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English Regions, Sub-regions and Issues of Identity and Engagement


In the UK, Scotland and Wales have important 'nationalist' parties which have argued for increasing degrees of devolution and/or independence, as well as discernible local cultures distinctive from that of Britain as a whole. Northern Ireland is complicated, given its history as we saw in Chapter 1. English identity, particularly English regional identity, has been quite problematic. Devolution in England, much more so than in Scotland and Wales, has been characterised by 'top-down administrative decentralisation with bottom-up co-ordinating initiatives

… primarily focussed on the delivery of government functions, rather than management of territory' (Pearce, 2008, p.97). Sandford argues that the Labour regional policy was actually marked by 'considerable bottom-up involvement at least in the details of structures, processes and policy making' (Sandford, 2005, p.232), and its late attempts to make it more democratic might in the long run have made it more popular. However, in reality, governance offered a somewhat spurious sense of the local, with most stakeholders only operating in an advisory capacity. Whereas regional devolution in many states, even when driven by central government concerns, has been seen to be addressing regional demands based upon distinct identities or cultures, in England it has tended to be seen as being imposed from the centre.

Our empirical interview material in this research has focused on regional and local political, economic and cultural elites. No political system reform will be successful unless it receives some acceptance by the relevant elites, but longer term success is likely to depend upon recognition by the general population of the sense of the meaning of the political categories. To make policy implementation relevant to local concerns, one must identify the nature of the local and what it means to local people. In this chapter, therefore, we look at the question of English identity and English regional and local identities and the implications for English devolution.

What are Regional and Local Identities?

Collective identity is about belonging (Bauman, 1996). The process of acquiring collective identities has been described by the present authors elsewhere as 'the rooms through which we pass on our biographical journey which help define
belonging' (Smith and Wistrich, 2007, p.10). These rooms have both an objective and a subjective aspect. The subjective aspect is found in people's individual biographies. The objective is the historical, cultural and societal contexts in which their collectivities are located. These collectivities can range from the immediate family, through the extended family group to the tribe or clan, and beyond to the organised state (Christie, 1998). Add to these distinctions of ethnicity, class, status etc. and it can be seen that people have multiple identities, many of which may become increasingly symbolic and optional (Smith, 2001). Indeed the collectivity may be a purely imagined community (Anderson, 1983).

In considering regional and local identities one must ask what historical, cultural and societal collectivities might exist and at what level, and how, if at all, people experience them through their own biographies. One must then ask if there is any correspondence between these subjective and objective experiences and the institutions of regional, sub-regional and local governance.

Regions and Regional Identity in England

One of the problems with English regionalism has been the nature and size of the regions. Initiatives for the development of a regional structure of governance have been largely a by-product of other national policies and so, mostly driven by top-down concerns. Henig (2002) argues that all the reorganisations of local government through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s left a system of local government which lacked functional effectiveness and had very limited historical resonance. The subsequent failure to adjust local authority boundaries in line with changes in population size and economy was an even bigger mistake (Henig, 2006). Regions were created for administrative purposes and corresponded with EU parliamentary constituencies in order to qualify for European funding. They were sufficiently large and diverse to mask any extant regional identities which may have existed and, for the most part, lacked clearly defined, culturally meaningful boundaries (Roberts and Baker, 2006). Weight (2002) claims that the existence of clear territorial boundaries over several centuries is vital to the maintenance of an identity and that changing boundaries have always been an issue in England. Recent archaeological reinterpretation of data has led to the suggestion that even Classical Rome failed to entirely dent the territorial distinctiveness of the old British tribal lands and that there was continuity of these boundaries even into the Anglo-Saxon period (Laycock, 2008). However, subsequently these stable AngloSaxon territorial boundaries had changed frequently, even into the Middle Ages, and now barely correspond to modern geographical ones (Weight, 2002). So, 'a neat administrative carve-up of England, drawn up from the centre, divided into administrative and roughly equal units, is far from perfect and sometimes does not fit comfortably with the cultural identities of the general public' (Balls et al., 2006, p.43). Indeed, where similar political changes were forced through in Norway, serious problems appear to have arisen (Leknes, 2008).

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