SOMETHING pretty amazing happened this week. Two full-blown constitutional stand-offs with Boris Johnson – neither involving Scotland.

Westminster’s primacy has been challenged and Europe’s most centralised state has been exposed and undermined – and for once it wasn’t Nicola Sturgeon on the naughty step.

Mild-mannered Welsh FM Mark Drakeford led the charge by using public health powers to announce a national two-week “firebreak” lockdown which starts tomorrow, bring in border restrictions and declare that the “greatest threat to the Union comes from so-called Unionists” – a thinly disguised pop at Boris Johnson.

But it was Andy Burnham’s angry but focused rage that has really set the constitutional heather alight. “Is this a game of poker? Is this what it’s about?” There was thinly controlled fury from the Greater Manchester mayor after learning by mobile that Boris had withdrawn an offer of cash support after 10 fractious days of negotiations.

Burnham’s resistance, his decision to champion the working people whose lives will be crushed in a badly financed lockdown and above all his emotional response – rarely seen since cool-headed lawyers took over the running of Labour and the SNP – took everyone by surprise. He’s been dubbed King of the North after Game of Thrones hero Jon Snow, and many commentators suggest he looks more of a Labour leader than Sir Keir Starmer.

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Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post wrote: “When London’s cases were rising rapidly in March and the north’s weren’t, the north didn’t say ‘keep us out of it’. Instead it said: ‘we’re all in this together’. Now that the north is suffering, why isn’t the south saying the same?”

And across radio phone-ins, it’s been the same – long-overdue admission that England’s north-south divide is alive and kicking, no matter how many one-off bits of capital spending are occasionally thrown up the M1.

So, what is occurring and should indy-supporting Scots feel relieved to know we’ve got company in our opposition to Westminster diktat or anxious that English devolution might overtake Scottish independence as the next big constitutional thing? After all, if “The North” can overcome centuries of divide and rule to find common cause and if Labour uses this moment to reconnect with Red Wall seats, some wavering Scots may think English federalism and a new Labour government will arrive soon enough to justify waiting – again.

They might. It’s a free world.

But my guess is that “Disunited Kingdom” headlines will help not hinder the case for Scottish independence.

For one thing, it’s easier to talk about the North of England uniting to press for devolution than to see any evidence of plans to do it.

That may seem puzzling because Yorkshire alone has a bigger population than Scotland.

But in the identity and viability stakes, size isn’t everything.

Scotland is a nation and has been a separate country with its own institutions and ways of doing things – that matters hugely. It’s the main reason cohesion and common purpose has come far more easily north of the Border than just south of it.

In 2004, John Prescott’s tentative pilot referendum for regional government in the North East of England fell flat – with 78% rejecting plans for his “expensive talking shop with very little real power”.

The plan also stirred more feelings of local rivalry than regional solidarity. The Tyne worried about being run by the Tees – and vice versa. Now of course, rivalries exist in Scotland, but a stronger pan-Scottish identity lets most folk put such issues into perspective. Perhaps Scots are hyper-loyal to the idea of a single unified Scotland, at the detriment of powerful and truly local government. But you cannae have everything. And for the purposes of getting the big structural changes needed for Scotland to fix its other democratic deficits, Scots have had their priorities right.

MEANWHILE, local differences in the North of England have been exacerbated by the Metro Mayors scheme – doubtless deliberately. The “brainchild” of David Cameron, they were the democratic response to George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse wheeze, meant to stem northern grumbling about a rapacious south.

The mayors would be a decorative distraction and city deals would encourage cities and regions to bid against one another for one-off bungs of cash instead of following the Scots into demands for self-government. Never had power devolved looked more like power safely retained as Boris Johnson’s clean sweep of Red Wall seats seemed to confirm.

Until Andy Burnham’s outburst earlier this week. In the days and hours that followed it’s become clear that Boris has done the impossible again and united public opinion in the North of England – against him.

So does that leave The North free to unite against its auld enemy – London.

Probably not – because there’s no grassroots devolution campaign.


The levelling up process, the Northern Powerhouse idea, the advent of the Metro Mayors are one big, top-down, technocratic exercise with none of the civic, grassroots organisations that characterised Scotland’s long walk towards devolution in the 1980s.

The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was set up in the wake of the abortive 1979 referendum by Home Rule supporters from Labour and SNP backgrounds. It beavered away through the thankless, hopeless Thatcher years, eventually organising the committee that published the Claim of Right for Scotland. That Claim echoed the powerful principle enshrined in the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320, that Scots are free to choose their own form of government and in 1989 the CSA handed the baton over to the newly created Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC).

Certainly, the SCC was stappit fu with the great and good, though church and union leaders did then speak for many in wider society. It worked like a parliament in the making, funded by Scottish local authorities, and published a blueprint for devolution, on

St Andrew’s Day 1995 which provided the basis for Labour’s devolution manifesto pledge that was enacted after Tony Blair’s win in 1997.

I don’t apologise for the history lesson.

It’s important to realise that huge organisational effort, tenacity and a deep-seated determination to create more than “a parish coouncil” all combined to get Scotland where it is now – on the verge of independence. A long, slow unglamorous slog.

Yet none of this exists in the north of England today.

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There is a pressure group called Northern Umbrella which held some conferences in the wake of the Scottish indyref, but now seems inactive – stymied doubtless by the double whammy of Covid and the North’s massive displacement into Brexit politics.

There is a virtual gathering – the Great Northern Conference – being held today. It’s “a chance for business and civic leaders to put aside political game-playing and start working together across all parties and industries”.

That’s an interesting development – but there’s no sign of devolution on the agenda, let alone the f-word federalism. And it’s hardly grassroots action – organised by the Yorkshire Post and supported by Lord Jim O’Neill of Gatley, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Will this forum bite the hand that feeds?

Will it galvanise grassroots support, look further than the next offer of cash, develop a critique of Britain’s archaic, centralised, top-down democracy and launch a region-wide fightback against Westminster control? I hae ma doots. If such thinking was in the northern ether, it would have doused the foreigner-blaming agenda of Brexit and encouraged critical focus on the myriad failings of Westminster instead.

But that hasn’t happened.

Of course, from distant London and Glasgow, Andy Burnham’s stand-off looks like an important beginning – a dinghy-sized version of Scotland’s well-organised ship. But if one swallow doth not a summer make, then one charismatic leader, doth not a Northern Home Rule movement create.

What the Manchester and Cardiff stand-offs have done is produce more understanding and sympathy for Scotland’s determination to quit the whole misgoverned mess of the UK.

So let’s not get grumpy.

We should thank northern neighbours for blowing wind into our independence sails.