We are living in an increasingly decentralised UK. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – along with the Scottish independence referendum and a rise in nationalistic sentiment – have posed obvious opposition to the idea of the UK as a nation state.
Yet recent research and articles suggest that there are further challenges looming – particularly within England. As Matthew Johnson puts it, there is “a feeling that British politicians define English interests as those of London”, and that “those in the northeast, northwest, and southwest have their own ideas about identity”.
These ideas differ from the dominant London-centric concept of Englishness. Issues of English devolution are currently framed for the most part in economic terms, especially by mainstream parties – as epitomised by Osborne’s attempt to manufacture a Northern Powerhouse. But my research suggests that there is more to Englishness – and that territorial identities may play a key role.
Cornwall: a Celtic nation
There has been growing sense of politicisation among English regional identities in recent years, and nowhere more so than in Cornwall and Yorkshire. The Cornish have always had a distinct sense of cultural identity, which is different to Englishness. They would reject the description of Cornishness as as a sub-national English identity. Instead, the Cornish people would argue that they identify as a nation on the same grounds as other members of the Celtic League; an organisation that campaigns for the political rights of Celtic nations such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Mann, and Brittany.
This stance has had a political edge since the 1970s when Mebyon Kernow (MK) – previously a pressure group aimed at promoting Cornish culture, pursuits, and history – started fielding candidates in elections. And yet, such politicisation of Cornishness is not confined only to regionalist parties such as MK (whose electoral results have been, all in all, rather marginal).
The Liberal Democrats – which used to consider Cornwall a stronghold – played a part in this as well. Through their position in the coalition government, the Lib Dems had an instrumental role in the process that led to Cornwall receiving special minority status in 2014. In
the past, the Lib Dems strategically exploited Cornish identity for electoral ends, so as to maintain a support base in the area. More recently, the party pledged to form a Cornish Assembly if returned to government, a prospect which was shattered by the outcome of the election which saw the Lib Dems devastated across the country, and the Conservatives take all the parliamentary seats in Cornwall.
Yorkshire is also often defined as having a distinct regional identity. There are around ten times as many people living in Yorkshire as in Cornwall, and the region’s population is roughly the same as Scotland’s. The Yorkshire identity seems to have solidified even further in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, and the resulting plans to devolve more powers to Scotland.
Scotland now has greater influence both “at home” and at Westminster, and this has prompted claims that Yorkshire should also have a form of devolved government, comparable to that of Scotland.
Indeed, this is the platform of Yorkshire First – a regionalist political party created in 2014, which contested 14 seats in the general election. Although Yorkshire First had little electoral success this time around, it is a young political party finding its feet in national politics, and would have been using this election as testing ground for future campaigns.
The importance of identity
In the build up to the 2014 Scottish referendum, I conducted an online survey on identity and attitudes to devolution of power in both Cornwall and Yorkshire. I used what’s called the “Moreno question”, which allows for some subtlety in the way respondents can define their identity. It recognises that people do not necessarily define themselves in binary terms.
The survey asked if people regarded their identity as best described as:
Only Cornish/Yorkshire not English
More Cornish/Yorkshire not English
Equally Cornish/Yorkshire as English
More English than Cornish/Yorkshire
Only English not Cornish/Yorkshire
The first finding that emerged was that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Cornish people often linked their identity to their Celtic heritage, and to a separateness from Englishness. More than half of the respondents rejected any notion of Englishness in their identity, a quarter prioritised Cornishness over Englishness. Few claimed that English was their primary identity. So for a lot of Cornish people, being Cornish is not compatible with being English, and the former excludes the latter.
In Yorkshire, however, one sees a greater layering of identity. Fewer people – just under 15% of respondents – defined their identity as solely Yorkshire. The majority of people regard themselves as more Yorkshire than English, or equally Yorkshire as English. This means that there is no contradiction between Yorkshireness and Englishness – although being from Yorkshire is important to one’s identity. This is not a nationalist claim like the one made by the Cornish, but it nonetheless illustrates that people regard Yorkshire as being important to their identity.
So evidence from both Yorkshire and Cornwall shows that regional and national dimensions are important to people’s identity. However, people from the two areas may layer their identities in different manners. “Cornishness” appears to be more organic and homogenous, in that it is an identity with significant history, which is seen as a separate entity, distinct from Englishness. In contrast, “Yorkshireness” is still generally conflated with Englishness. But this does not make one identity less strong or less relevant than the other.
Now, one might assume that demands for devolution of power would be greater in areas that have a strong sense of national identity than in areas with more regional identities. For our purposes, this would mean that the Cornish would want devolution of power more than those from Yorkshire. Yet this study shows that this is not the case.
The graph above outlines very similar demands for the devolution of power in both Cornwall and Yorkshire, despite the differences in the way these identities are constructed. Although regional identities (such as Yorkshireness) are less bound to the concept of self-determination than national ones, this does not mean that they cannot be linked to political goals.
All of this goes to suggest that there is a connection between regional and national identities, and devolution claims within England. And that we should be wary of thinking about regional politics purely in economic terms.