I am Northumbrian
by Rod Sutcliffe
Is there such a thing as northern identity? In England politicians, journalists and news presenters often use “England’ and ‘English’ as if these words refer to a homogeneous blob. For instance, regarding the so-called English question, “England wants English Votes for English laws”. This seems to illustrate a short-sightedness that makes it difficult to see beyond the southeast of England. In other circumstances “the North” is recognised as somewhere different, including remote and desolate places suitable for fracking, and a potential powerhouse, so it will be a good thing when people can get away from it and into London 20 minutes sooner on the HS2. “The North” in these contexts never means Scotland (except occasionally in weather forecasts) as if Scotland is somewhere else again.
Identity is a very complex construct. It has many dimensions: cultural, historical, geographical, ethnic, political and religious for instance. There are many layers: individual, family, community, civic, as well as regional and national. Identity is a subjective quality: a sense of identity. It is a personal thing but usually involves a sense of belonging to a community or a place and thus can lead to a community or geographical identity.
Most people’s sense of geographical identity is very local. People may relate to their street, estate or village more than their district, town or city, but may include all of these things. Regions and nations are created by states and by nationalists. Although political and official boundaries are important, boundaries recognised and understood by people are more important in personal and community identity. Community and national identities are supported by group myths or national stories which perpetuate their own versions of history.
There have been migrations into Britain for thousands of years, and you could walk here from the continent 6000 years ago. Over the past 2000 years the Britons have been influenced culturally and genetically by the Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Angles, Normans, even before the immigration of recent times. The Humber estuary has always been a barrier to invading forces from the south,and the people north of the Humber have always been more difficult to govern from the south. The Romans, Saxons, Normans and even Henry VIII had trouble. The Angles, coming from the east, governed this land and in its greatest extent 1200 years ago the Kingdom of Northumbria covered the whole of what is now Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumberland and south-east Scotland, with Cumbria also colonised. What is now the North of England was then an independent kingdom. We live today with the heritage of this history and these ancient cultures and languages.
English as spoken in the North of England has a rich social and cultural history. Northern speech has richness and variety, is part of northern culture and is strongly linked to identity. Scouse is quite different from Geordie, and the Yorkshire accent is easily distinguishable from the Lancashire as you pass over the Pennines. Within Yorkshire you can tell whether you are in Sheffield, Leeds or the Dales. But you always know you are in the north and it is home. The accents and dialects play a part in the origins of the many images and stereotypes surrounding Northerners and our speech. Of course stereotyping is an attempt to impose an identity from the outside. Paradoxically, taken with a sense of humour and our ability to laugh at ourselves (as well as the stereotypers), it may indeed contribute to our identity.
Our countryside is not only a place of great beauty but also a place where millions of people live and work. Our towns and cities are connected to their surroundings both physically and emotionally, in a way which is perhaps unique in England. People in the North have a strong affinity with the region’s natural heritage. Our national parks and the countryside on the doorstep of our major cities are part of the experience of most northern families. Our landscape and our environment are part of our identity.
One view of what contributes most to northern identity is the idea of ‘common suffering’. I would rather call it common experience. Relatively recent history has taken our families through the good and bad of the industrial revolution, the first northern industrial powerhouse, two world wars, the northern industrial decline and with these things the development and changing fortunes of the political parties. The people of the North of England have come through these times with a shared sociopolitical perspective that is closer to that of Scotland than of London and the southeast of England.
Regions are dynamic, shifting entities over time and are as much as state of mind as a place. Definitions and boundaries of ‘the north’ are various. Some of these are based on statistics of political voting patterns, income or employment rates, others are historical, and perhaps the greatest number are perceptual. The people of the North don’t need genetic testing testing or a Tebbit-type Yorkshire cricket test. We are not part of an English blob. We know who we are and to what we belong. Everyone who identifies themselves as northern is Northern. Me? I’m Northumbrian.