Discover more from The Mill
'I'm from Lancashire, not Greater Manchester': An old question of identity rears its head again
It's a favourite talking point in local Facebook groups. But could it have political consequences in a place like Bolton?
George Francis Lee
It started with an experiment — a few loaded posts across local Facebook groups. I asked a simple question: do you use ‘Lancashire’ or ‘Greater Manchester’? This debate so haunts some parts of the county that it borders on cliché, but I wanted to see if people’s feelings were still as strong as I remembered.
As soon as the Facebook posts were approved, comments came in thick and fast (and as I write this, they’re still coming). Some of my posts have over 1,000 comments, the vast majority of whom proudly label themselves Lancastrians, not Greater Mancunians. I also had a few members of the Friends of Real Lancashire kindly remind me that the historical county was never actually removed, and, in effect, still exists.
Growing up in the most westerly slice of Greater Manchester, I spent my childhood in places like Atherton, Leigh, Tyldesley, Wigan, and Bolton — not places that tend to be associated with Manchester in the popular imagination. When I mention where I’m from, I have been asked “where’s that?” by Ancoats residents. Over in Salford, I’ve had “you’ve come far!”, without a drip of irony. No surprise then, that many identify more with Lancashire than they ever have with the relatively fresh-faced Greater Manchester.
The County Borough of Bolton was only abolished in 1974, meaning that many older Boltonians grew up in a pre-Greater Manchester world, one that was strongly associated with Lancashire. The 1974 change created the Metropolitan Borough of Bolton in Greater Manchester, a move that was felt to make great sense administratively but which complicated matters of identity here.
Christine Marshall-Smart, a Leigh local, summed up the general sentiment when she wrote under one of my Facebook posts: “No matter how the government wants to change the boundaries I’ll always be a Lancashire lass.” Like a boundary afterglow, the cultural embers of historic Lancashire are still very visible in this area, and they are heating up local politics again in some interesting ways.
To borrow a phrase from the Boltonian Times Radio host Darryl Morris, who I spoke to for this story, this Lancashire “hangover” appears benign on the surface — a yearning for old identities or some kitschy local pride. But it may be showing signs of something more political, particularly in Bolton, where a populist push for a split from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) could feature prominently in the next few years of local politics. Could a savvy group of Lancastrianistas turn cost-of-living grievances, resentment with Greater Manchester and their own sense of identity into a viable movement?
A few months ago, this became manifest when local party Bolton For Change (styled as Reform UK/Bolton For Change) announced that it had gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition calling to return the town to its former county of Lancashire — more than enough to allow a motion to be debated before the council. Unsurprisingly, the motion for a referendum did not go through, but a few initial stumbles have done little to derail a referendum in the past.
This week, I spoke with Trevor Jones, the leader of Bolton For Change over the phone about his party and the petition. Jones is a character, for sure. For one, he drives an open-top double-decker bus in Reform UK’s shade of turquoise. When I called him up he was sitting in the bus, parked up in Sale after a day of canvassing for a by-election candidate.
He’s a salt-of-the-earth politician, a local business owner with a thick Boltonian drawl, and he pitches himself as a real alternative to the established councillors and MPs. He knows Bolton well and knows its local politics even better. “I’ve always lived in Bolton. Lancashire, by the way,” he clarifies with relish. He’s deceptively sharp — throughout our chat, he calls me a “Labour guy” after checking me out on Facebook.
Comparisons to Brexit are often lazy ways to write political analysis, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Bolton for Change was founded by Jones after his experience in the Brexit Party — now rebranded Reform UK. The party’s site has little in terms of policy, but previously they petitioned for a major health centre in Farnworth, and have now set their sights on the cause of a local referendum.
Reform/BFC are clearly inspired by the long shadow of Brexit, and they often don’t style themselves as professionals. A quick perusal of their social media accounts shows cheap graphics, images of migrant boats, and clipped Farage interviews — successful tactics for grabbing attention back in 2016. Alongside attacks on clean air zones, you find some evidence of hardline and conspiratorialist politics: anti-immigrant rhetoric and outlandish claims about 15-minute cities.
