Do Regional or Sub-regional Identities Exist?
Regional, or perhaps more accurately, sub-regional identities did appear to exist in the past, although covering smaller areas than the modern administrative regions (Jones and Woolf, 2007). Brace (1999), for example, argues that in the first half of the twentieth century, England was imaginatively constructed through regional identities and their uniqueness. She focuses on the Cotswolds to show how a unique regional identity was constructed through a corpus of local writing invoking the area as an ideal version of England. East Anglia, named after one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Harper-Bill et al., 2002) based mainly in Norfolk and Suffolk but subsequently extended, has historically been thought of as a region and became the traditional name for eastern England, though much of its cultural distinctiveness was lost to substantial migration to New England in the 1630s
(Fisher,1991). Nevertheless, it still has its own flag, created by George Henry Langham and adopted by the London Society of East Anglians in about 1900 (Flag Institute website). Similarly, the Midlands is encompassed within the old boundaries of the Kingdom of Mercia (Brown and Farr, 2005).
Counties can trace their origins to the administrative structure of Norman England, and some would claim they have cultural significance (Association of British Counties, 2008). At a more local level, Bensusan (1954), for example, claims that a distinctive culture and dialect existed in Marshland Essex. However, more recently it has been argued that only the County of Cornwall still has any real semblance of an ancient regional identity. Certainly Cornwall has its own nationalist party (Mebyon Kernow) seeking a separate legal status of duchy, region or nation in order to become an additional 'constituent nation' of the United Kingdom, on a par with Scotland and Wales. It also has a cross-party group calling itself the Cornish Constituent Convention (Cornish Constituent Convention website), which has the slightly more modest aim of the creation of a devolved Cornish Assembly (Senedh Kernow). However, Cornwall is not entirely alone. There is also a website dedicated to the creation of a sovereign state of Mercia (Sovereign Mercia website). As Giordano (2002) argues, a weak sense of regional identity now does not mean it might not develop again in the future.
Of course, one could argue that there is no reason why structures of political devolution should be based on recognised areas with which people already identify. After all, parliamentary political constituencies rarely relate to local identities except fortuitously, yet people still vote. The Coalition Government's proposals to reduce the number of constituencies and to change constituency boundaries that we discuss in Chapter 4 makes the point most clearly. When voters suddenly find themselves within a different constituency, do they cease to vote? The Coalition proposals certainly upset the Cornish National Party (Cornish National Party website), as one of the proposed constituencies would have spanned the Devon/ Cornish boundary had the legislation gone through. Even so, it might be argued that political and administrative boundaries are best imposed from above, because, as Beckhofer et al. argue, identities are not given but are constructed in the process of everyday life (Beckhofer et al., 1999). Of course, as John Prescott discovered to his cost, voters, if given the option, do not necessarily take kindly to the imposition of additional levels of government or governance.
Whatever the nature of underlying public opinion, political decisions do not depend primarily upon the attitudes of the regional populations as much as those of the political elite. McDonald (1979) claimed in the 1970s to find little or no evidence of MPs identifying with regional units and therefore concluded that there was no prospect of self government for the English Regions. While others have criticised his methodology (Hogwood and Lindsey, 1980), McDonald's thesis that if the political elite do not support regional government there will not be any regional government is clearly valid. Before the Coalition Government announced the abolition of all regional bodies, we interviewed members of the political, economic and cultural elites about their views on regions. We turn to this next.