Why our constituency names should celebrate Britain’s history

9 June 2021

2:46 AM

9 June 2021

2:46 AM

The real story of the proposed boundary changes is not which MPs might end up seatless or whether the new boundaries help Labour or the Tories, but what it means for ever-lengthening constituency names. Queen Mary university politics professor Philip Cowley says:

If enacted, the proposed constituency names for England would be the longest and most cumbersome since Britain first began with single-member one-person one-vote constituencies in 1950.

— Philip Cowley (@philipjcowley) June 8, 2021

Professor Cowley points out that the mean number of characters in a constituency name would hit 15.7 under these proposals, compared to 12.6 in 1950. Whereas almost half of English constituencies had a single-word name in 1955, only one third do today and the new titles would take it down to 31.5 per cent. Now, you might think people who care about such things must’ve had their heads flushed down the toilet one too many times at school – or perhaps not often enough – but the longer constituency names get, the uglier they become.

The Boundary Commission proposes, for instance, that the already ugly Cities of London and Westminster be hived off into two even uglier nomenclatures: City of London and Islington South and Westminster and Chelsea East. The Commission has also given up the ghost and recommended that Corby become Corby and East Northamptonshire, after the fashion preferred by local politicians. Other mouthfuls include Luton South and South Bedfordshire, Copeland and the Western Lakes, and the elongated Washington and Sunderland South West.

Rather than caving in to this fashion for swelling and ungainly seat titles, we should follow our Australian cousins in naming parliamentary constituencies after national heroes, inventors and pioneers. The Australian federal House of Representatives names most of its electoral divisions after celebrated Aussies, as do most of the lower houses of the states and territories. In all, 77 per cent of House of Reps divisions are named after such luminaries, including Hunter (Leith-born explorer and second governor of New South Wales); Macquarie (Ulva-born fifth governor of New South Wales); Reid (Renfrewshire-born fourth prime minister of Australia); and Stirling (Lanarkshire-born first governor of Western Australia).

For some unfathomable reason, they also name electorates after people who aren’t Scottish. The honour is only bestowed posthumously and while former prime ministers generally get a nod, there is an admirably democratic mix of backgrounds and contributions to the country. There are divisions recognising aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, former chief justice Sir Isaac Isaacs, feminist social reformer Vida Goldstein, medical researcher Dame Annie Macnamara and stockman and aboriginal campaigner Vincent Lingiari, as well as trade unionist Louisa Dunkley, poet Dame Mary Gilmore, and aboriginal tenor Harold Blair.

Britain should do the same and with similar principles in mind. So, as well as the constituencies of Gladstone, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher, we could have Wilberforce, Pankhurst, Turing and Hawking; Chaucer, Austen, Baird and Watt; Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Shackleton and Livingstone; Nightingale, Hutchison, Cobbett and Cobden. Those so honoured should reflect the best of British life, thought, public and military service, including excellence in the arts, sciences and commerce, and should come from all parts of the country as well as bringing to the nation’s attention forgotten and overlooked greats.

There are three good reasons to adopt this approach to constituency naming:

1) No more unwieldy, tongue-tripper constituencies. How much more pleasant it would be to hear the Prime Minister respond to a question from the Member for Shakespeare or to thank the Member for Goldsmid for her interest in schools funding.

2) It would be a new way to venerate great Britons and encourage a deeper sense of shared identity. Constituency-naming should not be linked to geography, so the seat of Burns need not be located in Ayrshire or Lovelace in London, on the basis that the writer of ‘A Man’s a Man for All That’ belongs as much to people in Aylesbury as those in Alloway and the pioneer of computer programming to the townsfolk of Magherafelt as much as denizens of Marylebone. Instead of fretting about declining Britishness and musing sagely on the causes and constitutional implications, this would be a practical (albeit modest) way for Parliament to kindle fresh interest in what British people have in common and remind us of the proud achievements of Britons over the centuries.

3) Naming constituencies after storied generals, merchants and philosophers would give us even more opportunities to engage in our national sport of cancel culture. Countless jobs would be created at the Huffington Post and the New York Times purely to comb through the biography of every constituency namesake on the hunt for a micro-aggression or a misgendering. Was Ignatius Sancho a terf? Did Isambard Kingdom Brunel centre whiteness? Did you know Harold Wilson was a Zionist? Endless fun.

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