My corner of England has long been regarded as a land apart: a sort of English ultima Thule, with a sociable and hedonistic outlook recognisably different from the rest of the nation. That culture is expressed in everything from the wit and wisdom of Viz and the astonishing popularity of the Geordie japesters Ant & Dec, to the North East’s status as home to the only acceptable version of English Folk Dance.
Given its distinctiveness, it’s hardly surprising that the region has a long history of being run as a separate political unit. By holding out against Viking invasion, the Northern Anglo-Saxons established an Earldom of Northumbria that reached from the Forth to the Tees (before pressure from the Scots pushed its northern boundary south to the Tweed). Not only was this territory topographically encapsulated — “between the brine and the high ground and the fresh stream water” — but it was also defined by its sheer distance from London and the centres of royal power. The armigerous families who then controlled the medieval North East, such as the Percys and the Nevilles, had an unusual degree of independence within an English polity that had centralised much earlier than its European neighbours.
To a historian, therefore, there is something very satisfying about the recent news that the Government has approved a “devolution deal” to create a new “North East Mayoral Combined Authority” with an elected Mayor. This is an important milestone in the evolution of what is arguably England’s most well-defined region, as the new entity will cover the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham — the land from the Tweed to the Tees — and the cities, within them, of Durham, Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne.
The hope is that the North East will thrive under a unified political leadership; and the region’s history suggests this optimism is not unfounded. In the Early Medieval period, the Prince Bishop of Durham presided over his Palatinate from his palace at Bishop Auckland like a Rhineland Fürstbischof. He had the powers of a king to hold courts, raise armies (to defend the border against the Scots) and even mint his own coinage — with silver Durham pennies issuing from Silver Street by the River Wear. This quasi-independence created a cadre of educated clerks to manage the county palatine’s legal, financial and administrative affairs. The presence of this proto-civil service contributed to both local economic development — the Prince Bishops were enthusiastic participants in the coal trade — and perhaps even the unusually high levels of literacy in the far North of England.
This was a sort of English devolution, avant la lettre, and meant that by the 17th century, County Durham was the only part of England which returned no members of parliament. The first MPs for Durham were elected in 1675, a full 410 years after a comparable cathedral city such as Lincoln; the Prince Bishop only returned his powers to the crown in 1836. So there is a sense that the governance of the North East was only settled around the same time as the United Kingdom itself was forming. Some excitable Northumbrian patriots (probably including me) might even consider us to be the fifth nation in the union.
But if the region’s political independence was dwindling, its economic independence was growing. The early modern period saw the temporal power of the Prince Bishops eclipsed by that of the coal barons who grew fantastically rich from the collieries of Northumberland and Durham. By the 18th century, control of the northern coal trade had fallen into the hands of a cartel of wealthy families known as the “Grand Allies”, whose price-setting so irritated the City of London that they nicknamed them “the Newcastle Parliament”.
This oligarchic and proto-corporatist approach to conducting business was typical of the North East, and would recur in the 19th century, when a handful of plutocratic industrialists dominated the civic life of the region, and wielded almost feudal power: men such as the armaments tycoon Lord Armstrong, the shipbuilder Sir Mark Palmer, or the great ironmaster Sir Lowthian Bell. Studying the region for his report on “Industrial Tyneside” in 1928, the sociologist Henry Mess observed that “the feudal tradition is strong in Northumberland”, “and there is not the sharp divorce between it and the new industrialism which is found in most areas”.
In many respects the Trade Union barons who emerged in the 20th century to challenge the oligarchs could be similarly feudal — especially Durham miners’ leaders such as John Wilson, Peter Lee and Sam Watson. And yet the Trade Unions in the North East achieved much for their members — not just better pay and conditions, but in their pioneering work on housing, schools, sanitation and care for the elderly. Organisations such as the Durham Miners Association achieved something approaching a welfare state while William Beveridge was still in short trousers. For as John Tomaney has argued so cogently, “County Durham thrived when it had the power collectively to help itself”. History offers something of a blueprint to a region thinking anew about how to exercise local power to improve the lives of its people.
