Fed up with the result of the general election? Stuck with a Conservative majority that you didn’t want? Why not move to Scotland? The Scottish National Party swept (almost) all before it on election night on a platform which talked of equality and appears to have outflanked Labour on the left.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s reign as the most searched-for term on Google is long since over, but her party’s popularity with voters in the north of England is still making waves. More than 26,000 people have signed a petition calling for the north to secede from the UK and join a newly independent Scotland.
Using the hashtag #TakeUsWithYouScotland, the petition calls for a border from the River Dee in the west to the mouth of the Humber in the east. In an echo of an earlier call during the Scottish independence referendum to move the Scottish border south to Hadrian’s Wall, this would see all the major cities of the north secede and join Scotland – including Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.
The squeezed middle
There is some logic to this. Newcastle is around 125 miles from Edinburgh, for instance. It is more than double that distance from London. Like Scotland, the cities of the north have long complained of misgovernment and neglect by the political elite in the south east. They argue that the Conservatives have little or no legitimacy in Labour-voting northern constituencies.
Northern cities have felt squeezed between an increasingly confident Scotland and a powerful London, and austerity measures have added impetus to these feelings. Northern councils have suffered more from austerity than those in the prosperous south of England. The south of England feels a very different place to Liverpool or Sheffield, not to mention Glasgow. The maps produced after the election tell the story well: blue Conservative south, red Labour urban north and yellow SNP Scotland.
But here’s the reality check. Whatever the petition says, there is neither elite-level or any large-scale popular demand for such a move on either side of the border. Scotland is not yet independent. A second referendum is years away, whatever the somewhat excited speculation in the press may say. Even the additional powers proposed for Scotland by the Smith Commission have not yet been legislated for – and have most recently been discussed between Sturgeon and David Cameron.
Scotland will have enough on its plate setting up the administration for the various new powers it is already getting as a consequence of the 2012 Scotland Act without having to add a population of many millions, some large conurbations and a further great swathe of rural territory. If a UK prime minister’s standing in the world would be hugely diminished by Scottish secession, imagine how much more diminished they would be if the north of England also voted to leave.
Further devolution to Scotland is often seen as a threat in the north of England, with businesses fearing losing out to Scottish competition and different tax regimes. Yet there are opportunities for the north too. Much has been said in recent months about Chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and the “Devo-Manc” proposals to devolve power to city regions with elected mayors.
Less noticed is that the SNP’s manifesto argued for a “new northern focus” in England. It makes common cause with northern councils over high-speed rail and indicated that it would support investment in cities in the north of England, claiming that a strong Newcastle and Leeds makes the UK even stronger.
This is an opportunity for north English authorities to work with the SNP government in Edinburgh, as well as SNP MPs and their counterparts from northern England to cooperate against Conservative measures in London. In practical terms, this could begin with infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail. It could extend into other areas of mutual interest, such as tourism and cross-border business development.
Hard road ahead
Links already exist, of course. Councils either side of the border cooperate on various issues. Some in the north may see working with the Scottish government as complementary to Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse offer. Some in the UK government may even see this as a way of blurring rule by London on the north, making the border less divisive and encouraging less of a focus on the difference between north and south within England.
There are many obstacles to overcome if the north of England is to be strengthened. Greater Manchester aside, the Northern Powerhouse deals have yet to take real form or be taken up by the various northern authorities. Initiatives such as localism – the idea of devolving power to small geographic areas – come and go without ever seeming to leave much of a mark or be much more than a slogan.
Scotland will make political capital out of northern disquiet during tensions between the Scottish and UK governments, of course. The north-south divide is unlikely to be eroded anytime soon by any Northern Powerhouse deals. Austerity will bite further, whatever form devolution takes in Northern England.
Yet the petition highlights a real need for cross-border co-operation to increase and for the north being more sensitively treated by London. Scotland has been inspired with its increased confidence. For pro-devolution campaigners in England, the future is exciting. But if they want powers devolved, they will have to work together and keep the pressure on Whitehall to deliver.