Northern Devolution

It’s been well over a year since this blog first considered the north of England’s post-Brexit fragmentation in “The Gothic Secession of Patchwork Yorkshire” and “Lovers’ Flight” but things have been pretty quiet since then.

This is no doubt because Brexit as a whole has taken up so much of the national conscience/consciousness around issues of sovereignty and identity, but I was interested to hear of a new campaign launched today across 33 newspapers and websites based in the North that are calling for further devolution in Northern communities, with Manchester Evening News seemingly taking the lead with this cover story. It seems like it might be time to jump back into patchwork posting:

Today, the Manchester Evening News joins forces with rival publishers across the north to call for Britain’s main political parties to commit to a revolution in the way government treats our communities.

Our Power Up The North collaboration between 33 newspapers and websites comes exactly a year after the launch of the One North campaign in the wake of unprecedented chaos on the region’s railways.

The collective voice of the north’s titles compelled the government to take immediate action on behalf of the millions of passengers who suffered travel misery.

Now, at a time of unparalleled political uncertainty, we are calling on the main parties — and those who aspire to lead them — to spell out what they intend to do, and how they will work with others, to narrow the north-south divide.

With nominations closing in the Tory party contest to succeed Theresa May — and with the prospect of a general election in the near future — every day of dither and delay risks leaving the north at an even greater disadvantage.

The case for fundamental change is now unanswerable and our political leaders must commit to real change.

This frustration over outdated, underfunded and inadequate transport infrastructure has been an interestingly central issue that lurks in the background of various Northern devolution / independence movements. This isn’t a concern to be sniffed at. In fact, as we’ve seen before on the blog, it is the way in for even those who work in government to see the positive reasoning behind local government fragmentation.

It’s interesting how this has happened. The government’s first response to Northern stagnation was to try and fix transport infrastructure between north and south, so that it’s easier for everyone to get to London on high-speed rail. But this project has staggered and stalled at every turn, and that’s even before we consider how the national problem of over-priced travel will no doubt mean that HS2 — as the project is called — will only help those who don’t need helping.

What’s interesting about the HS2 drama is that it has also served to highlight the stagnation of local infrastructure, exacerbating rather than placating the fissures between internally disjointed identities. This fissure now seems to be so stark that, the other week, the MEN published the findings of a report carried out by former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake:

His most striking conclusion draws parallels with German reunification in the 1990s, when leaders there faced a huge uphill battle to heal the economic chasm between West Germany and the former Soviet East.  

He points to the vast waves of investment poured into the Eastern half of the country over the years that followed, thanks to a national consensus in Germany that the gap had to be closed.

This is a fascinating comparison, not least because the MEN is now calling for its inverse application. This is not a call for investment towards reunification but investment towards disintegration.

This logic is at the heart of this is slippery and someone recently asked about this in my Twitter DMs, asking:

…how do you identify that things are becoming more fragmentary, (or that they need to in order to break the impasse of capital) and encourage that, whilst not being a spoilsport — anti-collective, anti-community.

I definitely get what you mean about fragmentation being underwritten by unruliness — I’ve been thinking alot recently about brexit as an outcropping of a tradition of british (maybe english) unruliness — an inherent mistrust of authority (or maybe more specifically towards the middle bourgeois — deference to royalty and aristocracy persists!) that even if it manifests commonly in ways that are quite xenophobic have a basic drive that is about strengthening your community — I don’t know, its how to figure that without it lapsing into a closed borders mentality.

My response to this was to note that “exit” talk is promiscuous. It’s one of our central problems today, I think, and an issue that is at the heart of a lot of the left’s problems. We see it with “accelerationism”, we see it with ecopolitics, we see it everywhere and patchwork is, in some respects, a political philosophy that tries to handle this unruliness openly and honestly. Because, yes, a community that “defines itself by what it escapes” can just as easily be a white ethnostate that defines itself by its escape from multiculturalism as it can be a communist collective which defines itself by its exit from capitalistic modes of relation.

The issue that I have at present is that the left’s utter hostility towards even the suggestion of complicity in other forms of governance and politics means they routinely box themselves into stasis. No change is better than the wrong change but I don’t think it is difficult to show how that logic is nothing but repressive and grounded on paranoia more than any actual analysis of political trends and intentions.

Nick Land’s inner-outer political orientations are key here and this is an issue this blog has repeatedly taken with Brexit which is, in Land’s own terms, an exit that “models itself on a protected state, in which belonging is sacred, and boundaries are rigorously policed”. In contrast to this, the UK’s other burgeoning independence movements — in Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and Cornwall, for instance — are “defined primarily by Exit”, by what they escape. They’re not about a retreat in order to consolidate an identity but rather an exit in order to open themselves up beyond the boundaries placed on them by an historical oppressor. (It’s here that the dismissal of an ethics of exit alongside an ethnonationalism becomes a woefully false consciousness.)

This is a logic which Brexiteers try to embody but fail to at every turn, incapable of separating their WTO ambitions from a consolidated nationhood. It reminds me of Ed’s excellent post “Demons and Disjunction“, which speaks to England’s internal doubling so well:

In the destruction of the primitive double, the wild chains of proliferating difference are cut off; one no longer enters into transit and trade with figures on the outside, but turns inwards to operate under the sway of predetermined sets of options that are each flush with a particular unifying logic. The double begins in multiplicity and ends unified and coded.

The wholesale exit strategy of Brexit is only exacerbating the economic inequalities that exist across this country, and as our London parliament proves itself unwilling or incapable of addressing this issue a minoritarian unruliness is becoming more and more vocal about its demands for a sustainable future.

We’ll see what more becomes of this in future but it feels, once again, like our national and intranational politics must contend with the broader possibilities of these political ideas sooner rather than later — for all our sakes.

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