‘LOTS of planets have a North!” Thus spake the ninth Doctor Who, Salford’s Christopher Eccleston, when asked about his new accent. The line came to mind as I watched Andy Burnham on the steps of Manchester Central Library the other day, proclaiming that “the North is fed up of being pushed around”.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester was resisting the Westminster government’s imposition of a top-tier Covid lockdown on his city-region, especially because of its poor offer of financial support to shuttered businesses. But it was Burnham’s blunt and confident invocation of “the north” that struck me most.

What kind of unity is that – the north? This’ll be the north that rejected regional assemblies in the 1990s and 2000s, while Wales and Scotland seized the opportunity?

The north whose end of the “Red Wall” – the supposedly impregnable heart of UK Labour’s support – decided to “lend” their votes to Tories (who had often closed their mining villages) in order to “get Brexit done”?

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The North which contains plutocratic wealth – check out Cheshire, George Osborne’s constituency – as well as crumbling infrastructure and workless deadzones?

Every planet might well have a “North”. If so, then every planet has a weird, powerful-yet-underpowered, mess and tangle of a territory. Yet Scotland is teetering on the edge of full nation-statehood, and Wales is waking up to its vulnerability to Westminster. Are they driving the towns, regions and cities of the north of England towards a new coherence?

This is a much less straightforward question than it seems. But certainly, in the last few years at least, explicit moves have been made to articulate a “northern” agenda. In 2019, 30 newspapers – from Carlisle to Newcastle – came together on an agreed statement to “Power Up The North”, which asked for a frankly Keynesian investment plan, focusing on industry and transport infrastructure.

Some of this was driven by clever strategising on how to leverage the Cameron/Osborne vision of a “northern powerhouse” into more solid resourcing: Manchester’s £6 billion health budget being devolved to the city-region in 2015 was a prime example. Yet will even these small autonomies survive the centralising impetus of Brexit, as much as any other devolved power? The overrides of Whitehall’s Covid policy may have pushed the penny to drop with northern leaders.

But their confidence is buoyed up by a deep surge of civic activism and energy, the patterns of which I’m sure many constitutional activists in Scotland will recognise. Burnham, the Mayor of Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram and other northern notables have signed up to the People’s Powerhouse – an organisation that is gathering together an online “convention” around a “charter” (sound familiar?) on November 24-25.

There are think-and-do tanks like the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (about to be renamed the Campaign for Northern Democracy, or CfND), Same Skies West Yorkshire and Civic Revival doing their framework-setting thing. And this crests out of a rumbling undercurrent of explicitly regionalist politics over the last two decades, with area-based parties contending in Yorkshire, the north-east and Cumbria.

As that old toe-rag Milton Friedman once wisely counselled, “when crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around … keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” There’s more than a few ideas lying around the north. One set of intriguing notions has been laid out by the Yorkshire Party’s Paul Salveson. Salveson believes the “English question” has a “civic regionalist answer”.

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HE thinks there could be “a middle tier of government that could do what the central state currently does but which too local focus would be inappropriate”.

Salveson throws out some historic identities that English regional parliaments/assemblies could form around:

- Yorkshire, covering North, West and South Yorkshire, plus unitary authorities north of the Humber

- "Northumbria” – County Durham and Northumberland (i.e. The North-East)

- Lancashire – the existing Lancashire plus Greater Manchester and Merseyside

- Cumbria – the existing county

- Cheshire – the existing two “Cheshires” plus Warrington and Halton

Should Manchester and Liverpool be their own level of city-statelets? Paul genially suggests “there’s a need for a debate”. But he correctly points to Germany’s federal structure. There, each region has roughly the same powers as Scotland’s devolution, yet varies considerably in size and territory.

One of the benefits of creatively “constructing” the territory of these new assemblies is that it becomes a fundamentally civic process. This is an expression of Englishness which directly opposes anything nativist or ethnic: all are gathered together, in novel but recognisable spaces.

I am reminded of the late great Mancunian Tony Wilson. Along with designer Peter Saville, Wilson created a new flag for a north-west English assembly in 2004. They pushed the centre of the St George’s Cross up to the left-hand corner of the white space.

It’s odd to look at it now, post-Brexit and the last 15 years. His subverted flag now looks like a misprint from a jingo factory.

The lesson, perhaps, is not “don’t try that again”, but “keep trying – what are your other options?” For Scottish indy supporters, the issue of a powerful, coherent Northern England should always be partly a geopolitical matter. Why couldn’t we have an amazing relationship with our immediately contiguous neighbours?

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Yet as we all know, the arrows are currently pointing in the opposite direction. The Internal Market Bill intends to subjugate any devolutionary powers to the steamroller of Whitehall or Parliament, readying Brexitannia for deal-making in the wilds of world trade.

They’ll hardly listen much to a party of independence, and they may not even register an increasingly restive Wales. But with a chunk of their majority in the Northern Red Belt, and an increasing confidence in the municipal and regional power of the north, will the Tories be the handmaidens of a long-awaited English federalism?

Only if the north coheres, and really pushes. And only if Scotland makes the break that forces all these pieces to come together anew. As ever, up here, we know what to do.