David Blunkett: Grit alone won’t save Yorkshire in Brexit Britain

David Blunkett says Brexit-supporting business leaders have to come up with a new plan for Yorkshire.
David Blunkett says Brexit-supporting business leaders have to come up with a new plan for Yorkshire.
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NEARLY three out of five of those voting in our region chose to leave the European Union a week ago – the 58 to 42 per cent margin in Yorkshire was much bigger than the UK-wide result of 52 to 48 per cent.

Leeds marginally voted to stay in while my own city of Sheffield, to the surprise of many, voted by 51 to 49 per cent to leave.

I should not have been surprised. Back in 1999, when I was invited for the first time to address the Cutlers’ Feast in Sheffield in my then role as Education and Employment Secretary, I was preceded by a well-known Europhile, Hugo Young, who did not go down well with the audience.

In other words, the business community in Sheffield has historically been very antagonistic towards the European Project, and in many ways extremely insular.

This has sometimes been a strength. The commitment to the city and to Yorkshire, to a belief in a sense of belonging and identity, has been commendable.

It has, however, also been historically a major disadvantage. The collapse of some of our industries, not least cutlery and silverware, was in part the result of a failure to realise that world around us was changing.

Sheffield, if not Yorkshire as a whole, has not been happy with globalisation.

Back in the 1980s and I should remember this well, as I was leader of Sheffield at the time, a desire to “resist” change at all costs was seen as feature of the left in politics.

However, it was not. This was a reaction by Yorkshire people – not just by politicians.

That is why it should not have been a surprise that Yorkshire as a whole voted for Brexit on June 23.

But the consequences could be profound. Already it is clear that the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party will be between those based in and influenced by London and the South East of England.

If (God forbid) that dilettante Boris Johnson should become Prime Minister, we should have someone whose whole raison d’etre is metropolitan London through and through.

The Labour Party is currently in meltdown but has been driven at the top by those based in – and influenced by – North London.

The prospect, therefore, for our region and our communities here is not a happy one with a London-based metropolitan government of whatever persuasion in the immediate future.

The funding that we have received from the EU, albeit a return of funds that we as a nation have contributed, will no longer be coming our way.

The rural parts of Yorkshire will have to wait to see just what will replace the much-maligned subsidy for agricultural policy and those areas of South Yorkshire, which voted vehemently to come out of Europe having benefited most from funding allocated from the EU, will have to learn the bitter lesson – the lesson being that there are consequences to your actions.

In this newspaper five weeks ago, I put the case for remaining in Europe while wishing to see substantial reform and a change in the priorities of the 28 members. That is no longer is the future of Britain.

Instead, we need to work out what alliances we can put together, what our place will be in the world and, above all, how others will see us.

Yorkshire will have to pull together in order to ensure that we are not once again the victims of rapid economic and global change. That means the development of combined authorities leading the city regions within Yorkshire and beyond.

They will need to work together and set aside historic rivalries between localities in the interests of the people that we serve.

The entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that constitutes Yorkshire will have to come to the fore.

Yes, we have grit, we do tell the world what we think and we say it is as it is. But frankly, that isn’t enough.

What we need now is a driving force which ensures we can be both innovative and competitive in the in manufacturing and the service sectors.

Those who attended the Cutlers’ Feast back in 1999 in my beloved Sheffield now need to demonstrate that they really can “go it alone”.

This is not just those in manufacturing but in finance and services, many of whom actually did, astonishingly for me, vote for Brexit.

Now, they have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable, to put their resources, their talent and their zeal where their instincts lay.

I challenge the commercial and business interests in Yorkshire, those who thought it was a smart move to separate Britain from Europe and in many ways from Britain influencing the world, to get off their backsides and help us to make a success of the future.

I think we deserve nothing less.

David Blunkett was Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough from 1987-2010. Now a Labour peer, he held three Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government.