Just last month, London mayor Sadiq Khan's Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) — designed to charge non-compliant vehicles for their emissions — became a wedge issue that allowed the Conservatives to keep one last pinky hooked around the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency. Once Boris Johnson’s seat, Uxbridge was expected to swing Labour after the former-PM’s fall from grace. However, the Tories used ULEZ as a single-issue tactic to win the day.
Could a similar issue — say, leaving Greater Manchester — be used to the same effect? If we look at the most recent election numbers for Bolton North East and Uxbridge, they are certainly similar, with the seats being won by just 378 and 495 votes, respectively. If those 3,000 signees of BFC’s petition were to be coordinated come election time, they could easily move votes away from either Labour or the Conservatives to shift a close result (the counter-argument is that with the national polls where they are now, Labour would expect to win the seat by a decent margin).
Jones is candid that he doesn’t think they’ll be taking control of Bolton’s politics anytime soon. “I'm not stupid. It's pretty obvious that the girl who's standing for Labour is going to win [in Bolton North East]. My thing now is to take as many votes as I can from them,” he tells me. He’s playing the long game. And for now, he’s focused on adding pressure to the established parties for political gain.
That political pressure could easily come from the groundswell of anger around an issue like Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Zone, which caused a backlash so fierce it spawned a Facebook group with more than 80,000 members in 2021. Since then, Andy Burnham has backtracked on the scheme, arguing for a "non-charging" solution, but the project's future remains up in the air.
A revived Clean Air Zone, with a charging component, could certainly have electoral consequences in this part of the world, especially when it is actually implemented. You can hear the speeches already: “An out of touch, liberal, metropolitan Labour administration thrusting their green agenda down your neck and swiping your wallet at the same time!”
Why would a divorce from Greater Manchester appeal to Boltonians in the first place? Distance, physical and cultural, seems key. “Bolton is definitely Lancashire. We're disconnected from Manchester, both literally (no tram service and unreliable rail) and mentally,” wrote one Redditor in an old thread on the topic.
Bolton is not only physically cut off from Manchester proper, but walking around the town just feels different, too. It’s hard to ignore the mucky buildings, closed shutters, and lack of a single metrolink station. Manchester has its Apple store, Selfridges, and its OMEGA Boutique. Bolton? Footasylum, a chippy restaurant, and a closed-down HMV.
Greater Manchester is often misrepresented by Boltonians, whose conception of the city region focuses heavily on its city centre — a distant, liberal metropolis, beyond the horizon. But they are right to notice differences. The Office for National Statistics says that Bolton has an unemployment rate of 4.6% — compare that to Manchester’s 3.9% and the 3.6% UK average. According to the Bolton Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, Boltonians have worse health, lower GCSE scores, greater physical inactivity, and higher rates of smoking than the national average.
I think it’s significant that many people in Bolton just don’t seem to be feeling the benefits of being part of the “Greater Manchester project”. All the media positivity about the growth of Manchester and the way Andy Burnham’s mayoralty has put the region in the spotlight doesn’t seem to be changing things here. While Bolton ranked as the 46th most deprived local authority in the country in 2015 out of a total of 317, by 2019 it had worsened to 34th place.
As The Mill reported about Oldham recently, some of the towns on the edge of Greater Manchester are struggling to find their way economically — less able than Manchester and Salford to attract high-earning young professionals in “knowledge economy” industries and suffering from poor transport connections to the centre. These issues create space for politicians to question what benefits Bolton is getting from being part of the GM club.
Back in June, Jones and his party got their first opportunity to present that question to Bolton Council when Dylan Evans — the party’s young, well-dressed vice chair — appeared before Bolton’s mayor and councillors in an echoey chamber. Evans said that Boltonians are tired of paying millions of pounds into the GMCA and receiving very little back (remind you of anything?). Evans said “we should embrace our differences” with Greater Manchester — although he wasn’t specific about what those differences are. Based on his party’s canvassing, he says many Boltonians see no improvement in the town since it was “taken out” of Lancashire.
One interesting part of Evan’s speech was his claim that many of those in the chamber secretly agree with him and that a Farnworth and Kearsley First councillor in that very room had signed one of his party’s petitions to leave the GMCA. By process of elimination, this must be Maureen Flitcroft who, according to Evans, decided to remove her support when she realised who was behind the petition.
