Culture before politics? Redefining English regionalism for a federal UK

Simon Gwyn Roberts says regionalism in the UK should transcend politics.

Order a beer in a Cologne pub, and you’ll find it delivered to the table in a weirdly tiny 0.2 litre tube. These tubes, known locally as Stange (rods) but in the rest of Germany by more derisory terms (Fingerhut – thimble, for example), are just one of the distinctive features of Cologne pub life. Waiters speak in Kölsch (Colognian) dialect, replete with traditional pungent banter, while tubes are refilled automatically until a beer mat is placed over the top. In Cologne, or Berlin, or Hamburg, the lederhosen, thigh slapping and enormous beer jugs of Bavaria (the images foreigners have of German beer culture) are as exotic as a Vietnamese restaurant.

In Germany, as in Italy, regionalism is not just important politically, it is a defining feature of everyday life. The federal structure of German politics is merely a reflection of that wider truth: regionalism is deeply embedded, and it transcends politics to embrace much more fundamental issues of cultural identity.

As the UK embarks on a programme of constitutional change, we would do well to reflect on that. We are comfortable with the notion of the UK as a multinational country analogous to Spain, but the position of England within that grossly lopsided multinational entity is another matter, and one that is crucial to the current debate.

It may be fairly common for English observers to note that different histories and a more recent experience of independence and unity has preserved regional distinctiveness more successfully in parts of mainland Europe, but many British writers still make the mistake of assuming regional differences in England are more significant than they are: and, by extension, more likely to smooth the transition to English regional devolution.

Take Martin Kettle, in the Guardian on 15 October: ‘For a small country, England is a surprisingly big place. Divisions of landscape and culture abound. Surrey is not like Shropshire. Dorset is not like Durham. London is unlike everywhere else.’ In a rather different context, chef Tom Kerridge introduced his May 2014 Guardian series on British regional food with the following assertion: ‘There are almost as many regional cuisines as there are accents in England, which is remarkable when you think how small our little country is’, before going on to celebrate the traditional cuisine of his native Gloucester with ‘smoked eel eggs benedict’. It is an absurd claim by any standards, but particularly so when set against the rich regional distinctiveness of Germany, France or Italy.

The fact is, although it is a profoundly unequal society, and although there are of course considerable delightful differences between ‘Dorset and Durham’, there is little real depth or substance to English regionalism for a variety of historic reasons. And this is likely to be the defining factor as the UK as a whole decides what to do constitutionally following the Scottish independence referendum.

To create anything even close to a federal UK means English regionalism and real English devolution is a necessity. Lest we forget, England is 18 times bigger than Wales. But regionalism cannot be imposed, as the 2004 referendum in North-East England (rejected by 78% of the vote) proved. It must be organic, grassroots, and part of a lived experience – like the Cologne beer thimbles.

How, then, to nurture and encourage regional identity in the one large European country that has little contemporary history of it? New boundaries (like a vaguely defined ‘North East England’) will not work. Indeed, they will only provide opportunities for the Tory right to frame English regional government as an EU-inspired plot. The only feasible solution, the only possible means of gaining some level of public support, is to base English devolution around the historic counties. The problem then becomes one of equity and numbers. While ‘Yorkshire’ and ‘Lancashire’, in a neatly populist reversion to their extensive original boundaries, would work well as identifiable devolved entities (with similar populations to Wales and Scotland) most other English counties would not. Still, it would be a start: and a slightly more imaginative, expansive approach to those historical boundaries might also give us some other workably large but historically meaningful units to which power might be devolved: Wessex, East Anglia, the Black Country, Mercia and Northumberland (and might provide a simultaneous opportunity to tackle the dog’s breakfast that is British local government).

From a Welsh perspective, England’s homogeneity can be problematic. Quite apart from the impossibility of real federalism until English regionalism is embraced and popularized, the renewed force of English nationalism expresses itself in a robust but unusual way. It is rarely based around community engagement with shared traditions and cultural practice (although those do, of course, exist) but more often on symbolism, sport and a meaningless set of politically inspired ‘values’. At its best, this is arguably more inclusive than the more typical ‘shared tradition’ model, but at its worst its lack of focus leads to the destructive focus on ‘the other’ that is exploited by UKIP.

From our side of the border, these issues do look a little different, so perhaps we can offer some suggestions borne of the post-1960s Welsh experience of identity politics, and the more recent focus on civic nationalism. By marginalizing or even ignoring the English regions, the UK media doesn’t help nurture or develop a sense of regional identity or belonging: in Wales, we have been having this debate for some time and have begun to offer up some solutions, community news hubs and the like. In a broader sense, rather than focusing on the threat posed by ‘the other’, celebrating difference on a micro scale places a renewed emphasis on the regional, the diverse, the plural and the distinctive that does not have to be damaging or introspective. Instead, it leads to attractive, interesting and vibrant societies, and acts as a riposte to globalized homogeneity. Alongside a clear recognition of the wider context, that we are all small parts of the great European mosaic, it might lead to a healthy reinvention of both local and national cultures and identities.

Dr Simon Gwyn Roberts is the Deputy Head of the School of Media at the University of Chester.

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