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Alex Niven Has Tier 3 lockdown awoken the north’s political identity?

As Sheffield joins nearby cities in being begrudgingly placed under a new wave of government-imposed lockdown restrictions, we talk to Alex Niven about what this might mean for the north as a political concern. 

Tinsley viaduct at sunset
Liz Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

The mayoral fury that greeted the recent imposition of tier 3 coronavirus measures across our part of the world - immortalised in Andy Burnham’s Town Hall steps moment last week - has breathed new life into the ancient political spectre of organised northern rebellion.

Though there’s no guarantee this news event will necessarily evolve into anything more as the cycles of the pandemic continue, the sense that a poor hand has been dealt by Westminster once again gives us in newly-restricted Sheffield some licence to dream. Could we finally be witnessing the genesis of the north as a mature and independent political entity?

One person you’d expect to have something to offer towards a prognosis here is cultural theorist and Newcastle University professor Alex Niven, author of New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England.

Describing the nation of England as a “geopolitical void”, in his 2019 book Niven offers a challenge to his friends on the left; to think big by thinking smaller, and champion the cause of sub-English political and cultural regionalism. England, as he sees it, is at its healthiest and most comfortable when it’s thought of as a meeting of regions.

In New Model Island you make a case for empowering the regions of England as a progressive, left-wing cause. What’s your take on the Burnham versus Boris stand-off of the last fortnight, and how much should we read into it as a manifestation of a north-south divide in English politics?

Well, it’s only just happened, we’re right in the thick of this happening, so it’s difficult to see what its long-term effects will be. But you’d have to say this is some kind of moment for the cause of the north and northern regionalism, you’d hope a positive one.

There’s an extent to which the big divide in England and Britain more generally now is really cities versus non-cities. You had the Labour vote coagulating around the cities in the 2019 election, while everyone else in the large towns down to the villages goes Tory. It’s even true in the north now. You had the metropolitan areas - Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds - becoming more entrenched Labour, while ten years ago some of these places had Lib Dem seats. But places around their periphery - like Bury, like Doncaster, like parts of Durham - have started leaning more Tory.

So it’s always a bit more subtle than a simple north-south binary. But I think it is one of the first times in recent memory that we’ve had a huge groundswell of a kind of populist, northern feeling attaching itself to a political event. I do think there’s a lot of potential in that.

You’d have to say there’s at least a window of opportunity here for changes in that regard, and what it does to the more general populist narrative. One of the main narratives of the 2019 election was the Tories harnessing a lot of the resentment in the north, which was a consequence of decades if not centuries of being economically disadvantaged, by way of Brexit and general anti-elitism.

Do you get a sense at all that the genie is out of the bottle? The north is strong in regional and civic identity, and now perhaps with the tier 3 backlash there’s a more overt political element to this now too, centred around actual institutions of power.

I would hope so! But you should never underestimate the power of the English establishment and the kind of forces that are massed against any kind of egalitarian project in this country.

I think there’s at least a model in the stance Andy Burnham’s taken. And especially his micro-media strategy, of going out onto the [Manchester] Town Hall steps, dressed a bit like a member of an 80s or 90s Manchester indie band, and basically saying no, saying that the north will not allow that to happen, and effectively invoking the north as an idea.

It suggests some kind of populist antithesis to the Johnsonian strategy, which is founded on anti-immigration, Brexit and Trumpian anti-elitism. There’s a sense that Burnham is offering a left version of that, which is taking the anti-elitist sentiment and channelling it towards regional devolution.

You’re not going to energise people with subtle, nuanced, intellectual arguments. You have to have a tubthumping idea, and I think if you do that right it can be a really positive way forward for the left.

Obviously Burnham is only able to do that because he is himself representative of regional devolution, albeit the kind of Cameron-Osborne type you had towards creating elected mayors. The irony really is of him being able to do that because of Tory strategy coming back to bite them.

Moving to some of the ground you cover in New Model Island, would you be able to explain the idea that ‘England doesn’t exist’? It’s quite a statement.

Saying England doesn’t exist is a bit of a provocation. Obviously it’s a polemical text. New Model Island is a polemic, and like I was saying with Andy Burnham and invoking the north, you have to oversimplify things a bit.

But on the other hand I don’t think it’s much of an oversimplification. I don’t think England has much of an identifiable structure. It doesn’t have very many institutions that are its own separate to Britain itself. It doesn’t have its own legal system that is separate to Wales.

