The Boundary Commission has placed its chisel into the High Street ridge, where the Roman Road falls to Troutbeck, and struck it with a hammer, shattering the county like a piece of Skiddaw slate. One long crack now runs towards the coast, another North to Carlisle, another South to Arnside – making a rent in our soil fifty miles long, that splits Cumbria, its constituencies and its communities.
There are many more natural ways of dividing the county. The ridge-lines, the rivers and the watersheds separate the fellside from the Lakes, the coast from the inland, the hills from the plain. The ancient boundaries of Cumberland and Westmorland follow those lines: and so too have our constituencies for nearly a thousand years. The boundaries between the constituencies of Westmorland and Lonsdale, Barrow, and Copeland, for example, reflect the ancient edge of Cumberland and Lancashire. Penrith and the Border’s Northern line is the exact frontier of the “Wardens of the Western March” in the early Middle Ages. Its East is formed by the Pennines, its West by Helvellyn and Blencathra, the South by the Shap fells and the Howgills, and through the centre of it – like a red sandstone lining trimmed with limestone – runs the Eden. The geography is so complete that from Wild Boar Fell at Mallerstang, or Hartside pass above Alston, you can see the whole 1,200 square miles of the constituency and nothing else. There are ways of creating natural communities within the Boundary Commission rules (they want equal populations and five constituencies): you could group Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport; keep districts for Carlisle and Barrow, while still retaining two rural constituencies.
But this is not what has happened. In the hallucinatory scratchings of the Boundary Commission, Morecambe Bay, on the edge of Lancashire, is now combined with Nenthead, on the high Northumbrian border; and Windermere with Whitehaven, over the Hardknott pass. The central rent runs downwards, like a virtual Wall, cutting the western edge of Carlisle, Penrith and Kendal, dividing Central Cumbria’s communities from their neighbours, and linking them with places with which they have little in common: Carlisle racecourse is torn from Carlisle and attached to Workington; Rheged is ripped from Penrith, tied to Maryport. The Kendal by-pass is transferred from Kendal to Whitehaven.
Does this matter? Does this matter in a global ‘interconnected’ world which makes geography and cultural identity seem somehow irrelevant? Yes, because underlying the boundaries of Cumbria are human constituencies with separate needs. Demands can be the same from Barrow to Dufton, or indeed from Woking to Inverness. But in the debate on upland farming policy, or unemployment, the perspectives of Cumbrians are not the same. The needs of our communities can be unique, even in Cumbria. Penrith and the Border reads like an entry from the Guinness Book of Records – containing the most sparsely populated district in the most sparsely populated constituency in England, with more self-employed people than any other constituency in Britain: by very definition these are features which other constituencies cannot share. Consider also the interests of Sellafield and nuclear industry.
Such issues need to be represented in London, but they are issues which people in London rarely understand. The vast majority of Britain’s MPs serve constituencies in the South. Even those with farms also tend to have large towns and suburbs, and little incentive or opportunity to focus on the countryside. Little wonder that I have ended up as chair or officer of four All Party Parliamentary Groups: on Mountain Rescue, rural parishes, upland farming, and rural services; and that there are usually only a couple of other MPs at the meetings; or that it is the same small group of rural MPs who back other work on sparsely populated areas – such as rural broadband, or mobile coverage. It is not always easy to get things done if most MPs are indifferent and if you need to fight against government policy with all its mass and momentum and party whipping.
If, therefore, Cumbria’s few MPs have succeeded in defending Cumbria’s corner, it is generally because they have specialised not just in Cumbria but in their specific part of Cumbria. The West Cumberland hospital was saved by West Cumbrian MPs; Lakes and Fellside Cumbrian MPs fought for the uplands, for the community hospitals of Penrith and Alston, and for farmers in the face of foot and mouth. It will dissipate that focus if a colleague – whose experience, vocation, voters and inclination has led him to fight against urban poverty in Whitehaven – now finds himself responsible also for the shops of Ambleside. And in the new proposed Workington constituency, the needs of the different communities, jammed into one, are so radically different that the life expectancy is twenty years longer in the East at Greystoke, than it is in the West in Maryport.
Politics derives its energy from the demands of very specific communities. It is not policy-papers but farm-visits which show MPs the problems of under-stocking on fells: it is a neighbour with Parkinsons, not a You-Tube presentation, which convinces an MP to fight for broadband video-links between rural hospitals. And the reason why we have a voting system which relies on constituencies defined by local areas (rather than proportional representation) is precisely to amplify the spirit of place and to allow local areas their own influence in parliament.
MPs work well when constituencies work; and constituencies work when communities act together. The Boundary Commission’s severed stumps, sown together with coarse thread, create doubly divided monsters: lumping separate communities, and separating unified communities. We now have an opportunity to appeal. Let us hope we can convince the Boundary Commission to reconsider because there will still be many occasions when, in our different ways, on different issues, Cumbrian valleys need to echo with a strong, clear voice.