This year, all eyes are on one particular part of the United Kingdom. Scotland, you might think – but Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has other ideas:
“This is to be Yorkshire’s year. In July, the Tour de France will begin in Leeds, a pairing that might once have had Tony Hancock in stitches. The county now beats Kent for the title of garden of England. Hull City are in the FA Cup final. Opera North is the most exciting opera company outside London. The dazzling Hepworth Wakefield gallery opened not long ago. While Manchester may claim the status of capital of the north, ‘God’s own county’ towers majestically to the east. Leeds is Athens to Manchester’s Rome.”
For Jenkins, Yorkshire is less of a county and more of country:
“…a diverse geographical entity of great cities, ancient cathedrals, industrial estates, seats of learning, wild uplands and sweeping coasts. Its natural landscape is as varied as any in Europe, from the raw limestone Pennines to the spreading Vale of York, from the lush dales to the bare Cleveland Hills. The county’s churches as a group are the best in England, outranking even those of Norfolk. Its country houses are incomparable, from Temple Newsam, Nostell Priory and Wentworth in the south, to Harewood, Beningborough and Castle Howard in the north.
“Yorkshire’s geology of hard gritstone pushes up through its fields and coats its buildings. Grit also defines its writers, from Brontë to Priestley and Hughes, its architects and its opening batsmen.”
The idea of Yorkshire as a country is not such a silly one. People-wise, it is bigger than Scotland or the Republic of Ireland. Bigger too than Norway or Finland. If the English had been as divided by sea and mountain as the Scandinavians, then they too might have developed as distinct nations – of which Yorkshire would be one.
As it is, Yorkshire is an integral part of England – and so independence is obviously not on the agenda. There is, however, a serious point to this whimsy, which is to emphasise the absurdity of England’s over-centralised system of government:
“Successive London politicians have curbed local discretion, stripped out revenue-raising powers and suppressed regional democracy while doing little to revive an exhausted economy. Cameron has suppressed all county planning. Like Scotland, England’s northern provinces have been relegated to the status of London dependencies, treated as Belgrade treated the provinces of former Yugoslavia.”
Jenkins may be going too far with the Belgrade comparison, but for all the progress on localisation made by some ministers within the current government, the centralising instinct still lurks within Whitehall’s bosom.
And he’s surely on to something in his condemnation of HS2:
“…relieving Yorkshire’s clogged arteries with the most insulting of all infrastructure projects: a luxury train to London.”
Yes, of all the ways in which we could spend tens of billions of pounds to realise the North’s full potential, it is telling that Whitehall’s biggest idea is a very expensive way of getting to somewhere else.
Instead of thinking about independence for Yorkshire, we should think about Yorkshire as if it were independent – a small but significant European nation like the ones mentioned above. For a country like Denmark or Finland, connections to trading partners are important – but it would be quite bizarre for any of them to see such links as more important than the strengths and weaknesses of the country itself.