The Historical Kingdom of Northumbria was an Anglo-Saxon realm which dominated most of Northern England. Although mostly associated with the modern day North East, the dominion once extended from Lothian in present day Scotland to the southern boundaries of Yorkshire. Long forgotten by the today’s population, Northumbria played an instrumental role in the creation of early English culture by heralding a golden age of literature, scholarship and art. From the historical works of Bede at Monkwearmouth to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the kingdom was a shining light in Britain’s dark ages and a beacon of progress.
What of course is the significance of Northumbria today? Although the name continues to reside in people’s minds as a county and administrative division, its historical legacy and significance has long been forgotten in public memory with the kingdom having long been absorbed into English identity and the British state. Even for those who do know of it, it is at best a historical item with little bearing or significance to the present day. A nation only exists save that it resides in the collective consciousness of its members and thus accordingly, the notion of a “Northumbrian nation” does not. It is a dormant entity.
It goes without saying, that contemporary Northern England strongly identifies with British belonging. The North East and Yorkshire were overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union, with high levels of patriotic and nationalist sentiment, as well as populist xenophobia. Areas such as Sunderland have became reknowned for their nationalism, which upon the death of their industrial socialist identities in their 20th centuries and subsequent economic decline, have become a medium for venting anger and disillusionment against a political system which has not benefited them, translating into stronger support for the Conservative Party throughout this region in the December 2019 election.
But is this really the answer? An emphasis on right wing identity in the North East is not the solution to its economic problems. Whilst individuals undoubtedly feel empowered and meaningful by the allure of British nationalism in this regard it is going to change their lives for the better. Instead, they are strengthening a Conservative Party status quo that does not have the best interests of the region at heart. The British state has in fact for centuries used the appeal of nationalism in order to secure consent for Imperialism and exploitation amongst the working classes and buffer elite interests often at the expense of those supporting it.
There are many examples, despite decimating British industry and putting millions out of work Margaret Thatcher was able to win landslide victories through her appeal to patriotism. In any instance both past and present when the British elite want a war, it is the working class who are sent to die on the front lines. Yet the honour of serving Britain not only blockades the reality of unjustified conflicts such as Iraq, but also supersedes how the working class are but a means to end to do the dirty work of the elites. Brexit is hardly any different, the power of British nationalism once again manufactures consent for the Northern working classes to sign up to more complex elite agendas of which they are not aware of, and will not benefit from.
Whilst this does not mean adherence or obligation to a given political identity is an inherently bad thing, what it does mean is that it should elaborate understanding to one’s true condition, and allow them to benefit from it. Identity is undoubtedly a driving force of history which builds, inspires and motivates people to do great things, but only the premise that such a given identity is in their best interests. It was the power of Indian identity which drove Ghandhi, it was the dream of anti-apartheid African liberation which created Nelson Mandela and so on. Yet do you think these grand figures of history would have succeeded had they identified with their oppressors and championed the ideology of a ruling class as to what they were part of? Yet this is precisely what is happening in the North of England with the working classes who support the British national ideology. They consent to their own exploitation.
In this case, it is crucial that Northern England develops a new political identity, one which represents and forwards the interests of ordinary people accordingly. The status quo is not working. We see around the North East poverty, backwardness, despair and utter hopelessness. People of the region are humble and kind, but they are suffering because they are on the periphery of a political system which places little focus or importance on them. Therefore, they follow a “false consciousness” whereby the love of being British fails to deliver for them and effectively leans them towards supporting and tolerating, rather than advocating change for the system as a whole. With the legacy of industry and the heritage of mining, shipbuilding and steel-making dead, the North needs something new to believe in.
This is where Northumbria comes into the picture. Now whilst of course it is not too realistic, plausible or meaningful to identify directly with a long gone Anglo-Saxon kingdom which holds little cultural significance in modern life, what is being proposed here is that a new Northumbrian or “Northern” political identity is created in line with modern circumstances and ideas. This is not a community that would be built on language, ethnicity or bloodlines, but rather a community that would be built instead on common value, interests and a economic common heritage, which in turn would then be used to create a road map and a vision for political action benefiting this region as a whole.
Who are we? The people of Northern England are diverse. We come from a variety of national origins and ancestral lines, yet we are mostly tied together by a common set of life and family circumstances. The vast majority of us are working class, our forefathers migrated to this land in search of prosperity and worked as miners, shipbuilders, steelmakers and in a range of other industrial jobs. Because of this background, our region is embedded with a simplistic yet egalitarian culture which embraces fellowship and humility. We lack the pretentiousness and unkind attitudes of the Middle Classes, preferring instead frankness, openness and common understanding. Some might say we are not sophisticated and we lack the financial prudence of our southern compatriots, but our spirits are strong.
Politically we are strongly affiliated with this working class heritage. This past has been forgotten, but it is an important element of who we are even if circumstances have changed. For all people are disillusioned with the modern day Labour Party, we constituted for decades the backbone of the British Labour movement and stood steadfast with our unions to protect our rights. Our forefathers understood what this meant, but the decimation of industry has saw us not only defeated by the interests of the elite, but steadily absorbed into their political order to the point we are forgetting who we are. Make no mistake about it, working class politics was the only ever thing which brought benefits to the North East and surrounding regions: Industries which were owned and protected by the state and backed by powerful trade unions and strong social welfare policies.
It was the forcible dismantling of these policies which placed Northern culture and society in a place of decline. The fabric which sown our identity, heritage and traditions is gone. Our way of life was supported by working class politics and effectively suffocated when it was taken away. The British economy today depends on handful of billionaires and a few square miles of space within the City of London, never have we been more irrelevant. We as the Northern people, continue to support a country that doesn’t actually serve our best interests and has no intention of doing so. Even successive Labour governments in the post 1997 era have not been able to change this inequality, and certainly not nw under Keir Starmer as the party drifts back to the centre ground and thus supports London centric ultra capitalism.
Therefore, what is the answer? A new identity must become an invigoration of who we are in the pursuit of political autonomy. It must drive us, it must motivate us and it must change our consciousness and allow us to wake up from the deep sleep that has been imposed over our society. We must be willing to fight not for Britain, but for the North in the dream of making it prosperous, functional and a beacon to the world. This is a new opportunity to build community, kinship and common cause to reverse the poisonous individualism and capitalistic culture which has degraded who we are and destroyed the legacy of those who laboured before us and toiled for a better life.
Instead of having a handful of banks in London which serve the elite, we should have our own arrangement of Northern financial institutions which invest in public infrastructure, jobs, education and social welfare. Instead of privately owned astronomically priced private railways, we should have a single state owned system, as well as energy, telecommunications, water and so on. Rather than fighting for the scraps of a London system we should endeavor to create high technology industries which export to the world, rekindling our heritage. Rather than allowing class discourse to misrender the North as an unsophisticated backwater, we should place aggressive efforts on marketing it as a place of beauty, history and civilization worth visiting.
A new North is possible. But to do so, we must begin to think outside of the box and stop playing by the rules of a game which is rigged against us. As long as the status quo remains in the United Kingdom, Northern England will remain a peripheral area which will always be behind the rest of the country. Instead, we must endeavor to fight for a new Northumbrian identity built upon the premise of Socialism and internationalism and stop lapping up the ideology of a British state which masquerades the interests of the ruling class in the name of patriotism. It is time to rebuild our society, reaffirm our heritage and re-establish our people. This is the Northumbrian Creed, and it is time to question who we are.