In 1947, one of the most successful and powerful states in world history was abolished by the stroke of a pen. The Allied Control Council, under the aegis of Bristolian right-wing trade unionist Ernest Bevin, ended the existence of Prussia, the eastern German state that had grown in size and power from the 16th century onwards until, when its troops marched into Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, it stood as the most powerful state on the European continent. It then gathered some, but not all of the German-speaking regions, kingdoms, states and statelets around it and called the resulting super-state ‘Germany’. In the democratic Weimar Republic, it was by far the largest federal unit, and the crushing of its Social Democratic government in 1932 by President Franz von Papen removed one of the obstacles to the creation of what would become, the next year, the Third Reich. Prussia expanded in Nazi Germany, absorbing former Free Hanseatic cities, with Hermann Goering as its official President. But barely 15 years later, it disappeared.
After the war, as Germany was carved up between the western Allies and the USSR, it was decided that Prussian abolition was called for. Its historic core was now mostly in Poland and the Soviet Kaliningrad Oblast, anyway. Its western regions were formed into relatively equally-sized federal chunks (the most populous being North-Rhine Westphalia), and in the east, it was split into Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. It never rose again; there is no ‘Prussian Revivalist Movement’. There is clearly at least a flank of the contemporary left who have been thinking in the same way about the future of England. What if, rather than spouting patriotic nonsense we don’t really believe about an English Parliament in York and English votes for English laws, we just ended England altogether?
The case is actually quite logical. Not only is ‘the English-speaking world’ vastly larger than what lies between Penzance and Berwick-on-Tweed, it has a strange and anomalous status in a state where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all clearly pulling away from Westminster as fast as they can. England is vastly larger and more populous than the other countries of the UK, but it is more divided internally than any of them – notoriously, the divide in wealth between the South-East or London and the North-East or Cornwall is larger than the divide between Southern and Northern Italy, or, tellingly, East and West Germany. Alex Niven’s wonderful example of bureaucratic poetics, New Model Island, by far the most interesting book on the regional question published in Britain for the last few decades, advocates abolishing England altogether, and implies that it be reorganised into something resembling the old divides of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – unsurprising perhaps for a Northumbrian, given that the North-East was the most powerful and civilised of these.
As if on cue, the apparent stand by the imagined community of ‘The North’ (in reality, a stand by one part of it, the metropolis of Greater Manchester) against the centralised mismanagement of the pandemic by a handful of public school idiots in Downing Street, has led to much discussion of a Northern Republic among elements of the left, culminating in the creation of a Northern Independence Party that has apparently taken Niven’s book as a manifesto. It’s hard to tell so far what it is, beyond a very smart Twitter account and a couple of articles, but its line on the North-South divide is strikingly intelligent, especially by the standards of the gross caricatures of the area as a morass of bigoted and racist old men (of the ten largest urban areas in England, five are in the North, with two in the Midlands and three in the south – all of which are multicultural, and all of which mostly vote Labour). However the north-of-Trent/south-of-Tweed state they imagine coming out of this, which they call ‘Northumbria’, would include large swathes of the country that have been shifting politically to the right for some time.
So whether this is actually popular is doubtful – given the massive landslide against the North-East Assembly under New Labour (the campaign where north-easterner Dominic Cummings cut his teeth), there’s little evidence a majority supports it. What happens when an idea is necessary and just but unpopular, though, is that those who believe in it have to campaign for it, and so far, the NIP has done this well. It may also involve shifting the Overton window so that a slightly lesser demand, a federalised England that recognised the scale of its divides, becomes more acceptable. And though the NIP twitter account can be unnecessarily pissy to London leftists, it is also an idea which should have great appeal to socialists in the capital. Most Londoners do not benefit from any ‘trickle-down’ from the enormous concentration of wealth within the south-east; on the contrary, all that hot money sloshing around is the precise reason why the rent is too expensive, why there is an East German-style waiting time for a council flat, why so many people sleep on the streets. The crushing of the centralised power of the City and Westminster could have the effect of boosting a new municipalism in London itself, the ‘Home Rule for London’ that the London Labour Party once advocated and partly implemented in the 1930s and 1980s. A federalised England would benefit practically everyone but a political class and finance industry that makes everyone else’s lives miserable.