“History’s needle points to North,” proclaims a rousing anthem by the Commoners Choir. It is a homage to “grit”: “the stone beneath us”, “to say we dare”, “that built our cities”, “the badge we wear”.
‘True North’ is the choir’s whistle-stop tour of northern history – blood, sweat, coal and toil. And, if Philip Proudfoot has his way, it’ll be the national anthem of an independent North. Unless he picks a Sam Fender track instead.
Proudfoot is the leader of the Northern Independence Party, which wants to secede from England and carve out a new nation stretching from the Scottish border to the Derbyshire Dales.
Extraordinary though that sounds, it is borne of an impulse that has rapidly become a central preoccupation of British politics. Radical regionalism – a desire to wrestle power from Westminster – is animating voters as far apart as Edinburgh and Bury, and their voices are only growing louder.
On the surface at least, they are being heard. Regional inequality now occupies a central position in the political mainstream. Fixing it is supposedly the government’s flagship policy. Boris Johnson won’t stop talking about it; it’s Michael Gove’s new job to sort it.
For Proudfoot, that’s all well and good. He just thinks they are all going about it the wrong way.
The foreword to the NIP’s manifesto states that it is “time to end Westminster rule” and “free the North”. They would go about it by holding a referendum on northern independence which, if successful, would see the creation – or recreation – of Northumbria.
In Old English, Northumbria literally means “the people or province north of the Humber”. It coalesced as one kingdom towards the beginning of the seventh country, when two kingdoms – Deira and Bernicia – merged. At its apex, Northumbria stretched from the Peak District to the Firth of Forth. For the NIP, that period of early medieval history “represents the last time the North was united as an independent entity”.
The party’s chosen colours – red and yellow – are those of the historic flag of Northumbria, drawn from the standard of St Oswald, its patron saint and king in the middle of the seventh century. According to The Venerable Bede, Oswald died in battle with the Mercians, “fighting for his fatherland”. Proudfoot’s campaign for northern independence might well have drawn a saintly smile.
Proudfoot – a development studies expert by day – comes from County Durham but he marshals the NIP from Brighton, a fact which has prompted ridicule in predictable corners of the press. But he argues that his displacement on the south coast doesn’t puncture his point – it reinforces it. “I had to move away because I got an education in London, then I moved to Beirut and then I got a job at Sussex University,” he explains. “I could go and live in the North, but I’ll be unemployed.”
Criticising NIP members for not living in the North “literally makes no sense”, he says. “That’s the point, right? Our grandparents and parents have to just wave goodbye to us at train stations and we get to visit once every six months. That’s shit.
“I don’t like going back every now and then and seeing my mum looking older and older. But what am I going to do? I also have to have a job.” Proudfoot finds the sniggering at his living situation “quite cruel”. “I would love it if there were more jobs in international development in the north-east. But there aren’t. So what am I supposed to do?”
Proudfoot is well-known on Twitter for not suffering fools gladly. We meet in Brighton for coffee in mid-December. As I make my way down to the south coast on the train he’s been online, arguing with Labour MP Charlotte Nichols about the ‘pairing’ system.
“I promise, if we have NIP MPs we will show zero deference to that posh cartoon playhouse,” he tells me, referring to the House of Commons. “If I was paired with a Tory, I would break that rule and face the consequences. What are these MPs doing showing respect for this? These traditions of a failing, feudalist former imperialist power where people wear fancy dress… it drives me mad.” But this is no keyboard warrior. You get the sense he’d have no problem saying every word to your face.
In person, there’s much more development-speak than Twitter-talk. The thousands of Northerners crammed into train stations before Christmas in 2020, trying to flee locked down London, were “internally-displaced people”, “economic refugees having to live in the south-east”. He speaks of the North as “underdeveloped” and the importance of the state “acting as a development actor” to address “historical imbalances”.
The current Westminster system, he believes is not equipped to deliver real devolution. “For hundreds and hundreds of years, it’s been like this. The Westminster model is designed to filter power and goods down to one small corner of the country: where we’re sitting right now.”
Not that the NIP has a vendetta against London and the south-east. “The under-development of the North breeds the overexploitation of the South,” Proudfoot reasons. “Rent poverty, zero-hour contracts, a fluid workforce, a lack of housing stock so property barons can manipulate the price of their houses: it’s a product of having vast swathes of the country without jobs.”
“A more balanced country would benefit London,” he adds. “If anything, we’re anti-Home Counties.”
The “real impetus” for the NIP came in October 2020, when Andy Burnham was notified that the government had placed Manchester under Tier 3 lockdown restrictions, live on television. It was a moment, Proudfoot says, when the “central contradictions” about how society and the economy are structured in the UK “became unavoidable”.
But it wasn’t until the following spring, and the Hartlepool by-election, that the party started making headlines. Fuelled by an acerbic social media campaign and widespread disenchantment with the direction of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, Proudfoot persuaded Thelma Walker – the ex-Labour MP who lost her Colne Valley seat to the Tories in 2019 – to stand.
“Thelma joined us because she’s a northern Labour MP,” he says. “She understands the North-South divide. She wants to empower young socialists who care about regional issues. It was a huge honour.”
For all the buzz, Hartlepool was a bit of a shambles. “We tried to turn ourselves into a party in two weeks are the deadline for postal voting passed,” Proudfoot says. The NIP failed to register with the Electoral Commission before nominations closed, meaning Walker ended up on the ballot as an independent. She won 250 votes. “The whole thing was an absolute mess on that side,” Proudfoot admits.
