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Eric Pickles's championing of traditional English counties is something we can all get behind

Local government reorganisation removed ancient counties like Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Middlesex, but for many they never ceased to exist
  • @Simon_Kelner

Eric Pickles was scouting around for ideas to mark St George's Day, and to renew interest in England's national day. He could have donated an old pair of trousers for affordable housing, or he could have stood, arms outstretched, on the South Downs as a monument to rival the Angel of the North. He could have led a campaign to give us all an extra day off work. Instead, he chose a far less ambitious route.

According to the Government's website, "Eric Pickles will assert that England's historic and traditional counties still exist". Well, I've got news for Mr Pickles: for many people, their county of birth has never ceased to exist. Local government reorganisation back in 1974 removed some of England's ancient counties - Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Middlesex, for instance - and replaced them with unitary authorities made in administrative heaven, but old allegiances, and established borders, die hard.

One day almost 40 years ago, the citizens of St Helens - to take a random example - woke up to discover that they were no longer in Lancashire, but had been placed in the new metropolitan county of Merseyside. Did the inhabitants of the town immediately regard themselves as Merseysiders rather than Lancastrians? Of course not, and I use this case study only to illustrate that history cannot easily be airbrushed.

Even though the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland were amalgamated into Cumbria, the titles of the local newspapers - the Cumberland News and the Westmorland Gazette - tell their own story of where the loyalties of their respective readerships lie. My friend Charlie, a native of the area, further points out that the town of Appleby renamed itself Appleby-in-Westmorland simply to ensure that the old county name survives.

Eric Pickles (can there possibly be a better-named person to promote the value of Englishness?) said that "the tapestry of England's counties binds our nation together...we are championing England's traditional local identities, irrespective of current tiers of local administration", and it is one strand of conservative thinking that probably most of us could get behind.

Maybe there should also be a move to support county cricket as a means of keeping the idea of Middlesex alive, or to remind the inhabitants of Middlesbrough that, a long time before Cleveland was invented, the town was in Yorkshire, hence the reason the county's cricket team play occasional matches there.

Although these feel like arcane, anachronistic points, they feed into the wider debate about English nationalism. Most of the country will have been unaware of their national day. We English don't have any of the cultural traditions of the Celtic nations: no daffodils, no leprechaun costumes, no piping in of the haggis. But as the United Kingdom becomes more devolved, the question of English identity is increasing in pertinence. And certainly, every time Alex Salmond is given airtime, more people from the Tyne to the Tamar are given a reason to define themselves as English rather than British.

English nationalism unfortunately conjures up images of the BNP, or skinhead football hooligans or little Englanders desperate to keep out immigrants. Much better, as Mr Pickles has no doubt worked out, to find a more gentle, understated way to exert our Englishness.