Lockdown reading: Alex Niven, Andy Burnham and imagining a regional future

Andy Burnham received the news on live television that Greater Manchester’s Tier 3 funding talks with the government had collapsed. “It’s brutal, to be honest”, was his response, as shouts and boos went up around him: “this is no way to run a country, is it?” 

Greater Manchester was not offered the extra-funding Burnham and his team had calculated was necessary to protect jobs and livelihoods in the area. In fact, they were offered no extra funding at all. Burnham was stood in front of the Bridgewater Hall, and the moment felt defining.  

Since then, much has changed. National lockdown meant the reinstatement of the furlough scheme, with wages once more being offered at 80 per cent, when previously workers in Greater Manchester were asked to settle for just 67 per cent of their pay. With Manchester re-entering tier 3, it is hard to escape the feeling that some regions are being treated differently from others.

It was in this context that I picked up Alex Niven’s 2019 book New Model Island. Lockdown was imminent, I was angry about how Manchester was being treated and about to be furloughed myself. I needed something to read.  

Alex Niven's New Model Island

Niven lectures in English at Newcastle University, and his book is part-polemic, part-memoir. Its chapters alternate between critical discussions of regionalism and reflections of music, poetry, history and Niven’s life. Fundamentally, though, the book is about imagining a future in which regional leaders might have a greater say.  

After the Bridgewater Hall debacle and Burnham delivering his rousing speech on the steps of Central Library, regionalism feels very ‘of the moment.’ Given that we have been subjected to months of public money going to Tory donors, and local lockdowns being imposed overnight without warning or consultation, New Model Island was refreshing in its search for ambitious alternatives.  

For Niven, the problem with the current state of affairs is England: ‘a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on the structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.’ This sentence is typically biting; Niven pulls no punches, particularly when addressing ‘Little England’, which he treats as the geographical area surrounding London, not a mindset. 

I was angry about how Manchester was being treated and about to be furloughed myself

England, in Niven’s eyes, does not exist in any meaningful sense. It has not existed since the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, which established the move towards ‘Great Britain’ that would dominate for the following three centuries.  

However, as devolved power has expanded, and the union is threatened by Brexit, differing responses to COVID-19, Westminster incompetence, and growing Scottish, Irish and (to an extent) Welsh nationalism, the idea of a culturally and politically independent ‘England’ has become increasingly widespread.

This is alarming. A native of the North-East and former assistant editor at New Left Review, Niven sees the potential for a retreat into a London-dominated, Tory-electing ‘Little England.’ It is this future that he argues forcefully against, instead proposing a reimagined political structure along regional – and ideally socialist – lines.  

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Niven believes it to be crucial, ‘that the long-delayed but inevitable break-up of Britain is seen as an opportunity to redress the deep structural inequalities that arise from the London-centric design of these islands.’  

The solution offered is greater powers to the regions, breaking the union into a series of equal partners: East of England, East Midlands, London, North East, North West, South East, South West, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, Ireland (united), Scotland and Wales. Each of these bodies supposedly corresponds to a historic regional identity and roughly five million people.  

However, in lumping Ireland together as one, regardless of the social tensions, economic inequalities and opinions of the Irish people, Niven could here be accused of exactly the kind of off-hand over-simplification he so understandably attributes to London.    

A confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on the structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism

The book is, it must be said, better at outlining problems than offering workable solutions. In light of recent events, however, it is hard to argue against the basic premise that the current system is failing and leads to London lording it over the regions politically.   

This political asymmetry is also mirrored economically, with a proper decentralisation of resources needed to address it. All of which has interesting implications for Manchester.  

The city, it is argued, must not be allowed to become ‘London-lite,’ a second or regional London, with spiralling house prices and job opportunities sucking the talent out of less prosperous areas. Niven’s vision for the North is a network of interconnected towns and cities, not shaving time off the commuter train from Manchester to London. With all the money pouring in, Niven’s book suggests with renewed urgency the need to protect the Mancunian in ‘Manctopia’.

Poster for The North Face
Graphic: Nia Thomas

The autobiographical parts of the book are beautiful. Niven writes with great emotion about the birth of his first child and the death of his friend – the seminal blogger, author and critic Mark Fisher – in quick succession in 2017. Notable also, are sections on Alton Towers, Echo and The Bunnymen, a drunken adolescent trip to Glasgow, and the history of Northumbria as an independent state in the days before England.  

All in all, the book is a hugely enjoyable read. It offers a sense of hope and optimism rare in politics at the minute. Niven writes lucidly on history, and the sections on music and poetry are lovely. Furthermore, he is admirably honest about how his own life and relationships have impacted his work, which is a welcome change. New Model Island is also – at 142 pages – sharp, succinct and absent of self-indulgence. 

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In the foreword, Niven writes, ‘in spite of the autobiographical element, I hope it is clear that everything here – memoir as well as polemic – is guided by a desire to affirm a we over an I.’ This is a noble – slightly grand – aim, but one he achieves.  

‘This is no way to run a country’ – watching that press conference, I agreed with Andy Burnham instinctively, emotionally. New Model Island is brilliant on answering the question as to why this might be the case. Niven takes us through the last forty years (and beyond) to demonstrate how we got into such a dysfunctional mess, outlining the problems inherent in the imagined community that we call England. He is less good at concrete solutions, but – then again – aren’t we all. That’s what we pay people like Burnham the big bucks for.