One contest that I enjoy watching on television is One Man and his Dog, jointly screened by the BBC and Telefis Erin. Female readers should not think that it is an exclusively male manifestation of patriarchy, for there have been several women winners. The words are the first line of an old folk song. In this contest shepherds from each of the four nations compete to demonstrate shepherding skills. I cannot say that I am happy with the result, as England rarely win, but that's sport for you! However, since penning the previous sentence a miracle has occurred. A team headed by an English woman won the 2021 competition. In competitions like this local loyalties are eclipsed, but they soon spring back.
But within these nations strong local identities compete in sport. Roses matches pit teams from Yorkshire, England's biggest county, against neighbouring Lancashire. The contest is fiercest at cricket, but even at football, which has no inter-county competition, there is an extra frisson of excitement when a Lancashire team meets a Yorkshire side. The rivalry goes back to the Middle Ages when the Dukes of Lancaster [red rose] fought for the crown against the Dukes of York [white rose] in the bloody Wars of the Roses and warring bands fought across the Pennine hills that divide these counties. The identities formed have left their trace.
But strangely, both combine in a sense of northern Englishness when contrasting themselves with the south of England. There are six counties in Northern England, five of which were part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria [Cumberland was independent until the early Norman period, but at times was part of Scotland.] A seventh county has in my lifetime increasingly been accounted part of the North. Cheshire, immediately south of Lancashire, receives northern television from the BBC and so, not with the universal consent of its residents, many of whom were raised to see themselves as midlanders, has fallen into the northern ambit. Modern communications are shaping identity.
Northern identity has never gelled into a cohesive political form, despite efforts to make it happen. A Northern English independence party had, last time I heard, only four members, and an attempt to institute a northern English assembly with legislative powers fell flat. We opted for a new system of powerful metropolitan mayors for the big cities.
Local identities at city level are strong at places in the North. Liverpool people, nicknamed Scousers after a popular dish called scouse, have a distinctive accent which linguists believe is strongly influenced by contact with Dublin, across the Irish Sea, a city with which Liverpool has much contact. To hear a Liverpool accent just listen to the Beatles. Liverpool has an intense soccer rivalry with Manchester, thirty miles to the east. Identities here are strong. A similar soccer rivalry occurs in the North East between Newcastle, whose people are known as Geordies, and Sunderland folk, known as Mackems.