A ‘regulatory border’ across the Irish Sea means that a reunified Ireland is beginning to look inevitable. The SNP are set to win an emphatic victory at the Holyrood elections in May, with a second referendum on Scottish independence to be demanded. On top of this, support for Welsh separatism is at its highest level in decades and will only increase if Scotland and Northern Ireland successfully break away from the rest of the UK.
However, one other area that is beginning to call for independence is “The North.” The Northern Independence party has been set up, claiming that the only way to solve the disparities between the North and the South by creating an independent state based around the ancient borders of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
There are many cliches about the differences between the North and the South. Greggs vs Pret, Rugby League vs Rugby Union or the different way of saying bath and grass. The Conservative MP Jake Berry was recently criticized for claiming that Northerners preferred football while Southerners preferred opera.
In reality however, the truth is a lot more nuanced than that. The North isn’t one white, working class homogenous block but a region of diverse cultures; Middlesbrough has the highest concentration of asylum seekers than anywhere else in the UK. The one thing that unites is a deep distrust for Westminster, one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The UK is the most regionally unequal country in the developed world. Despite London being one of the most prosperous cities on the planet, certain areas of the North such as the Tees Valley and South Yorkshire are amongst the poorest areas of Europe. GDP per capita means that the North should be as prosperous as any developed nation, however there is distinct child poverty, low life expectations and poor educational attainment.
The entire system is about funnelling resources to the capital and starving the North of investment. Manufacturing and mining were closed down with little alternative investment in other industries, infrastructure and education. Northern metropolises have struggled with poor public transport, highlighted by the fact that in 2018, 46% of capital expenditure on railways went exclusively to London. Also, bureaucratic planning rules have pushed property prices to unaffordable levels for those from poor, rural backgrounds. A study from the LSE claims that Leeds would be ‘a hell of a lot bigger’ if growth of the city was unconstrained. The opportunities that the capital presents when compared to other Northern cities often leads to the best and brightest minds to migrating to the south east, draining their hometowns of human capital.
The fall of the Red Wall at the 2019 general election was met by a promise to level up the regions, however the Northern Powerhouse has failed to materialise. Westminster has promised to even out the gap. However, when this is a gap that has been created by their own policies, it looks increasingly unlikely that anything meaningful will be done. One example of how the North has been misunderstood is HS2. This flagship project has been pushed forward with claims of how it will reduce inequality. However, for the average citizen in the North, the benefits of a properly functioning and affordable local transport service far outweigh the benefits of being able to get to London quicker.
An independent North would allow citizens to take control of their own economy and make their own decision. There could be large scale investment in infrastructure, quality education and a green revolution, a shift away from neoliberalism towards a more Nordic model of Social Democracy. There would be an end to child hunger and shocking levels of inequality with a greater focus on human development rather than solely on GDP growth. It may currently seem like an unrealistic utopia however support for a prosperous, culturally diverse and eco-friendly North has begun to gain traction. When Andy Burnham stood up for Manchester being placed into tier 3 without sufficient financial support, it seemed like a turning point. People from the North would no longer put up with being treated as second class citizens.
The key argument against Northern Independence, and all other secessionist movements within the UK, is that the rest of the country benefits from the riches of London. However, as I have outlined, that is evidently not the case. The disparity between London and the rest of the UK continues to grow. Therefore, the argument for maintaining the imbalanced status quo is losing relevance. The chances of a Whitehall-led Northern redevelopment look less likely by the day, especially under the leadership of Boris Johnson who claimed that “the jam from London must not be spread too thinly over the dry Ryvita of the regions” when he was London mayor. The Conservative’s response to the pandemic has showcased that Westminster are clueless to the reality of life outside of the M25. Medical professionals, teachers’ unions and local officials have proved that local decisions, such as the decision to close primary schools before lockdown was announced, made by local people are far fairer and efficient. Maybe it is time to try this on a larger scale.
So, is any of this realistic? The chance for a North East assembly was soundly rejected by voters in 2004 after a campaign led by Dominic Cummings. (It is ironic that 16 years later he arguably did more to further the cause for Northern independence than anyone else, by showing how out of touch the ruling classes are.) Mebyon Kernow has also campaigned for a Cornish assembly but with limited success. The chances of an independent Northumbria do appear to be unlikely.
However, as anti-Union sentiment sweeps across the UK, calls for independence will continue to grow. What is most likely is greater decentralisation. The chance for people to have more say in decisions that directly affect them; giving locals the ability to take charge of the future of their area and not leave it to Westminster. The success of Scottish devolution has shown that regional devolution is the greatest chance of levelling out geographic inequality and an example that we can all hope to follow.