Just over 35 years ago, in August 1979, Christopher Booker wrote a cri de coeur in The Spectator calling for the return of England’s ancient counties and the repeal of the 1972 Local Government Act, under which most of them had been either merged, mauled, mangled or murdered.
It drew a large and almost wholly supportive response from figures as distinguished as Professor Richard Cobb (‘Booker has rendered us all a ray of hope’) and Michael Wharton, a.k.a. the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple: ‘What strange beings, in what strange offices, on what strange drawing-boards, worked out these strange -boundaries?’
Shortly afterwards Booker was summoned to 10 Downing Street, where he assumed he would meet the newly installed tenant, a female person, who would greet him briskly and say, ‘Come on, then. Tell me how we get our old counties back.’ Instead he saw some minion who instigated what Booker calls a ‘wispy’ conversation about reforming the trade unions. That was an idea whose time had come; restoration of the map of England was not.
In April 2011 I set out on a three-year quest to write a book about England, a scheme that had been in the back of my head at least since the time of Booker’s article. And though I cannot remember exactly how, when or why I reached this decision, I arranged it with a chapter on each of the historic counties, 39 of them (plus London), all of them able to trace their origins back to the medieval mists and in some cases much, much further: Kent is 2,000 years old or more.
It was a choice I never regretted. Over most of England, the county remains a source of identity and distinctiveness — and also an important identifier to outsiders. Say Essex, Devon, Norfolk or Berkshire and anyone with a working knowledge of British geography will conjure up an instant image, accurate or otherwise.
In some places I was considered eccentric (even more so than usual) because the inhabitants have very little sense of themselves as a county, but that was as true in Hertfordshire, which still has a county council and was hardly affected by boundary changes, as in Huntingdonshire, which was subsumed into Cambridgeshire 40 years ago. The sense of county is strongest away from the south-east, in coastal counties, in the predominantly rural ones, those with relatively settled populations, the ones that play first-class cricket, those where it is still safe to put the county names on envelopes, and among people old enough to remember where they used to live. But everywhere, and among all age groups, I sensed a yearning, a need to be loyal to something beyond a postcode or a football team.
Along the way, I’ve acquired an understanding of how the map got so buggered up. In 1965 Middlesex was abolished to facilitate the creation of the Greater London Council, a Tory plan accepted by Labour. Bigness being fashionable on all sides at the time, the Wilson government set up a royal commission under Sir John Maud to do the same everywhere else. It came up with a year-zero plan to divide England into 61 ‘unitary areas’, bearing no relation to time-honoured boundaries. This mutated, under Ted Heath, into a half-cock compromise based on counties, but not as we knew them. It was never popular.
Margaret Thatcher did indeed change this, but only to the extent of abolishing the big-city versions, the ‘metropolitan county councils’, which had become irritating centres of opposition. In the 1990s John Major, sentimental old sausage, did allow some mitigation: Herefordshire and Rutland were brought back from the dead, and Huntingdonshire might have been had anyone there cared enough. By 1997 all the recently invented county names — Avon, Cleveland, Humberside, Tyne and Wherever, etc. — had ceased to exist for practical purposes, with the sole exception of Cumbria, which has some historical resonance (rather bogus, actually).
The upshot was that millions of people had no idea where the hell they were: we all live in Omnishambleshire. Indeed it keeps getting worse: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Cheshire have all lately lost their councils; as a result many signs have already vanished.
The fundamental error in all this was the fixation with petty administration as the basis of geography. There is no disaster in Britain more deep-seated than local government. Whitehall has so emasculated the councils that their freedom of action is largely limited to deciding what to cut now and what can wait until next year. Do the libraries go first or shall we outsource rubbish collection to the rats? The voters make things worse by using council elections to register only grievances against Westminster. And potential top-quality councillors shy away: the only sane reason to get yourself elected is to execute a planning fiddle.
No one cares who empties the bins, as long as some human does. Yet the wider aspects matter more than ever. Last month the UK itself narrowly escaped abolition. We have seen how the Scots — the Welsh, too — have rediscovered their self-belief. Since England has 84 per cent of the UK population, English nationalism cannot be either a valid or effective response. It can only be negative and divisive: a state of not being Scottish, not being Welsh or, very often, a state of not being black, Asian or Polish.
The restoration of the old counties to the map is nowhere near a sufficient solution to this existential crisis. But it is part of the solution. Local government can be treated as irrelevant. All that’s needed is a concerted attempt to fulfil the promises made by the Heath government before the main upheaval that these were purely technical changes that would have no wider impact. A single edict from the director-general of the BBC telling his staff to use traditional geography would make a huge difference.
In the meantime, consider Heywood, the town Labour so nearly lost to Ukip in this month’s by-election. Is it in Greater Manchester, as Wikipedia insists? Is it in Rochdale, as my road atlas says? Is it nowhere at all, which is my satnav’s way of distinguishing it from Heywood in Wiltshire? Or is it still in Lancashire, as it was officially from the 12th century until 1974 and as remains screamingly obvious? It seems to me that people who feel secure in their identity and comfortable in their surroundings are less likely to emit howls of rage at by-elections.
Engel’s England was published this week.