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Today's Guardian article, "Local elections: Tories tipped for heavy losses," contains the following statement:

...the Conservatives could lose about 500 seats to the Lib Dems and 300 to Labour. The latter traditionally makes fewer gains in the shires, where many of the elections are being held.

I've never before heard the expression "the shires". What does this refer to? Is it strictly a geographic reference or does it have a more subtle political or demographic meaning?

This was referring to local council elections affecting English and Northern Irish councils.

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    It's probably related to this map, which shows which counties end in "-shire", but I don't actually know if there's a subset of that which is "the shires" in this context. – Bobson May 2 at 17:01
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    @Bobson Not really, no. – David Richerby May 2 at 23:42
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This is actually a surprisingly complicated question to answer, or at least to give specifics for. Briefly, a "shire" is a unit of land division, very similar to "county", the first being Anglo-Saxon, the second Norman. As such, many modern British ceremonial/historic counties have the form city name + shire, for example Nottinghamshire. In 1888 local government in England and Wales was restructured to create administrative counties, many of which retained the relevant ceremonial name. Further reform eventually culminated in division into metropolitan (urban) and non-metropolitan(rural) counties/districts with the rural ones sometimes named after ceremonial counties and the urban ones after towns or cities (this has since been further modified.

As such "shires" here is being used as a short hand for non-metropolitan districts. More specifically, this will be more accurate for rural counties in the south and middle of England, where the Labour Party finds less support, although confusingly, many of these don't actually have names ending in '-shire'. Thus the meaning is party geographic, but mostly demographic.

  • So the way this term was used in the article, is it implicit that they are referring only to England and not Northern Ireland (which was also referred to earlier in the article)? And if so does this show some sort of bias? – DaveInCaz May 2 at 17:19
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    @DaveInCaz This is definitely England only, since the Labour Party aren't registered in Northern Ireland (although they do fellow travel with the SDLP) and the Conservatives never win there. There will be a certain amount of bias in what the Guardian thinks is important (it's a left wing English newspaper now based in London), but there is also a numerical bias in that only 462 seats in Northern Ireland are up for re-election out of 8804 seats in total (there's also 1 seat in Scotland). – origimbo May 2 at 17:30
  • Yes, elaborating on the last paragraph I think the intended referent is Berkshire/Buckinghamshire/Cambridgeshire etc. rather than Yorkshire/Lancashire/Derbyshire. – rlms May 2 at 21:53
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    "Thus the meaning is party geographic, but mostly demographic." Eh, the intended sense is obviously both together. The etymology is much more straightforward than you're making it: "shires" were the larger land units and so were/are seen as distinguished from the urban centers. Thus, its use for "the countryside". – lly May 4 at 8:44
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In an electoral context, the shires correspond to the non-metropolitan counties that are colored red on the map below. They are in contrast with the metropolitan counties as defined in the Local Government Act of 1972.

Map of non-metropolitan countries in England


Original (incorrect) answer: If I am not mistaking, the shires in this case are not as convoluted in nature as origimbo's otherwise excellent (and correct) answer might suggest, and simply refer to the dictionary definition:

dictionary definition of Shires

  • Although that definition leaves two questions i) which of the three (or more?) definitions of county do you mean and ii) where do the Midlands start and stop? – origimbo May 2 at 22:09
  • It's useful to have a simple definition, which is fine. This does not invalidate the more complex definition. Similar to the fact that the UK is composed of three, or four countries, depending on how you count "Englandandwales" as one kingdom or as two countries. It's both; but most people want the simple definition. – Rich May 2 at 22:56
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    @origimbo Which definition of "county" doesn't much matter. And it's rather silly of you to demand a precise definition of "Midlands" when you use the equally vague term "south and middle of England" in your own answer. Where does that start or stop? – David Richerby May 2 at 23:44
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    @DavidRicherby No major criticism was intended; as with terms like "the Midwest", it's an extremely difficult (but interesting) thing to investigate with government and dictionary definitions not always in line with the map in peoples' heads. fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-states-are-in-the-midwest – origimbo May 3 at 0:06
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    If London gets fed up with a hard Brexit and secedes to rejoin the EU, you could call the remaining part "the Shire" :) – JollyJoker May 3 at 7:34
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In the context that The Guardian is using it, the shires are areas whose names end in -shire. For example Wiltshire and Hampshire.

Traditionally most of those areas have been politically conservative and where the Tory party has a strong base. They tend to be more rural. However, the recent failure to deliver Brexit has damaged the Tory party and they seem to be losing support in their traditional heartlands.

So "the shires" is just a shorthand way of addressing that poorly defined collection of traditionally Tory leaning areas, rather than referring to specific geographical locations.

  • Thanks for addressing the sense in which the article used the term. – DaveInCaz May 3 at 11:45
  • It also includes Kent and Sussex in the usual case – Ian Turton May 3 at 17:26
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    I suspect by "poorly" you meant "poorly defined". – Michael Kay May 4 at 21:52

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