A Dispatch from the North of England

By Stephen Bowman

Last night I attended a public lecture at Northumbria University delivered by Professor Jonathan Blackie on the subject of ‘Can the North East of England benefit from greater Scottish autonomy?’ Professor Blackie has had a distinguished career as a civil servant in the North of England, and is one of the authors of the Borderlands report, which was published recently on behalf of the Association of North East Councils. The report formed the basis of last night’s lecture. Both outline ways in which the North of England can both compete and cooperate with a newly powerful Scotland. As the title of the lecture suggested, this didn’t just mean an independent Scotland, but also a Scotland granted more devolved powers in the event of a ‘No’ vote this September. In either event, it’s clear that the businesses and local authorities of the North of England are fearful of economic competition from Scotland, while at the same time feeling cut off and ignored by London. It was for some of these reasons that the report was commissioned, with some local councillors feeling that the region could benefit from greater collaboration with Edinburgh.

Funnily enough, Professor Blackie was born in Edinburgh and retains his Scottish accent. For that reason, it was slightly odd to hear him speak about Scots as ‘them’. Even so, he’s lived many years in the North of England and has evidently undertaken a great deal of work on behalf of the area in which he lives. He started his lecture (to what was a predominantly older-looking audience) with an outline of the current situation in Scotland and the most recent polling results for the referendum. With the bare polling figures, the audience was given the impression that Scotland was likely to vote no (he didn’t really discuss the swing in favour of Yes) and I couldn’t help but feel that the idea of Scottish independence was regarded as slightly quack. Professor Blackie read a selection of quotes from Alex Salmond saying that he thought Scotland and the North of England were natural friends against the ‘dark star’ of London, all of which were received with laughter by the audience. Notwithstanding the admittedly flowery language, I thought it was a shame that the audience didn’t find more to commend in the First Minister’s sentiments.

Indeed, Blackie explained that many people in the North of England – or at least those to whom he had spoken in the course of writing his report – were sceptical that the region could benefit from Scottish independence, with some feeling envious and resentful of Scotland’s relatively advantageous position. Again this was a shame, though understandable. Blackie described a situation in which the North of England was struggling to compete with Scotland for tourism and inward investment, partly because Scotland has the formidable economic and political backing of Scottish Government agencies, like Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. There was an odd implication that this was a surprising disparity, as though it was unusual that a nation should have such stronger resources than a region. Surely it’s more noteworthy that national English bodies haven’t better served this ‘borderland’ region?

It was striking, in fact, that the notion of neglect by London wasn’t more directly addressed by Blackie. Rather, it took a number of questions from the audience at the end to raise the question of the democratic deficit in England. Blackie was looking for solid, commercial ways in which the region could benefit, through collaboration on things like transport, energy, tourism, rural and business development and education. He envisaged cooperation between councils on both sides of the border working together to improve trade and infrastructure. His discussion in this respect took place in a sort of political void, and I was left wondering whether Scottish ‘autonomy’ was actually relevant to what he was saying. Indeed, one member of the audience – a county councillor from Northumberland – questioned whether Blackie’s arguments were anything new. Was it not the case that the North of England just needed to ‘get its act together’ and speak with a powerful and cohesive political voice?

And that’s surely the crux of the matter, and the real way in which the North of England can benefit from Scottish independence. With Scottish independence, the idea of a London-centric British Isles is dealt a significant blow. Even though some may laugh at the melodramatic imagery, would a progressive ‘beacon’ to the North not provide inspiration and an example for political change in England? It’s not an easy problem to solve, especially as the idea of an elected regional assembly was overwhelmingly rejected by voters a few years ago, but it’s apparent that the North of England needs to aspire to something greater than it already is, and to do so by appealing to higher ideals than simply cross-border cooperation between local authorities as outlined in Blackie’s report. Another member of the audience – this time a Scot – made this exact point, quoting the words ‘wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity’ which are inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s ceremonial mace as an example of values to which to aspire.

But the mace just served to remind me of the principal benefit that Scotland has over the North of England. Simply, Scotland, as a nation, enjoys a cohesive political and cultural identity that the North of England, as a region, does not. This was never truly addressed in the talk last night, with Professor Blackie and others displaying the peculiarly English habit of regarding Scotland in the same terms as an English region. It’s not that Scotland’s nationhood is denied, more that it is regarded as a nation with a similar status to an English region. In so doing, Scotland is regarded as an homogenous mass with no regional differences of its own.

But then it occurred to me that you’d never get a Scottish region, say Strathclyde or Lothian, holding a great debate about how to independently address relations with another country. There’s no doubting that regionalism is a much stronger factor in politics in England than it is in Scotland, which means that England as a whole lacks the cohesive political identity that Scotland has.

This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, regionalism could be a way – particularly on the back of Scottish independence – to challenge the centralisation of power in London. On the other hand, regional neglect creates a disenfranchisement from the political process that means that mobilising people to create a more democratic and representative England seems particularly challenging. So it’s not just the North of England that needs to aspire to something greater. It’s the whole country.

Instead of asking how the North of England can compete and collaborate with Scotland, Professor Blackie might usefully have addressed the democratic deficit in England and looked at ways in which England’s national institutions and resources could be put to better use in support of the country’s neglected regions. Another question from the audience last night said as much.

So I was impressed by the lines of questioning taken by many members of the audience. Yet, as I was at the beginning of the lecture, I was also struck by the average age of the audience. Is this not part of the problem? Whereas the Scottish referendum has Scots of all generations excited about the possibility of political change, including a great many young people and students, together with a vibrant online debate, the only people who could apparently get excited about the future of the North of England seemed to be university professors and retirees. If political change is going to come in England then it’s going to need to take more people getting more angry about more things, together with taking more time to appreciate the possibilities presented by what’s happening in Scotland.

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