Jayne Dowle: Fear of Yorkshire’s strengths reveals Westminster’s weaknesses

Yorkshire devolution is under discussion.
Yorkshire devolution is under discussion.
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DON’T get on the wrong side of a Yorkshirewoman. Especially one with a splendid name like the Baroness Pinnock of Cleckheaton. The Liberal Democrat politician and life peer has been telling the Government a few home truths.

Speaking in the House of Lords, the former teacher suggested that the Government’s obduracy over Yorkshire devolution could be down to just one thing. Fear. “There is amazing unity in Yorkshire, bit of a historic moment, that, and a great campaign run by the regional newspaper, The Yorkshire Post, gathered support for the One Yorkshire deal,” she said. “If the Government is not prepared to consider a One Yorkshire solution, perhaps it’s a bit frightened of Yorkshire…”

Sir Michael Parkinson is among those to personify the best of Yorkshire, says Jayne Dowle.

Sir Michael Parkinson is among those to personify the best of Yorkshire, says Jayne Dowle.

If I was a Minister, I might be a bit frightened of Yorkshire too. We’re the largest county in England and, at 5.3 million, our population is roughly equivalent to that of Scotland, Norway or Denmark. Oh, and we’re double the size of Wales and we have almost three times more people than Northern Ireland.

Quite why a government with a very shaky grasp on power, especially in the North of England, would wish to alienate such a substantial number of voters never fails to puzzle me. You might think that they would want to bring us to the table and listen to our independent voice, instead of throwing a few crumbs to scatter us like scrapping pigeons.

That is where you would be wrong. Broad – and patronising – assumptions continue to be made about us by Westminster. Central to this is the persistent belief that we are a seething shire of feuding insurgents constantly attacking each other – which is what David Cameron thought. When Prime Minister, he once remarked: “We knew Yorkshire people hated the rest of us, but I never knew they hated each other.”

He’s wrong on both counts, of course. However, an ignorant observer might assume that the Sheffield City Region debacle proves his point. At Christmas last year, South Yorkshire effectively tore itself apart.

As Sheffield and Rotherham voted to support the Sheffield City Region in a non-mandatory referendum, the people of Barnsley and Doncaster opted to declare their loyalty to Yorkshire as a single entity. A majority of 85 per cent came out in favour of the One Yorkshire campaign backed by this newspaper.

There, say the naysayers, proof that Yorkshire is a mess and can’t even agree amongst itself about how it should be organised. The jagged outcome of the referendum simply adds fuel to the fire and allows the Government to get away with its policy of divide and conquer. The Normans, who harried the North remorselessly in a series of destructive campaigns designed to set ancient house against ancient house, have nothing on this lot.

Support, in the form of promises of hundreds of millions of pounds of investment cash to improve services and bolster jobs and investment, is being dangled like a carrot to the Sheffield separatists. You can’t have ‘‘One Yorkshire’’ and leave out the major city in the south of the county, so ergo, no One Yorkshire. Stalemate doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I’d say that the simple truth is that the people of Barnsley and Doncaster realised that there’s strength not just in numbers, but in the economic, social and cultural ties which bind the county together. This is the point which those in Westminster miss, but those of us who actually live here do understand.

It’s also hoary old cliché that you can always tell a Yorkshireman (or woman, for that matter), but you can’t tell him much, because he knows best. Some of our most successful exports have made it their mission to go out in the world and ask questions, explore possibilities and push boundaries.

Off the top of my head, I’ll put on this list veteran broadcaster and journalist Sir Michael Parkinson, born in my own home-town of Barnsley, the late Ted Hughes, who served as Poet Laureate until his death in 1998, and the entire Yorkshire contingent of the England football team who took the pride of the White Rose to Russia this summer and showed the rest of the country what lads are made of up here.

Still, is it true that the only way to subjugate a perceived enemy is to destroy them? In which case, those in Westminster need to man up and look us square in the face. For goodness sake, in less than six months Great Britain will be on its own. The last thing any responsible government needs is a substantial part of it seething with resentment. We have people to work, contribute to the economy and pay their taxes. We have natural beauty that attracts millions of overseas visitors. Our universities are leading global institutions. And we could offer all this up to the greater good whilst retaining independence. By ignoring our strength, Westminster is simply showing up its own weaknesses.