The response in the chamber was mixed. The council’s Labour leader Nick Peel suggested we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if Greater Manchester had been called South Lancashire instead. Conservative leader Martyn Cox decried the “Manchesterisation” of Bolton and was more sympathetic to BFC’s petition, even congratulating them as he stood to speak.
I think Cox has a point here. Bolton Council should be wary of these strong feelings of identity about Manchester. If they assume that it will only forever be a niche issue — just like many did with Brexit — they could risk finding themselves on the wrong side of a referendum. In the end, though, the councillors moved to file a big, fat “no”, with 37 voting for the motion to remain in Greater Manchester, and 19 voting against.
Jones thinks the motion might have more traction among the public than it got in the council chamber. “It’s a massive issue to Boltonians and has slowly helped us to build momentum in the Bolton vote share,” he tells me, adding that his campaign has the support of Nick Buckley, the independent mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester. Buckley has very little chance of becoming GM mayor, but he’s a vocal campaigner who knows how to get attention in the media, so we might hear more about town referendums to leave the combined authority during the campaign next year.
It’s clear that much of the anti-Greater Manchester feeling has to do with identity, the sense that Bolton would be more able to be itself — more authentic, more in control of its destiny perhaps — if it wasn’t part of the GMCA. I think there’s some kind of base human instinct operating in that political demand for independence and I can understand where it comes from.
But on a mechanical level, the Bolton secessionist movement doesn’t seem to make much sense. As the radio host Morris points out, local government responsibilities aren’t devolved up to the GMCA — it’s government powers that are devolved down to the combined authority (see The Mill’s recent report on the latest powers secured by Burnham’s team). It’s not like GMCA has powers that have been taken from Bolton Council, and the councils in Greater Manchester have the option to opt out of big joint strategies like the much-delayed “spatial framework”, which Stockport indeed opted out of.
In fact, it’s the GMCA’s inability to act without the agreement of its constituent council leaders that means it is still a relatively underpowered organisation — much weaker and more limited in its range of executive functions than regional authorities in properly devolved countries like Germany. But anyone who follows politics closely knows that emotional, values-driven arguments like the one being made here in Bolton about identity tend to trump technical ones about the complex ways that power really works.
A few years ago, Bolton West’s Tory MP Chris Green — a staunch Brexiteer and Lancastrian identitarian — said he was "delighted" that Bolton was flying the red rose of Lancashire at its town hall for Lancashire Day. He told BBC Radio Lancashire: "I'm a little bit concerned for younger folk going through school that they only ever hear about Greater Manchester and that is pulling people away from Lancashire.”
David Grant, then a newly elected councillor, was quoted in the same story saying: “You just can't erase centuries of history, centuries of conflict, of brotherhood and everything else that went on in the space of 40 years in which the administrative area has been over us.”
That concept of erasure — the idea that a cherished identity is being scrubbed out by the administrative efficiencies of the modern world — is important here. But it seems to be easier for people to articulate that sense of loss than to define exactly what we’re losing.
I’m aware that as a young person, I don’t have the perspective of growing up in the pre-Greater Manchester era, which is clearly a major factor in this conversation. But while reporting this story, and speaking to lots of people who grew up in the same areas I did, I have sometimes been left scratching my head at what specifically about the Greater Manchester project is so threatening. When I have reached out and asked people “What is a Lancastrian culture and what is a Mancunian one?” the answers tend to be fuzzy.
Even Jones struggled to answer me directly. Does he feel there is a cultural difference between Manchester and places like Bolton? “I don't think people in Manchester relate to us,” he answers. “We’ve just never been accepted as Mancunians… we're just not Mancunians. I'm not Mancunian. My birth certificate says Bolton, Lancashire.”
There’s a twinge of annoyance in Jones’s reply when I ask why the distinction even matters. He’s clearly not going to let this go, not in our conversation nor in the coming years of political campaigning. “Well, when there’s 1000 years of history, it does matter.”
A message from George Francis Lee, a freelance journalist who wrote this piece for us: I’d like to hear your thoughts about the question of Lancashire versus Greater Manchester identities in the comments. What do you think is driving this ongoing debate? And how is it playing out in other parts of the city region? Please let me know by hitting the button below (members-only).