The rapid online rise of the Northern Independence Party (NIP) has been the cause of much comment, especially in light of the announcement that former Labour MP Thelma Walker will be backed by the new party in the forthcoming Hartlepool by election.
Anecdotally it appears that a layer of what we might call the post-Corbynite left are considering supporting the NIP. Twitter handles are now adorned with red and yellow icons, as 21st century socialists bizarrely adopt the imagined motif of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom from the 7th century.
A strong Twitter game has rapidly pushed the NIP towards 50,000 followers. Sparse on details, the party promises a referendum on northern independence, professes democratic socialism and advocates socially progressive positions.
It remains to be seen whether the NIP will develop any meaningful presence in the physical world, but its emergence is part of a broader regionalist trend in English politics that should be emphatically rejected by socialists.
The centre piece of the NIP’s political offer is a referendum on the creation of an independent state in the north of England to be called Northumbria. The borders of this state, whether it is to be a republic or keep allegiance to the Windsors’ crown, and the currency it will use are all apparently questions to be settled at a later date.
National self-determination is an important issue for the left. The socialist movement has advocated independence for oppressed nations since the 19th century. Polish independence was a popular cause on the European left at that time. The Italian nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi drew crowds of radical workers in the north of England who were sympathetic to the Risorgimento. Today, the left continues to express solidarity with peoples whose national aspirations are denied, including Palestinians, Kurds, and Uyghurs.
There is only one small problem with applying the principle of self-determination to the north of England: there is no Northumbrian nation. No-one describes their national identity as Northumbrian. There is no distinct Northumbrian language or culture. There is, broadly speaking, a ‘northern’ identity, which is often defined negatively as against the south, and London in particular. But within this the north is home to a patchwork of local and regional identities, many of which are quite different to one another, and none of which constitutes a national group.
The north is not occupied or subjugated by the south. Northern cultural traditions are not banned or restricted. As a northerner who lived and worked in London for many years, I was not denied access to employment or housing because of my northernness, nor was I set upon in the street by gangs of anti-northern racists.
To pretend that the north of England is in any way an oppressed nation is unserious and an insult to those groups of people around the world who face real national oppression – occupation, deprivation of liberty, and death – because of their national identity.
Most people jumping on the separatist bandwagon will probably, in their heart of hearts, agree with the above. They will argue, though, that the north of England gets a raw deal in the UK as it is currently constituted. And they are right. Cancer and premature death rates are higher in the north. Productivity is much higher in the south east of England where the dominant financial services sector is concentrated. Urban local authorities in the north have been continually shafted in funding formulas by Tory governments since 2010. The list of regional disparities goes on.
Faced with this reality, is there not a place for a political movement that represents the interests of the north? A pro-northern party could argue for better transport links between northern cities, and for interventionist measures to tackle poverty and inequality. All well and good.
The problem is that by defining their community of interests as northern, the separatists – however progressive their views might be on all sorts of issues – are just mimicking the cross-class approach of nationalist movements. Their professed enemies – the ‘Westminster elite’ and the City of London that so imbalances the British economy – are the English ruling class, albeit described using lazy populist rhetoric. But they are defined as enemies not primarily in class terms but rather because they are not here but elsewhere. There is a comparison to be made with the Brexit movement. Many who supported Brexit were genuinely opposed to the undemocratic nature of the European Union and perhaps objected to its economic agenda, but the fundamental problem the Brexit movement had with Brussels was that it was over there, it was foreign.
Those claiming to represent a national community of interests also have to reckon with the class structures and conflicts that exist within those communities. In representing the interests of the north, will you be representing the interests of northern landowners? Industrialists? Or of workers? Renters? The unemployed? Whose side will you pick when these class interests diverge as they frequently do? Perhaps leftwingers in the NIP envisage a struggle within the separatist movement against reactionary elements and bourgeois interests, but if you are going to be in a political party where such an internal battle is a necessary feature of life, you may as well stay in the Labour Party.
While implicitly promoting a community of interests with the northern bourgeoisie, the separatists, willingly or not, throw up a barrier to working class organisation. Separatism – whether of the north or of other parts of England – could be successfully popularised in the working class movement, even just to the point of becoming a topic for serious discussion. This runs the risk of paralysing working class organisations with endless internal struggles over what position to take on an imagined national question. Given the sort of political culture that prevails on the left in England, it is easy to imagine that fall outs, ill feeling, and a refusal of working class activists to work with those who have taken a different stance on the question would become widespread. In Scotland, where the legitimate national question has dominated politics for the last decade, independent class politics is all but squeezed out, at least at the ballot box, as people coalesce around the nationalist and unionist poles.
Were the separatists to get their wish and successfully resurrect the independent Anglo-Saxon statelet they desire, our trade union and labour organisations would then be operating in a new legal framework alongside that of the remaining rump of England. Much time and resource would be spent adapting to this and it is not inconceivable that unions would devolve or break apart in line with the new national split. Almost every major employer operates in both the north and south of England. A fragmentation of working class organisations will likely make it much more difficult to fight against these employers and could even spark a race to the bottom in working conditions.