“The real outcome” of Hartlepool, he argues, “was the fact we signed up thousands of new members. Now we can employ staff.” The NIP has a salaried political advisor and its membership is “in the thousands”, making it – by Proudfoot’s estimations – “the largest post-2019 party”.
The shadow of 2019 looms large over the NIP. For detractors it’s a hangover from the Jeremy Corbyn era, a backwater for lefties disenchanted and disenfranchised by Starmer’s tacking rightwards. But Proudfoot – himself a former Labour activist – insists “we’re not a post-Corbyn party”.
“It’s just nonsense,” he says, shaking his head. “Oh yeah, everyone remembers that famous 2019 Labour demand for independence for the North.” Proudfoot supported Corbyn “because I thought it was our best opportunity to address systemic regional inequalities in this country, where place determines your fortunes in life.”
“I was a Corbynite in so far as I thought Corbynism would help reverse the North-South divide. That’s it for me.” He describes himself as “a big single-issue guy. I want to end the North-South divide. If there are genuine policies from the Tory party that would actually improve the lives of my family, I’ll support it.”
He cites regional investment banks – a flagship John McDonnell proposal, since aped by Rishi Sunak – as something that “would have been huge” for the North, “allowing regions to raise their own funds”. But he doesn’t see Gove in his new ‘levelling up’ brief – or opposite number Lisa Nandy for that matter – coming up with anything that will have an effect on northern inequality.
One of Gove’s mooted announcements in the government’s much-delayed ‘levelling up’ white paper is the creation of “American-style” governors to rule over large chunks of rural England. That wouldn’t heal any wounds, Proudfoot reckons. “I don’t think people in the North want another layer of politicians to beg for Westminster,” he says. “What people actually want is power in the community: the ability to make decisions, to direct funding, to raise taxes.”
NIP members are drawn from across the political spectrum, from the previously non-political to disaffected Tories and Labourites (“not many Lib Dems, to be honest”). “We have a distinct agenda,” Proudfoot says. “We’re a regional, separatist party. We’re not the same [as Corbyn’s Labour]. We’re much more like the 2017 manifesto – I like that one better. 2017 plus the SNP equals NIP. That’s what we really are.”
Regardless of how Proudfoot sees the NIP, the party has become something of a cause célèbre on the left – a reminder that the energy and ideas which saw Labour’s membership numbers threaten 600,000 under Corbyn hasn’t dissipated.
Its manifesto includes proposals for an annual tax on the net wealth held by anyone with over £1 million to their name, a 15 per cent pay rise for NHS workers, rent controls and a ‘Green Industrial Rebirth’. Ideas Starmer has jettisoned would be welcome in Northumbria.
For Alex Niven – writer of New Model Island, a book about radical regionalism – the NIP is best seen in that context. “We have quite a hopeless political landscape after 2019. The prospect of anything good happening is limited in the short-term – there aren’t many options for practical political change.”
The NIP, he says, is “quite playful and provocative. It’s a kind of situationist project, which I think it’s great. It’s almost the most that’s possible at the moment – to provoke people. I like that it’s provoking people.”
While the party’s “actual electoral prospects” are non-existent, Niven thinks it can play an important role in “harnessing people behind certain ideas”.
Proudfoot, for his part, is bullish. “It took the SNP a hundred years to take Scotland. I’d like to half that.” He wants to see an independent Northumbria brandish its red-and-yellow flag on the world stage within his lifetime. “If the Tories don’t keep destroying life expectancy,” he adds.
There is something teasingly tongue-in-cheek about the NIP. Its emblem is a whippet wearing a flat cap. It refers to a neither-here-nor-there area between Cheshire and the North as the ‘DMZ’. It is extremely online, which made a 25-day Twitter freeze-out last month (ostensibly for calling for the waiving of Covid vaccine patents) all the more damaging.
The party is in many ways a reflection of its leader, despite Proudfoot’s protestations that he’s little more than a “glorified spokesperson”. As Niven puts it, northern independence is “the brainchild of Philip Proudfoot”. To some extent, it is politics as clickbait. “We said ‘independence’ and suddenly people went ‘ooh’,” Proudfoot says. “That’s a headline, right?”
For most pundits, it’s a bit of a joke. One Telegraph writer’s end-of-year quiz covering “the year’s oddest stories” asked readers to guess whether the NIP’s leader lives in Rotherham, Hull, Grimsby or Brighton. The party’s official Twitter account responded that it was “pleasantly surprised” that paper “can name three northern towns”.
The urge to ridicule is predictable. “They responded in the same way to Corbyn,” Niven says. “Before they started to get worried by him, and the attacks became more vicious, they tried to turn him into a ridiculous figure.” But those pundits and politicians whose first instinct is to mock are telling on themselves. If nothing else, it betrays a fundamental lack of curiosity about what is going on in Britain. Wouldn’t you want to know why thousands of northern voters want to secede from Westminster?
None of this is to say that the North is poised to be swept away by a tide of secessionism. It isn’t. But it’s foolish to overlook the NIP entirely. The last couple of years have seen regionalism “revived”, Niven says. The North-South divide, regional underdevelopment, geographical inequality: this stuff isn’t going away. Affirmative nationalism is dominant in Scotland and ascendant in Wales and Ireland. Those in power might be well-served by interrogating why increasing numbers are questioning the ties that bind them to the idea of England and Englishness.
“Most people from the north-east who have had to move away, or who have seen their sons and daughters move away, understand that there’s something odd about the way the economy and society in this country are structured,” Proudfoot says. The NIP alone is unlikely to fix that. But at the very least, they won’t shut up until everyone is talking about it.