Culturally I don’t think it has many unifying cultural touchstones or ways of being. There’s a whole body of middlebrow literature about Englishness being about Marmite, queueing and the weather. Some people identify with those, a lot of people don’t. They’re often quite skewed towards the kind of middle-class culture of the south-east.

So it’s not much of an exaggeration to say England doesn’t exist. Politically and culturally I don’t think it has much of a sense of a coherent cultural self, partly because it’s actually quite a big country population-wise, and because it has great diversity, not just the ethnic diversity of the last 100 years or so but prior to that, regional diversity going back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

I always flip the question on its head and ask, ‘If England does exist, then how?’ And the responses are always quite confused. They often conflate Englishness with Britishness, or they offer the English national football team, which I think is the one great exception.

Alex niven new model island book cover

Do you think one thing that might have changed since the book came out, with the pandemic response differing across the UK, is that England does exist a lot more at present as a political entity? Life in Wales is measurably different to how it is here at the moment with their full lockdown, and Scotland has been going its own way right from the start.

In the present context I guess what’s upon us is the long-prophesied break up of Britain that people have been talking about for the last 30 to 40 years, going back to Tom Nairn in the late 70s, and it’s been accelerated by the events of 2020. There’s Nicola Sturgeon acting as the leader of an independent country in waiting, Wales starting to do that too, although its independence movement is much less close to a popular breakthrough. Ireland will probably be reunified in the next couple of decades.

So yeah sure, there’s a sense in which we’re gonna be forced to think about what England should be, and in the final chapter of the book is an attempt to address that. We’ll have to start thinking about what England is, as the alternative is that it’s just going to be what’s left behind.

But Englishness is never defined positively already. It’s always what’s there after Scotland has defined itself, Wales has defined itself, Ireland has defined itself, which historically have defined themselves against an English-led British Empire.

I think you’re right in that England is going to be forced into existence, and the key thing is that we stop it from being... Well, at the moment it’s kind of a right-wing project, a far-right project, a Conservative project. You get centrists and progressive patriots on the left arguing for Englishness, but it’s quite a reductive model of Englishness. What I’d counterpose to that is one that takes more into account regional diversity and ‘levelling up’, as they say.

I think the key thing is trying to be creative and imaginative about it, rather than retreating into the nationalisms of the middle ages.

The past year has also brought renewed attention to the causes of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Does regionalism on a sub-English level hold some promise here, in how it breaks down some of the imperial symbolism of the English-British state?

I think so, yeah, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge the dark sides of regionalism. I try to do that in the third chapter, when I encounter this Northumbrian far-right movement. Well, I say ‘movement’, but I think it was probably just one guy. So there is a danger that regionalism can be captured by the far-right.

On a softer level, you find this in the north-east and I think you get this in Yorkshire too. It can be captured by a conservative, cosy, tourist board regionalism...

...Twee regionalism?

Exactly. It’s twee and it’s quite often based on the countryside. It’s a kind of Tory regionalism, I guess.

But having acknowledged that, the vast majority of the time regionalism exists in opposition, it does challenge the quasi-imperialism of Britain. In a way this sort of replicates a discourse in Postcolonial Studies about the importance of a small nation, as opposed to a big imperial nation. People characterise Scottish independence as a small nation repudiating imperialism and I think regionalism in England has that same potential. It has that same potential of a small unit.

It seems to me that a region of about two, three, up to about ten million is a good size for doing things. Once you get really big nations of 20 million or above, and unless you’ve got that federal structure, you start to - not always - but you start to have that strong centre governing ‘the provinces’, going all the way back to how things were ruled in imperial Rome.

Where do you look for hope, and where do you see the saving graces in how everything is right now?

I think the hope comes in taking a long-term view. I’ve slightly adjusted mine, in that until last December I thought everything was moving towards - with all these generational narratives and these political narratives - towards the neoliberal system suddenly collapsing.

It didn’t happen. Nevertheless I think it is happening. It might not happen with Corbyn and a radical Labour government raking and reversing neoliberal policies, but it is happening in a more slow-burn way.

If your material resources allow you to do so, you just have to dig in for the long-haul really, and maintain some level of kind of personal happiness in your friendships, your personal relationships and your immediate circumstances. Politically you’ve just got to keep going, because things will get better at some point.

You’ve got to try not to be carried away by utopian optimism, but at the same time you’ve got to be positive, to look for opportunity and windows of opportunity for political development.

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