IF Britain was the workshop of the world, the Yorkshire I grew up in was the boiler room of that factory. We mined, processed and burnt vast quantities of the coal that lay beneath us and powered a country through war and austerity and on into the swinging 60s.
Nobody has ever accused our county of lacking in confidence but, beneath the brash exterior of those days, there was a troubling insecurity rooted in a slow decline. Coal was not the fuel of the future and nor were our imperial links the basis of a sustainable economy.
By the 1970s the contradictions were there for all to see and drove a decade of social conflict. The people who had won the war and built the peace wanted their slice of the cake while the bakers said there was not enough mix to go round.
The tale that is often told of that decade – of a Britain on the verge of collapse – often has the ring of self-justifying propaganda from those who itched to get their revenge on the miners or anybody else who defied them. They got their moment under Mrs Thatcher and the sometimes alarming social upheavals of her years in office. But nor can it be denied that the problems of the country ran deep and that fundamental reform was essential.
Joining what was then the EEC in 1973 turned out, in retrospect, to be the most far-sighted decision by any government since the creation of the NHS a quarter of a century earlier.
Of course, many felt sentimental about what was seen as diminution of our links with Australia and New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries, but the opening up of our economy to new trading relationships and new sources of investment was essential to modernise and adapt.
My view is that Europe, far more than Mrs Thatcher, was the real driver of success into the 1990s and beyond.
Yet the appeal of Europe for me has always been greater than that. Born in 1940, my memories of the war years and the hardship years of recovery are very vivid. The European Union has made the idea of military conflict in Western Europe – so dominant in the era of my parents’, their parents’ and their parents’ parents – seem unimaginable.
More than that, it has made today’s young Europeans the most cosmopolitan and outward-looking generation anywhere. That is a great achievement.
These are huge and wonderful marks of progress for those of us who quite literally grew up under the threat of bombers. Of course, things were never perfect. The vote for Brexit on June 23, 2016, did not come out of nowhere, and many of Yorkshire’s towns and villages were amongst the strongest supporters of leaving.
After years of austerity the promise of another £350m a week for the NHS – the infamous promise on the bus – was understandably attractive to many. Similarly, after a decade of squeezed wages, the idea that closing down freedom of movement would help working people had a tangible appeal.
The reality, though, has been that we haven’t had an extra penny come to the NHS because of Brexit: in fact, we have seen a crisis caused by austerity worsened by the decision of so many nurses from elsewhere in Europe to leave a UK they no longer feel is welcoming to them.
And, on wages, the hard truth is that we have had nearly two years of additional real-terms pay cuts directly because of Brexit and all before we have even left.
These are the sort of things that have made me such an enthusiastic supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, and why I was so pleased to be asked to speak at the campaign’s launch in London on April 15.
I regretted, deeply, the referendum result, but I am also a democrat, and so I accepted it for what it was: an instruction from the people to the Government to negotiate a Brexit deal. But I do not think it is either a tablet of stone or a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a Government that is plainly both unwilling and unable to deliver on the promises made in the referendum campaign.
A People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal is the one way we have of both holding the Government’s feet to the fire over the Brexit negotiations and of ensuring we cannot be fired out of the EU on terms nobody sensible would agree to.
It offers a way of bringing the country back together as the vote will be on a concrete proposal and not, as in 2016, on a vague prospectus that has been argued about ever since.
To get a People’s Vote we need Parliament to legislate to give us our say and we all need to join that demand. Yorkshire folk are never feart to speak their minds, so I cannot imagine we will have a problem with that.
Sir Patrick Stewart is a Mirfield-born actor who is spearheading the People’s Vote campaign that wants the Government’s Brexit deal to be subjected to a referendum.