Whatever it is that makes a nation, Yorkshire has it
The folk of God’s Own County tend to be a reticent bunch, not much given to singing their own praises (or indeed, anyone else’s), but as cycling’s greatest race speeds spectacularly over the Broad Acres this weekend – an event the locals have greeted with characteristic enthusiasm and humour – it’s a good occasion to ask whether it should be the next nation within the UK to gain devolved powers.
I write ‘nation’ deliberately. While recognising that few would regard it as their primary nationality, never mind their sole one, we’re not talking about some simple fondness for a mere administrative division but that genuine sense of identity, otherness and shared cultural inheritance that makes a nation. And while size is not everything – Cornwall could make equivalent claims of self-identity – Yorkshire’s population is well within the range of the other areas of the UK that have devolved powers: less than London, about the same as Scotland, but more than Wales or Northern Ireland.
Does any of that imply a need or demand for a Yorkshire parliament or government? Not exactly, but if England suffers a democratic deficit via the West Lothian Question, then the areas outside London suffer twice over: to take one example, the government’s national infrastructure plan (for England), allocates sixteen pounds per person for transport spending in London for every one pound per person spent in Yorkshire. London may have special needs but sixteen times as much? Wales and Scotland protect their fair share via devolution. Does Yorkshire deserve any less? More relevantly, will Yorkshire folk start demanding no less?
As yet, no. At the European elections, the Yorkshire First party – campaigning for devolved parliament – secured just 1.5% of the vote. That was its first election and so voter recognition was probably just about nil, particularly as they didn’t distribute their free mail post and they weren’t entitled to a party political broadcast. That said, the very fact that the party exists is itself telling, though whether it should be a political party, having to work against the existing parties, rather than a campaign group seeking support including from those already active in the system, is a different question.
Critics will argue that we’ve been here before. John Prescott was keen on assemblies for Yorkshire, the North East and other regions; plans that were dropped after a referendum in the North East kicked the idea out with a 78% No vote. Those proposals, however, were a pig in a poke. There was no suggestion as to what the bodies would do, just what they would cost. It’s unsurprising that they weren’t a hit. Had they been accompanied by real powers, it might have been a different story.
I do wonder whether the Tour de France Grand Depart this year, and the proposed future Tour of Yorkshire for future ones, might do for England’s largest county what the London marathon did for its largest city, namely to demonstrate what can be achieved by a high profile sporting event when component boroughs work together. There is a political mirror to that; one that ultimately led to the recreation of a high profile voice for London in its mayor (though rather like the marathon route, it was hardly a direct path). A well-conducted campaign, building on the experience in Scotland, London and Wales, could deliver a Yorkshire parliament in far less time than it took there.
p.s. A quick note on the Tour itself. Stage One today shouldn’t present too many difficulties for the riders, except for the narrow, weaving roads and tight turns. If all goes smoothly, the sprinters should dominate the race to the line and Cavendish has made no secret of how much he wants to win in his mother’s home town, though Peter Sagan stands an excellent chance too. Stage Two, by contrast, is a real test; a stage that could easily be a Spring Classic in its own right. The 3000m of climbing is not far off a big mountain stage but rather than three or four huge ascents as in the Alps or Pyrenees, here there’ll be a relentless series of twenty or so climbs (only nine of which are categorised), constantly forcing a change of rhythm. They’re steep too, passing 10% frequently and the final climb within Sheffield itself hitting in excess of 30% at one point. This is a stage that could shake up the field and while the race can’t be won on Sunday, it could easily be lost, particularly given the dicey weather forecast. The stage winner is far harder to predict and is unlikely to be any of the favourites for any jersey.