One notable side-effect of the United Kingdom’s recent lurch towards the referendum as a means of solving constitutional crises is that, for the first time in decades, the fragility of the concept of a ‘United’ Kingdom has been laid bare. The votes on Scottish independence and Britain’s membership of the European Union have shown that the cosy idea of four countries bound together beneath one crown is not necessarily as popular as previously believed. From Holyrood to Cardiff, there are plenty of people who hold serious doubts about the stability of the UK.
Indeed what is most surprising is that the UK has remained stable for so long. The union of four countries of different population sizes, economic strengths and cultural histories is relatively unheard of outside the British Isles, with most attempts to unite neighbouring countries only succeeding when one party consumes the territory and name of the other (such as the USA’s annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845-6). Whether it is due to the relatively (relatively) peaceful modern history of mainland Britain or the checks and balances of a constitutional democracy, the British state has managed to maintain a varying series of unions between previously warring powers since 1707.
What makes this even more unusual is that, throughout the UK, regional identity is flourishing. Though English remains the common tongue across the British Isles, there are at least six different regional languages officially recognised by the government, including Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Cornish (although Polish now has the second largest number of speakers). Indeed minority languages have, despite historical attempts to stamp them out, actually become more widespread.
With linguistic identity comes political identity. Partly stemming from the reassertion of regional identities during the 1970s and 1980s, localised parties shot up in elections and began to cause a stir in Westminster. Chief amongst these was (and still is) the Scottish National Party, whose support increased as the British economy foundered and the bitter pill of neoliberalism took its toll on the old industrial heartlands. Wales likewise saw a rise in Plaid Cymru support throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, bolstered by the landmark Welsh Language Act of 1967. Northern Ireland, though marred by the Troubles, has gone even further. Northern Irish politics is entirely dominated by specifically Northern Irish parties, be they Sinn Fein (which originated south of the border), the Democratic Unionists or the SDLP.
However, the concept of regional political representation is not restricted to established parties. Regional parties and interest groups are scattered across Britain, particularly in England where there is no uniting factor (i.e. a split from England) to unite popular sentiment. These vary in aims and background, but tend to represent historical English regions which are considered to have been overlooked or even erased entirely by the conglomerated United Kingdom.
Cornwall has its Mebyon Kernow, a ‘progressive left-of-centre party’ that calls for a devolved Cornish Assembly and wider study of the Cornish language (it once boasted author Daphne du Maurier amongst its supporters). Yorkshire has the Yorkshire Party, who since 2014 have argued in favour of regional determination for Yorkshire and a voice at a European level. Even Wessex, an old Anglo-Saxon region consisting of south-west England up to the Cornish border, has the Wessex Regionalists, whose aims include increased devolution to the Wessex area and the minimisation of human impact upon the environment.
To gain a more thorough insight into the world of English regional movements, I spoke to Jeff Kent, the convenor of the Acting Witan of Mercia, a name no doubt familiar to many as the Anglo-Saxon term for what is now commonly known as the Midlands. The Acting Witan sprang from the Mercian Movement (established in 1993), and campaigns for ‘the full democratisation of the region and the re-establishment of its de facto independence under the Constitution of Mercia.’ It considers the Norman conquest (famously represented in the Bayeux Tapestry, see above) of the Midlands to have been an illegal act and maintains that Mercia remains extant de jure, following in the footsteps of a long tradition of regional English radicalism.
On a practical level the AWM, which produced the Constitution of Mercia in 2003, aims to establish a society based around the principles of ‘ecological sustainability, co-operative community and organic (grass-roots) democracy.’ Though similar in some respects to other regional movements, the AWM’s constitution has a more explicit focus on following the historical tradition of the Anglo-Saxons, rather than simply calling for more general representation and direct democracy. In addition to that the AWM differentiates from many others in that it campaigns in favour of fully recognised Mercian independence, as opposed to devolution from Westminster.
As Mr Kent explained, the AWM is by no means a passive organisation and takes an active, if often ‘unorthodox’, approach to campaigning. Examples include the creation of a system by which one can apply to become a Mercian citizen (the current number is over two thousand), the launch of a Mercian currency in 2004 and the decision to legally appropriate the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork discovered in 2009. (The items were later passed on to the Potteries Museum.) In addition to this its members have worked closely with the Wessex Regionalists over the years, helping to found the Confederation for Regional England in 1999.
Of course, the Acting Witan of Mercia is one amongst a multitude of regional English movements that, however small, continue the fight for greater recognition of those areas which often seem to be overlooked by Westminster. The larger parties of the UK’s official constituent nations may take the limelight, with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and numerous Northern Irish parties featuring in the news every day, but there exists within the internal borders of the UK a swelling number of regional movements keen to pursue greater autonomy – or even independence – for their land.
This may seem unusual to the reader, and indeed the sheer wealth of regional movements in such a small country is something quite peculiar to the UK. Yet in light of the times it seems somewhat less bizarre than before. The entire concept of British identity is under more scrutiny now than it has been since Irish independence. Scotland nearly left the UK in 2014, the Northern Irish Assembly is in deadlock and the Brexit vote left the four constituent countries bitterly divided in opinion. With Westminster’s hold on power across the Kingdom looking ever shakier, is it any wonder that people are turning back to their regional roots?