I’m from the North East. That’s how I always explain when I’m asked, from time to time, where I’m from. The North East has always seemed the best description. Technically I’m “from” the edge of Gateshead borough, a small village called Crawcrook attached to a slightly larger village called Ryton. It’s near Northumberland, but the largest nearby place most people from outside the region have heard of is Newcastle.
To confuse matters, I’m a Sunderland fan, which – in a region where identity and football intertwine perhaps more than anywhere outside of Glasgow – really matters. That made school…fun, at times…
But I say that I’m from the North East not because it’s a more convenient way of explaining my slightly confused identity, but because I think of it as where I’m from. It’s a large geographical area, but it has a real unified sense of place. It even has its own excellent encyclopaedia, which allows me to bore/entertain people with facts about the region. Which is often.
(For example – the French revolutionary Marat once lived in Newcastle. Never let it be said that I’m not teaching you something here.)
So I was baffled to see Tory MP for Stockton South James Wharton arguing on ConHome today that the North East doesn’t exist. It’s a “political construct” he claimed.
The idea that the people of the North East could genuinely feel bound together and united by our shared history and a sense of solidarity seems to be alien to him. Which is sad, as Wharton is – whether he likes it or not – from the North East just like me. I wish he felt that connection with people from across the region like I and most others – Geordies, Smoggies, Mackems – genuinely feel for each other. We may mock each other. We may loathe each other’s football teams. But there’s no doubt that the North East is arguably the English region with the strongest sense of regional identity (matched perhaps by the North West).
When I meet someone from Stockton – for example – there will more likely that not be some reference made to the North East, shared history, probably a bit of piss taking and – yes – football. The connection is similar to the one you’d expect if two people from Scotland or Wales – for example – met elsewhere. The North East has an almost nation state feel to it – culturally at least.
That’s why I was so disappointed when the North East rejected a regional assembly. Surely if such a thing could work anywhere, it’s the North East. But the campaign was run badly, and only a small minority (of which I was one) backed greater autonomy. Although I suspect that now the country is back under Tory control – a different result might be achieved today…
So yes, the North East does exist – and as a social and cultural entity, not as a political construct. It’s somewhere I am hugely proud to come from. And now I’m off to eat a Greggs Pasty. Because on top of everything else, James Wharton has made me homesick for the region I, and millions of others, love. Does anyone know where I can buy a stottie cake and pease pudding in London?
(If the Tories were smart they would listen to David Skelton of Policy Exchange on North East identity. He’s a Tory who gets what makes the region tick. Although of course I hope they don’t.)