No more borders
For those socialists in England who advocated for Remain in the EU referendum, the last few years have been a bitter education in just how hard it is to argue against the idea that erecting more national barriers will somehow provide solutions to social and economic problems. Even on the left the axiomatic principle that the working class is international, and national barriers are an obstacle to working class solidarity, hardly gets a look in. It seems the separatists would like nothing more than for us to have this argument all over again.
I live in Sheffield, where a popular past time of working class people is to go walking in the Peak District. Part of the Peak District is within the city boundary but most of it is located in Derbyshire which is a county in the Midlands or, to put it in language the separatists might understand, part of Æthelbald’s Kingdom of Mercia. Will I have to go through border control every time I want to breathe some fresh air on a Saturday afternoon? Will customs officers be boarding trains on the Hope Valley line and stopping cars at Owler Bar to search for illicit imports of artisan cheese from Bakewell? Or does the NIP envisage a campaign of annexation or a League of Nations-style plebiscite for the villages of north Derbyshire?
More seriously, the imposition of a national border would in the long run bring with it all the things that national borders have brought since the dawn of the modern age: the division of families, suspicion of outsiders, continued freedom of movement for the rich and restrictions for the rest of us. Do we really have to spend time restating the negative effects of national borders to others on the left so soon after suffering a no deal Brexit? It’s almost as if the proposal for northern independence is fundamentally unserious.
Northumbria obviously isn’t going to happen (stop trying to make it happen) but the NIP is part of a wider trend towards identitarian politics. I am not referring here to ‘identity politics’ in the way knuckle-draggers of both the left and the right talk about the politics of liberation from racism, homophobia, transphobia and other bigotries. Indeed, the NIP seems to have mostly laudable positions on these issues. By identitarian I mean a politics that begins with an identity, rather than with a critique of social relations, and builds out from there.
This sort of politics when it manifests on the right has been consistently referred to as populism in recent years. Rightwing populism comes with heavy doses of nostalgia, harking back to an imagined past when ‘we’ – that is, those adhering to the constructed identity – were on top of the world before being brought low by the liberal elite/Brussels/cultural Marxists. In the separatists’ desperate bid to create a regional-national identity I expect they will capitulate at some point to nostalgia of a different sort, lauding the north’s proud industrial past and counterposing good, honest, fixed manufacturing capital to destructive, pernicious and free-flowing finance capital based down there in that London.
Even if they prove me wrong and avoid such crass propaganda, the NIP’s project is still an identitarian one that immediately shrinks the horizons of class solidarity. Are we suddenly to be no longer concerned with comrades down south who are struggling against our common enemies? How do we explain that we are leaving them to their fate under the iron heel of Westminster?
However unlikely the NIP is to develop into a significant political force, the online expressions of allegiance towards it are indicative of something broader and more damaging; the long term effects of neoliberalism on leftwing party politics.
Since the Iraq War and the other sins of high Blairism precipitated an exodus of members from the Labour Party, we have lived (in England) through a period where politicised leftwing individuals have flooded into and out of different political parties: a brief furore around Left Unity in 2013, the ‘Green surge’ in 2014, the flood back in to the Labour Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign of the following year and the corresponding exodus following his resignation as leader.
Political parties coalescing and fragmenting is of course nothing new, but these phenomena have not been organised splits, entryist turns, or anything to do with political strategy. They have been movements of large numbers of individuals for whom membership of a particular party becomes desirable for a while and then wanes. The NIP is the latest recipient of this desire, the desire to be a member of a party that, at least superficially, matches one’s own values. The desire to no longer feel ‘politically homeless.’
Most party members are inactive and watch the goings on in their own party from afar. Many of those who are active become frustrated for all sorts of understandable reasons: the wrong person becomes leader, policy votes don’t go your way, the party’s stultifying bureaucracy makes it difficult to do good things, individuals and party factions behave in an underhanded or bullying fashion. In these circumstances it’s easy to see why people cast around for alternatives. In the absence of organisation and activity, party membership is essentially a passive affair more akin to choosing an item from a menu than prosecuting any social struggle. Once the party has done one too many bad things, the individual can tear up their membership card and try something new.
To be active in party politics requires constant re-interrogation of the reasons for one’s own activity. If you are a socialist in the Labour Party you have to consider how best to advance working class interests within the constraints of an electoralist party led by bourgeois politicians. If you are a socialist considering joining a party like the NIP, you have to consider how our class interests will be advanced by placing border guards at Woodall Services. Is anger at Keir Starmer or frustration with the Labour Party enough to propel you to devote the next 10, 20, or 50 years of your political energy to resurrecting the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?
Of course there are ways forward for the left outside of, as well as through, the Labour Party. But regional separatism is a wrong turn to a dead end.