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Simon Jenkins in The Guardian: Why mighty Yorkshire is another country in waiting

May 8, 2014

Forgive the possible connotations of independence that may be derived from the title of this article (our aim is very much for Yorkshire to remain within the UK) but the narrative of this great piece from Simon Jenkins in The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free column’ today is spot on.

Why mighty Yorkshire is another country in waiting

The proud county of Yorkshire can go one better than ‘minority’ Cornwall. After years of London centralisation, it’s payback time
Illustration by Satoshi Kambayashi

Illustration by Satoshi Kambayashi

The warm-up question for the BBC’s Question Time panel in Leeds last week was pithy. If Cornwall, why not Yorkshire? If little Cornwall can now be afforded “European minority status”, why not the mighty province of York?

Are 5.5 million Yorkshire men and women not as deserving of “minority status” within the United Kingdom as half a million Cornish (of whom just 70,000 say they are actually Cornish)? Do the great kingdoms of Elmet and Jorvik not rank with tiny Kernow? While the Leeds audience was not in a mood for separatism, they could not see why Cornwall was so special.

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.

We are all biased by experience. I worked briefly in Bradford before its fine city centre was razed to the ground by its city fathers. But over the horizon stood golden Leeds, the best preserved (or least damaged) Victorian city in the north. Round it I could roam a county of an extraordinary richness, its communities blighted only by a poverty to which no one had the remotest answer.

Yorkshire is much the biggest county in England, indeed clearly a “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. Nowhere compares with the exhilaration of the Pennine Way at Blea Moor – as wild a spot as anywhere in Europe – or with the dark ages intimacy of Lastingham’s crypt or with Whitby’s charming harbour.

A boat entering Whitby harbour. Whitby harbour. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex Features Cornwall may claim a distinct history and language. But it succumbed to Saxon rule in the 9th century only two centuries after Elmet did, and has been “England” ever since. Cornish is a scholar’s tongue, not a surviving vernacular like Welsh.

Yorkshire may like silly terriers and hate the definite article, but its rich and often incomprehensible dialect has been charted by Ian Macmillan with an ear worthy of Henry Higgins. He can differentiate the lilt of a vowel from one end of a Yorkshire vale to another. His How to Talk Tyke is an encyclopedia of linguistic colour, melding Celtic, Saxon and Viking words. Ken Loach’s authentically Yorkshire film Kes, filmed in Barnsley, had to be dubbed into “English” for DVD distribution.

I am not clear what qualified for “minority status” apart from some vocal lobbyists. The Cornish will apparently be afforded the “same protection as the Welsh, Scots and Irish”, which means their views must be considered in “combating discrimination, promoting equality and preserving and developing culture and identity”. This seems little more than job creation for political correctness lawyers. But it is the raw material for the new European regionalism.

For the time being, the United Kingdom is concentrating on keeping the Scots loyal. This is proving an uphill task given the foolish tactic of deploying not affection or trust through further devolution, but “Project Fear”, the hurling of insults and threats of punishment at the independence lobby. David Cameron treats the Scots with all the subtlety of Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall.

If Wales and Cornwall go down the same path as Scotland, it will be entirely London’s fault. 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.

John Prescott’s ham-fisted attempt at regional assemblies came to grief in the north-east in 2004. An adopted Yorkshireman himself, he revived the 1970s policy of flattening ancient mill and mining towns rather than restoring them. His successor and another local, Eric Pickles, is continuing to centralise power and is relieving Yorkshire’s clogged arteries with the most insulting of all infrastructure projects: a luxury train to London.

I am sure Yorkshire’s self-confidence has no need of a “cultural leg-up” from the Council of Europe. I doubt its people even regard themselves as a “minority” where it matters, which is in Yorkshire. But when it is payback for decades of London centralisation, their time may come. Then, who could deny “country” status to a proud land with the same population as Scotland, nearly twice that of Wales and 10 times that of Cornwall?

We should watch Yorkshire this year. It needs only another twist of the centralising screw from Cameron and Miliband. It needs only the emergence of a Yorkshire Alex Salmond and perhaps a cup final or county championship victory. Unthinkable thoughts may then stir in the noble Yorkshire breast.

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  1. Yorkshire Nige permalink

    We are sure that our friends in Cornwall are fully aware that YDM is delighted that they have now achieved national minority status and that we fully support them in their quest for self determination. This article has been posted solely for its positivity toward Yorkshire autonomy and we feel it should be made clear that, in posting it, YDM is not supporting any comments within it that may be taken in a negative light regarding Cornwall.

  2. cornubian permalink

    Thanks Nige. The comments were quite disparaging and incorrect at that.

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