Featured image: Anthony Winter via Unsplash.
"How do we achieve democratic socialism?” Phillip Proudfoot, founder of the new Northern Independence Party (NIP), pondered in his recent interview with Novara Media, “Well, the biggest obstacle is the union [the UK], that’s our position.” This sincere and considered statement, along with the rest of this interview, demonstrated that the NIP are not simply another knee-jerk reaction protest party, as the name might suggest. On the contrary, Proudfoot is committed to filling the void vacated by the Labour party as they drift further and further to the right, by appealing to left-wing voters who are desperate for some form of systemic change.
The party, who aspire towards gaining complete independence for the north of England from the UK, are running the former Labour MP Thelma Walker as a candidate in the Hartlepool by-election. They are looking to build upon the momentum which has gained them almost 50,000 members since their formation in October of last year. Going by their manifesto plan, it is clear that they are not only contributing to recent changes in the left/right axis of British politics, but also to an intensifying conversation about the very existence of this country in its current form.
While in pre–Brexit Britain serious consideration to this topic had been largely limited to Scotland’s failed 2014 bid for independence, developments in Westminster politics over recent years have helped to garner genuine credibility for several independence movements. In Scotland’s case, the calls for another referendum have been reinvigorated by the fact that they voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. The renewed referendum campaign has been reinforced by Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba party, who look set to help create a pro - independence ‘super majority’ in the forthcoming Scottish elections.
Likewise, the cause of Irish reunification has been bolstered by the fact that Northern Ireland also voted to remain within the EU. In fact, the Good Friday Agreement and the relative peace which was thereby achieved is largely dependent on the nation’s membership in the EU, as evidenced by the recent riots which have taken place in loyalist areas. Furthermore, the recent UK census is expected to reveal, for the first time, that there are now more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. This is a statistic which would suggest that there is a considerable appetite for Irish reunification, a move which would bring an end to Britain’s eight century involvement in Ireland.
The United Kingdom is, historically, a medley of different national and regional identities.
Even calls for Welsh independence, typically the least vocal claim within the UK, is building momentum. Polls suggest that support for separation from the rule of Westminster has doubled over the past six years, as membership in Yes Cymru, a campaign group which supports such a move, has sky-rocketed.
Clearly there are substantial arguments behind each of these claims, however this is without mentioning one of the core aspects of each independence movement: identity. The United Kingdom is, historically, a medley of different national and regional identities. The respective histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have helped to foster distinct and separate identities in each nation. Indeed, the very purpose of the union, from the unification of England and Scotland to the inclusion of Ireland, was largely for the benefit of an empire which no longer exists. As more and more people in the UK are beginning to look objectively at the global impact of this empire, the case for those belonging to these varied identities to secede from the UK grows stronger.
In this sense, the claim for Northern England’s independence is no different. As any Northerner will tell you, there is a clear north – south divide in England. The roots of this divide are said to go back as far as 1069 with William the conqueror's ‘harrying of the north’, in which he brutally suppressed a northern rebellion against his rule. This English rupture was accentuated over the following centuries in events such as the battle of Towton in 1461 and the Northern rebellion of 1569. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, meanwhile, saw the vast majority of manufacturing take place in the north. This resulted in sizeable social and economic discrepancies between the north and the south. More recently, the miners‘ strike of the 1980s perpetuated this notion of an irreconcilable north – south divide.
To this day, these socio-economic disparities persist in England. The chances of dying prematurely in the north of England remain significantly higher than they are in the south and between 1965 and 2015, mortality rates have always been at least fifteen percent higher in the north. Similarly, widespread differences in the standards of education and public transport endure. A measure of the economic imbalance can be seen in the lack of significant growth in the north and midlands following the recession of the late 2000s, in contrast to the South. The attempts of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, to redress this inequality by creating a ‘Northern powerhouse’, along with Boris Johnson’s aspirations of ‘levelling up’ in Northern areas, have left little impression upon the region.
The promises of ‘taking back control’ which saw the majority of Northern constituencies vote to leave the EU in 2016 could well be deployed equally effectively in the name of establishing a Northern state.
Clearly, there is ample room in the political landscape of Northern England for an independence movement. Should the NIP substantially exploit this regional divide, along with the vacuum on the left caused by the Labour party’s direction under Sir Keir Starmer, there is genuine viability for the party to continue to gather momentum. The promises of ‘taking back control’ which saw the majority of Northern constituencies vote to leave the EU in 2016 could well be deployed equally effectively in the name of establishing a Northern state.
As for the fate of the union itself, there remains a very real and extensive conversation to be had about it’s necessity and relevance. Nonetheless, the breakup of a country as powerful and historically significant as the United Kingdom is still a long way from fruition, even by the most generous of estimates. The respective roads to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish independence remain long and arduous. The Northern Independence Party, however, have propelled each of these aspirations incrementally further towards their goals by underlining yet another contradiction in the UK’s existence. The potential for a movement to grow in Northern England, and for this country’s existence to thus be brought under more scrutiny, is clear. In any case, whether or not this or any other independence campaigns will succeed, remains to be seen.