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The Dilemmas of Northern Independence

Building a new country is not a straightforward task, argues Gerry Hart

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The Angel of the North photographed from below against a blue sky

It has little over a year since the Northern Independence Party (NIP) was founded in October 2020. Though the initial enthusiasm has abated somewhat, the party has prompted some fascinating and much needed discussion about the highly centralised nature of power in the UK, including an excellent piece from Thelma Walker in our Autumn edition. 

For my part, I have mixed feelings on northern independence. As a native of the northeast, I bear no love for the British state, nor have I ever felt inclined towards English patriotism. Still, I worry that there still exists a paucity of analysis as to what northern independence actually means. 

Let me be absolutely clear that in writing this piece, I am not attempting to construct a case against northern independence, or argue that advocates of northern independence haven’t given any thought to the potential dilemmas at play here. I don’t think even the most optimistic proponents of northern independence believe that their task is an easy one. Leaving aside the inevitable resistance that would be incurred by the entrenched power structures of Westminster, there are plenty of reactionary hotspots within the north (Richmond, the constituency bordering my hometown of Darlington to the south, is one of the safest Tory seats in the entire country and is held by one Rishi Sunak).

(Re)building Northumbria

But there are more intangible obstacles to northern independence that would be even harder to overcome. Though the north is renowned for its strong regional identity, that alone is not substantive enough to form the backbone of a new country. The establishment (or re-establishment) of a Northumbrian identity distinct from England would require a titanic cultural and political shift in the way northerners perceive themselves, their region and their relationship to the rest of England. The fact we’re still thinking in terms of ‘Northern’ instead of ‘Northumbrian’ independence is emblematic of this issue. We are not just talking about electing enough MPs and building support for a referendum, we are talking about building a nation almost from scratch, and I am not convinced that that is where the left should be expending its energy.

In untying the north from the British state, it would also be necessary to actively confront the north’s role in Britain’s colonial apparatus. Whilst it is true that much of the north has suffered deliberate privation under successive governments both Tory and Labour, it is also true that the north was fully embedded within Britain’s imperial project. Liverpool famously served as one of the primary ports in the transatlantic slave trade, and many drivers of British imperialism like Captain James Cook were northerners.

To their credit, the NIP has rejected the absurd argument that northerners are victims of English colonialism. But northern identities still often predicate themselves as an underdog against the big boys in Westminster and there is a risk that, as left-wing YouTuber John Duncan argued is occurring in Scotland, this can morph into a form of imperial denial. Any attempt to bring about a new Northumbrian nation without consciously addressing the region’s relationship to empire risks maintaining the same imperialist power structures we wish to break.

A north worth fighting for

Reflecting back on how this movement came to be, it’s clear that the NIP’s rise was in many ways a reaction to the dominant discourse around the north since 2019, a justified revulsion at the elevation of petite bourgeois landlords and thin-skinned pizzeria owners as authentic voices of the provincial working class. A ghoulish collection of new ‘Blue wall’ Tories, centrist journalists and ex-MPs – unwilling to admit their role in enabling the north’s decline under multiple New Labour councils – have, more broadly, framed our communities as populated by incurious, bigoted hogs, turned away from progressive politics by an imagined ‘woke metropolitan elite’.

It’s clear therefore that the north needs to be reclaimed by the left, not just politically but conceptually, and maybe northern independence is one means of accomplishing this. But I think Alex Niven’s observations in New Model Island are particularly salient here. Tying our political aspirations to vanished kingdoms, be they England or Northumbria, won’t liberate the north, and instead we should embrace the regionalism of the whole British Isles alongside building regional centres of power to counter Westminster. Additionally, we should also consider building power outside the framework of the nation state through nurturing radical, robust communities predicated on solidarity.

If, after all this, you still believe independence is a cause worth pursuing, then best of luck. But above all else, we need to build a north worth fighting for.

Gerry Hart is a Red Pepper editor

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