Northerners — the places, the people and the roots of Brexit

Defining the “north of England” is easy, yet also tricky. To the north, the Scottish border forms an obvious termination, but Brian Groom acknowledges that the southern limit of this fabled territory is a “grey area”. For modern governmental purposes, North Lincolnshire is “northern”; adjacent Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire are not, despite a very northern industrial history of mining and textiles. The grey area seems to have shrunk over time: the protagonist of Arnold Bennett’s 1898 novel A Man from the North hails from Staffordshire, generally thought to be in the Midlands.

For Groom, a northerner is “someone who thinks of themself as a northerner”. He adds that much identity is fashioned against an “other”, and that in “the case of the north, that other is the south”. Groom’s narrative is nuanced but his story, essentially, is of northern decline relative to the south, a faultline currently newsworthy, thanks to Boris Johnson’s wooing of the north (the “red wall” of northern Labour seats turning blue). Whatever the future of this dalliance, the north remains symbolised by its past: cloth caps, factory chimneys, brass bands, “thee” and “thine” instead of “you” and “yours”.

The Anglian kingdom of Northumbria was “Europe’s leading cultural and intellectual centre”, until the Vikings pitched up in 793AD. Instability ensued, culminating in “the north absorbed into a country called England, albeit ruled by Normans” — and ruled from the south. The Tudors, great centralisers, quelled two northern rebellions in the 16th century and, for all the north’s radicalism, the balance of power has remained with the south ever since.

Yes, the north “starred” in the industrial revolution, but the north-south divide was widened by the brief waxing and the long waning of that industry. A machismo was fostered — especially, Groom suggests, on Tyneside — and a general exceptionalism. He quotes James Burnley, a 19th-century Yorkshire writer, to the effect that the county was “the most birthproud member of the human race”. He also quotes a joke about Yorkshire that I (a Yorkshireman) had never heard: “There’s no point asking a man whether he’s from Yorkshire, because if he is, he will already have told you.” Lancashire — with its Celtic influence — developed a “self-image as softer, friendlier and more generous” than Yorkshire. And possibly funnier. Groom examines the Oldham-born comedian Eric Sykes’s theory that the north-west is “where all the good comics come from”.

Groom, a former FT journalist, is himself a Lancastrian, which is perhaps why his chronicling of northern setbacks is urbane rather than indignant. His sentences have an elegant trenchancy, though. “Northern England, especially Yorkshire, owes a huge debt to sheep,” he writes.

On Brexit, he argues that “Without northern England and the west midlands, Remain would have won” and describes how “decline underlaid the anger” of the northern Leave vote. Of prime minister Boris Johnson’s placatory “levelling up”, Groom notes beadily that there has been no pledge to restore the local authority budgets cut disproportionately in the north by George Osborne, the former chancellor who implemented post-financial-crash austerity while also championing the “Northern Powerhouse” initiative.

Groom has a well-developed sense of perspective. As evidence that the Vikings, those disrupters of Northumbria, were subsequently romanticised in the north, he mentions that Yorkshire’s one-day cricket team is called the Yorkshire Vikings. And the “traditionalist sentiment” detectable in the northern Leave vote echoes the “northern royalism” of the Civil War.

While the south has won against the north economically, honours are even in the cultural sphere. Groom invokes northern artists, including the Brontës, David Hockney (whose mother, visiting him in LA, apparently said, “It’s strange — all this lovely weather and yet you never see any washing out”) and Maximo Park (a Newcastle band). Groom ends this comprehensive and highly readable book with characteristic sagacity, by asking whether we really want to close the cultural gap: “Britain already has enough clone towns, surely.”

Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day by Brian Groom, HarperNorth, £20, 432 pages

Andrew Martin’s latest book is ‘Yorkshire — There and Back’

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