It would make for sensational reading should it occur anywhere in Scotland but the results of the Worlingham by-election merited just a corner of a page deep inside Norwich’s Eastern Daily Press:
“NORMAN Brooks is the new ward councillor for Worlingham, having won the by-election for the Conservative Party last night (Monday, December 19). He polled 706 votes, beating Sylvia Robbins of Labour (586) and Sue Bergin of the Green Party (137). Stuart Foulger of the UK Independence Party won 64 votes and Liberal Democrat Doug Farmer polled 46 votes.”
It seems to have made little difference that the vacancy had been caused by a Tory councillor resigning in disgrace: nailed for drunk driving and assaulting a police officer he harassed the police with offensive e-mails too. This result means Waveney District Council (the Norfolk flatlands between Norwich and Great Yarmouth) continues in Tory control, as do most local councils, including Norfolk CC.
In fact, the Tory phalanx of 60 that has ruled this rural and scenic county—the fifth largest in England—for some time has recently been augmented by two Lib-Dems and, just this week, the leader of the seven-strong Green group on NCC. Even though I visit regularly, it is difficult to adjust to the vastly different political atmosphere of somewhere like this. Though its extensive farming interests (e.g. Bernard Matthews, Colman’s et al) might point to Tory leanings, many small companies in oil & gas, printing, insurance and broadcast media business also exist. Although Labour does have pockets of support in Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Norwich itself, they hold only 3 seats on NCC and none of the county’s nine constituencies (7 Tory; 2 Lib-Dem). The net result is an environment where political discussion is typically business-friendly and socially liberal but inward-looking and EU-hostile. The burden of glorious empire and of having seen off foreign oppression still drives contemporary political thought.
So, despite the fact that I have visited and spent time in Norfolk for years and that (unlike when I fly) no-one on East Coast trains asks for my passport, for me this place registers as a different country from Scotland, just as when I visit Dublin. You would think, given their similar demographics and relative position vis-a-vis the capital, that East Lothian and Norfolk would have much in common. Their scenic coast, bucolic country lanes and photogenic villages do give that impression. Neither have real slums nor register in any urban blight Plook-on-a-Plinth contest. Both register 98-99% white in racial mix and high on the list of desirable places to retire to.
But, if the pubs of Wymondham (pron. “Windum”) are cosier, the villages quainter and the medieval extent of Norwich speaks of a far richer Middle Ages than Scots dreamed of, the modern middle class here dominates; they are wholeheartedly Tory. People are oriented to private schools and health care and, while living in the quaint villages, seem to have made much less of a fist of involving themselves in their communities, be it Colts soccer or amateur dramatics. There are clubs but these—especially the golf clubs—appear more choosy whom they admit, to the point of appearing class-based.
Certainly, there is no longer any sense of the Scots being the poor relations. This is borne out by statistics: whereas Norfolk’s GDP per capita easily exceeds East Lothian’s, it is still less than Scotland’s as a whole. As with other regions of England, Norfolk takes pride in its own cultural distinctiveness, including a recognisable dialect, distinctive flint architecture, and local ales/dishes worth sampling. But the differences between Norfolk and Cumbria or the Peaks are so much less than between it and East Lothian, let alone Perthshire—despite the huge difference in the landscape. The pubs alone make it distinct before you even consider how Fife partans are served different to Cromer crab.
None of this is meant to sound critical of my Norfolk hosts, who graciously make me very welcome each year. But, having spent years outside the UK in countries that the English most certainly regard as ‘foreign’, I mean them no offence that politics has now been added to culture and history already on my list, as major factors why I have come to regard the English as foreigners—albeit my favourite ones.