Malcolm has been off-line for the last few weeks, for reasons of temperament and an imminent house-move.
He makes an exception because he was re-reading J.B.Priestley’s English Journey. Towards the end of that very fine book, we find this (somewhat re-paragraphed, for modern taste):
Norwich is really a capital, the capital of East Anglia. I wish it were bigger and more important than it is. Perhaps it ought to be turned into a real capital of East Anglia.
A great many people are coming to believe that government in this country is now far too centralised. Too much work has to be done in Westminster. There is too wide a gap between the local councils and Parliament. These people suggest that England should be divided into four, five or six provinces, and that these provinces should to some extent govern themselves. Their representatives would be able to settle among themselves the merits of a large number of local questions. Business in the House of Commons would not be so congested and unwieldy, and Parliament would be able to give its undivided attention to broadly national affairs.
Moreover, regional self-government of this kind would do something to revive the spirit of democracy. Under a democratic system, politics should be local, so that you can keep an eye on them. Indeed, in a large modern state you need a very elaborately constructed pyramid of representational government, with parochial councils for the base and a national assembly at the apex, in order that the democratic system can work properly. It cannot work properly if legislature is something that is happening, under a cloud of mysterious etiquette, in a distant capital. It is a system that assumes that nearly everybody is taking an interest in government. The more difficult it is for anybody to concern himself in political matters, the worse it is for democracy. Centralisation is one of the deadliest enemies of the system.
For this reason alone there is much to be said in favour of regional government in England. But I also suggest that such government would bring a new dignity to provincial life, just as it would increase the importance of the various new provincial capital cities, where the deputies or senators would meet. And on any such division of the country into provinces Norwich would be capital of its own region, as it has been, for nearly all practical purposes, these last three hundred years. That, however, is what I meant by wishing, above, that it were bigger and more important than it is. I should like to see it nobly housing the East Anglian senators, who would be as sagacious and weighty a body of legislators as you could wish to find. I heard that the local constabulary are rarely less than ten to a ton, and I believe that the senators would be equally massive, in mind as in body.
The East Anglian is, of course, a solid man. Lots of beef and beer, tempered with east wind, have gone to the making of him. Once he is sure you arc not going to cheat him or be very grand and affected, he is a friendly chap; but if you want the other thing, you can have it. The Ironsides were recruited from these parts, which has produced a great many fighting men of all kinds, from pugilists to admirals. Perhaps we of the West Riding brought some of our aggressive qualities from Norfolk. My host reminded me of the connection between the two districts. The worsted trade of Bradford originally came from Norfolk, where Worsted is a village.
Up to the Industrial Revolution Norwich had a fine trade in worsteds, but lost it to the West Riding, which had the coal and better communications. And when its textile trade dwindled, Norwich turned to the manufacturing of fancy boots and shoes, chiefly women’s, and has continued in that trade to this day. But many of her textile workers migrated to the West Riding; and my host told me that he remembered an old bank cashier saying that in his youth more money orders came to Norwich from Bradford than from any other place.
But Norwich was concerned in much more important migrations than these. It was here that so many of the Flemish and Huguenot weavers came; solid and sober families of workers, escaping from persecution. It was intolerance that made us a present of them, and robbed France of their solid services. The Dutch came here in considerable numbers too, and my friend remembered hearing a sermon in Dutch in the city.
Norwich is also the city of Quaker bankers, who were very prominent in the life of the place during the latter half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, during which period the city was a literary and publishing centre and had its own famous school of landscape painters. It was the fact that the Quaker was a man of his word that made him so acceptable as a banker or trader in the eighteenth century, when the junketing squires had to look somewhere for money. You have then a very rich mixture in the city, equally famous for its old churches and its sturdy dissenters. And like all cities with mixed trades—here they are shoes, mustard and starch, ironware, beer — it has escaped the full weight of the industrial depression. Its citizens are proud of the old place. They have a right to be, and I, for one, wish there was more of it.
Home Rule for East Anglia!