An unprecedented display of northern rage seemed to infuse last week’s Question Time TV programme from Derby, where Labour’s Diane Abbott was jeered by the audience and interrupted by panellists while a Brexit-supporting panellist’s call for a no-deal Brexit was greeted by loud sustained cheers.
Dani Garavelli, writing in Scotland on Sunday, wondered if Theresa May might have been right to warn that “taking a no- deal off the table would provoke many Leave voters into a state of righteous fury… and civil unrest. It was palpable in the Question Time audience,” she observed, “the sense of a mob ready to take to the streets if thwarted.”
Now, of course, Derby (75 miles south of Leeds) isn’t the north, and one rowdy Question Time doth not a riot make. But the fractious programme served to remind metropolitan politicians, Remain voters and Scottish viewers of a difficult reality. Most Leave voters in the Midlands and north of England don’t seem to have changed their minds since 2016 and are furious their Leave mandate could be overridden in the Commons this week.
Is that because well-researched findings about damage to the northern economy haven’t reached their ears? Is it because problems at Jaguar Land Rover in Coventry seem too far away from the Nissan-dominated north-east, even though that company’s reliance on components from EU suppliers is just the same? Or is something else happening?
Could it be that Brexit has allowed a by-passed and overlooked north of England to hold the affluent south to ransom for the first time in recent history? If so, some powerful feelings must be acknowledged before they can possibly be overcome. After all, Brexit predictions tend to come from well coiffed, smartly suited, university-educated, southern experts and, whether statistically right or wrong, their collective demeanour can easily aggravate folk with the toughest experience of austerity, under-investment and economic decline. Warnings about future economic harm must prompt grim snorts of laughter from folk who’ve been coping with long-term unemployment for generations. At least Brexit brings the tantalising prospect that middle-class southerners will finally share their pain. Indeed a recent survey suggests that’s already happening because London’s economy is no longer growing at a faster pace than the rest of the country. Yip, Brexit could mean we are finally “all in it together” – even if we’re all in the stank. For the truly hopeless and politically disempowered, an equality of pain, uncertainty, chaos and unemployment is about as much as you can hope for.
This sorry state of affairs is directly down to an uncaring Mother of Parliaments and unreformed British political system. Decades of indifference to every unfairness, and every alternative interest to the economy of the south-east, has finally resulted in political payback – a large group of non-metropolitan voters who don’t believe or care what experts think about anything.
The puzzle, though, is why the bloody-minded, self-harming rage of the north-east is directed at the relatively powerless EU and not the public schoolboys of Westminster. Isn’t rage being directed at the wrong political institution?
The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has written a powerful analysis of the English dilemma in his latest book Heroic Failure, which contends that the English fondness for glorious defeat is an attempt to reconcile the cruelties of Empire with Britain’s self-image as a civilised country devoted to the protection and advancement of liberty.
As O’Toole puts it, the tradition of heroic failure was great when Britain was ruling the world because it was a way of saying: “We’re not really a nasty imperial power”. But now playing the hard-done-to underdog has become a compulsion, producing involuntary acts of self-harm to avoid facing the difficult truth. British identity is based on theft, imperialism, elitism and unearned pre-eminence in an old world order that has now completely changed.
It’s a fascinating, provocative theory that only a gifted Irishman could deliver with force – but perhaps helps explain the dilemma of folk in the north of England.
There has been barely suppressed anger that a county the size of Yorkshire with the same population as Scotland has only a tiny fraction of its power. Of course, even if Scotland comprised five instead of 5.2 million people, it would still be a nation within a state of four nations, not just a large county. This has proved impossible for many English voters to really grasp. Their politics has become so strongly tilted towards a “winner takes all” and “size matters” approach that it’s inconceivable some ancient institutions, prior constitutional realities and intangible qualities such as political culture could possibly matter more than sheer force of numbers.
And yet even though the Scottish Parliament has been completely sidelined and undermined in the Brexit process, we can still potentially escape the whole horrible mess, having been spared the full crushing weight of austerity, cruelty of the British benefits system and nihilism of Westminster’s “privatisation at all costs” agenda. Scots may not be conscious that we live in a nation rather than a large English county, but we benefit from the reality of that important distinction every waking day.
That’s because the Conservatives have been cute. Dangling city mayors before northern cities worked in Manchester but not in Leeds, where a mayor was refused because the city rightly wanted devolution to a properly democratic West Yorkshire region instead. Sheffield accepted a mayor, but Doncaster and Barnsley did not. So Sheffield’s new city-region mayor is powerless and budgetless. This farcical situation has made few headlines compared with Westminster’s power grab at Holyrood. No wonder there is simmering resentment. The negative power of veto is all north of England voters have got.
That’s partly because a “northern” identity has been extremely hard to achieve. The then deputy Prime Minister John (now Baron) Prescott’s 2004 trial referendum in the north-east was opposed by 78 per cent of voters, more worried about domination by larger neighbouring cities than excited by limited devolution. It was a classic case of divide and conquer, but somehow Westminster escaped the blame.
It’s escaping the blame still, harvesting nostalgia for Britain’s old glory days while deflecting anger over its failure to create a new, modern English identity. This week, though, the wheels may finally come off the cart. Here’s hoping progressive northern voices are ready to convert Leave anger into a movement for real democratic change.