as the Scots on what they’re angry about. I could see from the faces in the room that most people in the last meeting I attended had never really questioned whether being designated as a ‘powerhouse’ was what they wanted. In Sheffield, if I am correct about the responses I got, being marketed and branded by Londoners is just ‘what happens to us’. In Scotland, in the 1970s, we’d probably have felt the same. Now we wouldn’t tolerate it for a second.
This is why I am so deeply committed to English devolution. Firstly, because I no longer see England only through the distorting lens of the preoccupation of affluent Londoners, I’ve come to love the country so much more. I’m not ready to support your football team yet (it’ll be a cold day in hell…) but I want to be there more, to visit, to holiday, to learn and read. And secondly, because I think I know what will happen to you once you get some devolution. It will go as follows.
First, London will give you your various deals (Manchester gets more power, more budget but more risk because it’s designed that way, South Yorkshire will get less money, less power and a weirdly-drawn geography because it’s designed that way – and so on). You’ll get a burst of energy – being given new powers raises people’s hopes and expectations. You’ll begin to wonder whether ‘the ways things are done’ makes as much sense as all those authoritative southern voices seem to imply. You’ll start to ask if there might be better ways to do things. So you’ll take your new ‘gift from the south’ and you’ll try pressing some of the buttons on it, pulling some of the levers. You’ll discover that, a little like a child’s toy, they don’t actually do much other than make a noise or flash a light. You’ll get frustrated, then annoyed, then angry. You’ll start to ask for a better machine, one that works. They won’t give you it, so you’ll start to demand it. If it’s anything like Scotland you’ll begin by calling it an assembly, then you’ll decide that, damn it, it should be a parliament.
What happens after that doesn’t matter – because you’ll decide it. For good or ill, so many of the problems you face will be your responsibility, things over which you have power. If you get it right you can feel proud of yourself. If you get it wrong, you’ll have no-one to blame. In Scotland we had to learn to grow up and face our responsibility to dig ourselves out of where we were. No, we didn’t get it all right. No, we weren’t as brave or adventurous as we should be. Yes, we made some very distinctly different decisions – but those weren’t the important thing. The important thing is that the way we thought about ourselves changed from being the passive recipients of what someone else decided to give us to being the agents of our own future. And whether or not we take that extra step to independence, we’d never, ever consider going backwards.
So it’s not really my business, but I dearly and deeply want the North of England to really find itself, to thrive and to never look back. I know that the devolution you’re being offered is not that future – not yet. But I suspect it is where that future will begin. During the independence referendum one of the quotes I used most often was by civil rights campaigner Oliver Wendel Holmes. He said “a man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions”.
That, above everything else, is what I hope for the North – that the idea it is in control of its own future becomes something irreversible, the start of an inevitable journey which leads to real self determination. I look forward with excitement to my first visit to the Parliament of York, the Parliament of Lancaster, the Parliament of Northumbria. Until then, Scotland has much affection for the North and I can promise you that we wish you every luck, that we’re fully behind you. I have every confidence that you can do it. And when you do, I have every confidence that you’ll succeed.
Robin McAlpine is Director of Scottish think and do tank Common Weal. www.allofusfirst.org.