Henry Smith MP: Why our ancient counties need preserving.

Henry Smith MP

History matters. Our history matters. It forms a crucial part of our heritage. It should not be thrown into the rubbish bin, but be preserved and cherished, for future generations to appreciate.

Geography matters. We all have a sense of who we are based on where we are, where we come from, where we live, and where we are going. Geography too forms a part of our heritage.
People respect their heritage. It forms a very important part of their identity. Identity matters.

Put all this together, and you have a sense that our traditional, historic conceptions of geography should be preserved, so we can talk about past, present, and future generations, based on where they live, and so we can preserve our identity.

Neglected heritage.
In many ways, the heritage, history, and culture of our country has been neglected, abused, discarded. One way this has occurred has been in the treatment of the 92 ancient counties of the United Kingdom, in particular the 39 in England, 34 in Scotland, and 13 in Wales. The six counties of Northern Ireland have escaped the worst of the mangling.

For reasons ranging from the non-existent to negligence, carelessness to deliberate destruction, county identity in our country has been put through the mill, since the 1960s onwards, starting in and around London in 1963.

“Let’s kill off Middlesex, and hope no-one notices if they play Surrey,” they said.

The powers that be then took out their atlases of the rest of the country, for the Local Government Act 1972.

“Lincolnshire doesn’t matter. Who weeps for Glamorgan? Cromartyshire is barmy.”

Successive waves of administrators – presumably at the will of their political masters – have chopped and changed the counties with abandon. In their wisdom, they have created not one but eight different types of county – as if there were eight different Marks & Spencers, eight different laws of differential calculus, eight different Jupiters.

Constants in a changing world.
They have taken something as softly precious as county identity, developed for the most part over 1,000 years and more, and got themselves very confused as they took their turns to impose their new wills on the county system.

If there is one civil servant who can happily explain what a Welsh preserved county is, please step forward: after all, the Newport-Gwent Dragons play in Monmouthshire.

Furthermore, and utterly bizarrely, the powers have at all times tried to claim the counties have not actually changed in law, while doing everything in practice to assert they have. What’s the catch?

Just to press the point, Aberdeen is in Aberdeenshire – everyone knows that. And for the benefit of the media, while Lancashire is in the main in Lancashire, Wigan is both in and not in, like a Schrödinger county cat.

And don’t just take my word for it. See this BBC News article, for example (in relation to England).

England’s counties – for example, my county, Sussex, which holds my seat in Crawley – are often older than England itself. We have no right to mess around with them. In our rapidly changing world, we need some constants.

So, let’s not mess around with them.

And just one aside. The concept of regions cannot be allowed to cause further confusion, for example with “Yorkshire and the Humber”. I was under the impression they were scrapped anyway, by my colleague Eric Pickles, former secretary of state for local government and communities.

A question of money.
To repeat, people’s heritage matters. Our counties are worth preserving. At what cost, you say? Well, I would argue, very little. The county system can be fixed through a gradual system of patch and mend, which would happen naturally as we fix a road sign here, update a map there.

The cost of not preserving our heritage is greater, surely, for that means we have completely lost touch with who we are. We would have to start over again, and that might cost a great deal indeed.

People who are happy with their identity are more likely to be happy full stop. They can lead happy, productive, economically successful lives: yes, the counties can be good for business.

British Counties Campaign.
Last year, I agreed to be “champion” MP for the British Counties Campaign, a campaign seeking legislation to enshrine Britain’s counties once and for all, which I hosted in parliament in the spring for its official launch. Further events are planned around the country, as well as online activity.

While the campaign is cross party, at its core is a recognition of the need to build on Britain’s past as we move towards the future.

The campaign is not about reorganising local government, at least not over and above perhaps using counties as a very broad template for local government. What it is is a movement seeking to ensure there is just one type of county – the traditional one – in this country, and to use those counties for any ceremonial purposes, as well as for tourism, leisure, culture, sport, and so on. The campaign has created a draft bill which I am happy to share.

We need to beat those who mangle county names at their own game, and insist on using the correct county names to maintain and re-establish our county heritage.

As campaign founder Pam Moorhouse asserts, we also need to set right the wrongs committed by administrators in the past, who chopped and changed county names against people’s will, causing great confusion, which persists to this day. Ms Moorhouse constantly stresses the unfair force used, in particular in and around 1974, with the implementation of the act.

This country deserves and will have an imaginative and inventive future. We are clearly at a potential crossroads in the life of the nation. Keeping firm friends, such as the counties we have known and cherished for centuries, at our side, will help us as we move into that future.

I look forward to your comments and support as this campaign progresses to ministerial and policy level to the implementation of its goals.

This article was originally published on the Conservative Home website (18th August 2018). The confusion played out in the comments illustrates the point of the article, people generally find it hard to think of “county” without thinking of the bureaucracies that have been named after them.

As one commentator replied: “That confusion must be resolved. A county is a geographical area, while modern day soi-disant ‘counties’ with councils are no more than transient organisational conveniences.

The name “county” must be reserved for the historic shires, then we wouldn’t have this confusion. I live in a place, not a bureaucratic entity. My identity is long established over the generations, not defined periodically by Whitehall.

Local government areas can shift about for whatever purposes are called for but the shires remain as they have been for a millennium.”

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