Devolution is often associated with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But it’s time to consider a devolved Yorkshire. Yorkshire is by far the biggest county in the UK and happens to have almost exactly the same population as Scotland, which also puts it in the same league as many other European countries. The Yorkshire economy contributes billions to the UK and is twice the size of Wales’s—yet we don’t have real devolution.
I'm a 16-year-old in Bradford, and from my experience, people in Yorkshire feel every bit as alienated from Westminster as those in Scotland. But unlike the Scots, we don’t have representation in a devolved assembly: Yorkshire’s residents don’t have a voice.
The idea has, admittedly, been floated before and met an unhappy fate. In 2004, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott held a north-east referendum. He lost embarrassingly: his preferred outcome of a devolved assembly was crushed by 78 per cent to 22 per cent, with Prescott believing his humiliation was down to people not wanting “more politicians” and “greater council tax,” the themes successfully exploited by a cynical “no” campaign advised by none other than Dominic Cummings, who honed the populist slogan “politicians talk, we pay.”
But terrible as that defeat was, it cannot forever bury an idea whose time has come. Even at the time, Ed Davey—now the Lib Dem leader who was back then their regions spokesman—suggested the result might have been different if the government had seen off the “talking shop” charge by promising the assembly more powers. And these were very different times. Alienation from Westminster has reached entirely new heights across the UK: back then the SNP had only a handful of Scottish seats, today it holds 80 per cent of them.
Most fundamentally, the “north-east” is a modern administrative amalgam, not an historic county that goes deep into people’s identity. The regional identity here is exceptionally strong—75 per cent of residents identify with Yorkshire, a higher figure than in any other area in the country. You will most definitely see the Yorkshire flag flying in the region affectionately called “God's Own County.” And yet, back in 2004 local government minister Nick Raynsford had promised Yorkshire and the Humber a vote as well, but it never happened—probably because of the disastrous result of the north-east vote.
More recently, in 2018, 18 out of the 22 local councils in Yorkshire and the Humber backed a devolution deal for the county, called One Yorkshire. Under the deal, the county would have had a directly elected mayor, supported by a Combined Authority with representation from the 18 partner councils. Decisions such as housing, transport, and how to tackle rural and urban deprivation would have been made in Yorkshire, not in Whitehall. It would have created more investment in the areas that would make the biggest difference to Yorkshire’s economy. York City Council points to estimates that a One Yorkshire devolution agreement could have created 200,000 jobs and raised incomes by £500 per person.
One Yorkshire thus had huge support from local businesses, because 100 per cent of business rates generated in the region would have stayed in the region. The deal would have also meant more local control of government programmes and the creation of specific budgets to address unemployment, in-work poverty and health barriers to work.
And yet, frustratingly, the government refused it in 2019. Perhaps, given the rising assertiveness of Scotland, it was intimidated by thought of the clout a combined Yorkshire might wield. Instead, it said it was “prepared to begin discussions about a different, localist approach to devolution in Yorkshire.” Combined authorities like mine in West Yorkshire have been offered their own devolution deal. It is an artificial county, with different borders from the historic West Riding, which was created on one Whitehall whim in 1974, before its council was abolished on another by Margaret Thatcher a dozen years later. It is a mostly-urban area, whose major settlements include Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, with a substantial population of 2.3m, but not a unit people identify with in the way they do with Yorkshire as a whole.
Nonetheless, it is welcome that West Yorkshire will receive an extra £1.8bn to spend on issues that affect us, such as transport, tackling inequality and housing and—next month—vote for its devolved mayor. And indeed, 70 per cent of people in Yorkshire now live in some sort of devolved administration. That is progress. But as well as fracturing the historic county, these bodies do not have the power of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no assembly, and we are subject to the decisions made by central government; for example, West Yorkshire can’t decide on its own coronavirus rules.
During the pandemic, we have seen the strength of devolved governments and the weakness of our central government. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon was praised for her response to Covid-19. We have seen how unassailable the first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has been; especially when, unlike the government in Westminster, he introduced the “circuit breaker” lockdown in October on the advice of Sage, something which could have saved “thousands of lives.”
Yorkshire and its residents have suffered a great deal from this pandemic. Northern workers on furlough were offered just 67 per cent of their wages when some parts of the north were in Tier 3 restrictions. But in November, when the England-wide furlough scheme was extended due to the second lockdown, the government immediately offered to pay workers 80 per cent of previous pay—something it had refused to northern workers weeks earlier. The pandemic has also exacerbated longstanding regional inequalities. A report in 2018 found that too many children growing up in the north face the double disadvantage of entrenched deprivation and poor schools. London children on free school meals are 40 per cent more likely to achieve a good maths and English GCSE than children in the north.
If all of Yorkshire had one devolved administration, it might, for example, pursue free prescriptions and free university places: policies which the devolved administration in Scotland has been able to achieve. As a student in England, my education has been destroyed by the incompetent Gavin Williamson. Meanwhile, students in Wales are in the far safer hands of Kirsty Williams and those in Scotland have the thoughtful John Swinney.
People reasonably worry about nationalism and separatism, but the answer to that is a more federal approach, one that is fair and works for everyone. Why not replace the House of Lords, as Gordon Brown suggested, with a senate of the nations and regions that better reflects the diversity of the whole country? It is precisely because Whitehall and the UK-wide parties fail to grapple with the agenda that they create space for gimmicks like the Northern Independence Party, founded in October and running in the pending Hartlepool by-election. Leftists who claim to take inspiration from the success of the SNP, the Northern Independence Party is targeting disenfranchised Labour voters in the north, planning to take “all of Labour’s seats at some point.” Fanatically critical of Keir Starmer, members have even joked about contesting the leader’s London seat. I am infuriated by this party, which is likely to achieve nothing beyond splitting the progressive vote, and perhaps thereby electing another Conservative MP.
Besides, I don’t want the break-up of this country, which will inevitably cause hatred and unnecessary stress. I hope the NIP’s bubble—which may prove to be a social media phenomenon—will soon burst.
Somewhere in between a damaging dash to outright independence and government schemes for Metro Mayors over particular areas with little real power lies the solution we actually need: proper regional devolution.
If Keir Starmer wants to reclaim all those lost Yorkshire heartlands—such as Wakefield, Don Valley, Penistone and Stocksbridge—he should start by granting us the power to choose how we want to be governed in a real assembly. Boris Johnson will never go there: he believes devolution is “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake,” after all. So the Tories will continue to talk about “levelling up,” but within a fundamentally top-down mindset, which makes it an approach that’s bound to fail.
Before Scotland gets its inevitable second referendum, we should get to vote on a devolved Yorkshire.