A word that was often depicted on miners’ banners in shimmering gold like the Name of God was “nationalisation”, and yet nationalisation turned out to be a mixed blessing. For as much as it delivered gains in living standards — which my grandparents from the Northumberland coalfield spoke about with wonder for the rest of their lives — it inevitably led to centralisation. It left the North East vulnerable to capricious and parsimonious Westminster governments. Not only that, it disempowered the civic and associational institutions that had once had the confidence to tackle the scourge of poverty in old age, or build something as beautiful as South Shields Town Hall, where the debates “had the importance of those in Cicero’s Senate or Pitt’s House of Commons“.
The North East has been hammered by austerity, with funding cuts to councils of 79% since 2010. These have come close to undermining the functioning of local government altogether. But municipal leaders themselves have come to recognise that the principle of devolving power matters almost as much as the funds that come with devolution.
Reading about the latest development, I was particularly delighted (and not a little surprised) that the seven North East councils have managed to overcome the parochialism and local rivalries that have stymied municipal coordination in the region. “They have a beef that goes back centuries”: what Tony Soprano once said of the Balkans could be said of Newcastle and Sunderland. From the English Civil War, during which they took different sides, to the previous attempt at regional governance — the short-lived Tyne and Wear County Council, which was perceived to favour Tyneside excessively — mistrust and bad feeling have for too long percolated from the football terrace and message board to the political sphere. Despite evidence that shows that people in the North East have the greatest sense of belonging to their region than anywhere else in England, we’ve memed ourselves into thinking that Tyneside and Wearside are so totally incompatible that we can’t present a united front — even as the North of England’s other great conurbations have surged ahead with their own elected mayors.
That’s not what the North East wants anyway, some would argue. The shadow of a 2004 referendum hangs over any debate over devolution in the region. Rejected by almost 78% of voters, it’s often held up as evidence that there is no appetite for devolved power. But it took place in a different time, when there was a Labour government in office that was spending big in the region. The cabinet was stuffed full of North Eastern MPs, including the PM himself. And the Yes campaign was vague and complacent, while the No campaign tapped into a burgeoning anti-politician rhetoric, as well as the fears in the south of the region that this would be an assembly run from, and in the interests of, Tyneside (fears exploited skilfully by a trainee political Svengali from County Durham called Dominic Cummings, a key figure in the No campaign).
The question remains, then, as to whether this new mayoral authority will receive a public mandate. But the North East only ever thrived under local political leadership. As a distant outpost of the over-centralised British state — still reeling from the effects of the First World War, let alone the Second — it has been declining for over a century. For all the boosterism about being the only region with a positive balance of trade, the North East is now the poorest, unhealthiest and unhappiest region of England. It regularly tops the charts for “deaths of despair”, with a suicide rate twice that of London; 38% of local children live in poverty; and GDP per capita has plummeted in the North East from 93% of the national average in 1981 to 73% by 2017. No other English region has suffered such decay.
But something is stirring in the North. A phalanx of City Region “Metro Mayors” are establishing new centres of independent power and influence, while attempting to move beyond the belief that Westminster is both the cause of — and the solution to — all our problems. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that whatever the problem, it is always someone else’s fault. Especially in politics,” wrote Jamie Driscoll, one of the likely contenders for the North East mayoralty, recently. “What, though, if there are some genuinely difficult problems to solve?”
There certainly are. Labour Together’s recent “Plan for National Infrastructure” argued that Britain’s “urban hinterlands, small cities, towns, coastal and rural areas… are experiencing forms of economic ‘undevelopment’”. This would present a daunting prospect to any government, but could an elected mayor for the lands between the Tweed and the Tees catalyse a Northumbrian renaissance?
Maybe. Certainly, the nationalising and centralising tendencies of the British state over the past century have disenfranchised the regions of England that might look enviously at the thriving German Länder — with their networks of regional banks and vocational training centres — and wonder what went wrong. For there’s a prize to be seized in the North East. The region that arguably did more than most to carbonise the planet might lead the way in decarbonisation, and create meaningful work. It might even rediscover the traditions of bottom-up social and economic development, and become one of the great heartlands of technical innovation, associationism, self-help and co-operation. Never again, we must hope, will talented locals like Dr Fiona Hill — recently installed as Chancellor of Durham University — be told that “There’s Nothing for You Here”.