From The Yorkshire Post, December 20th, 2022
Written by John Grogan
In a speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in 1994, the then leader of the UK Labour Party John Smith, referred to the creation of a Scottish Parliament as “the settled will of the Scottish people”.
In the Autumn of 2022 from an admittedly much more modest place in the political hierarchy, as Co Chair of the One Yorkshire Committee, I addressed in turn the Yorkshire Party Conference in York, the Green Party in Harrogate and the Regional Labour Party in Barnsley.
At all three gatherings there was an acceptance that Yorkshire was not in the same place as Scotland had been in the 1990’s.
Talk of ‘the settled will of the people' about a particular political structure was premature but there was a real yearning for much more democratic control over power and resources in the county regardless of party.
If anything the political situation in God’s Own Country at present can more accurately be compared with that in Wales thirty years ago. A renewal of cultural identity then as now was underway, which was and is coupled with a recognition of regional inequality and injustice.
Yet in 1997, only 50.3 per cent of the Welsh electorate agreed in a referendum that an assembly should be created. Today of course the debate is not about the existence of the Senedd Cymru but about how its powers might be enhanced.
Given this fluid political dynamic, Keir Starmer’s interview with the Yorkshire Post in Barnsley in mid October contained some wise observations. It was reported that the Labour leader suggested that he could support a One Yorkshire devolution deal.
“We will listen to what Yorkshire wants, we’ll look at the configuration,” he said.
Fast forward to December and the launch at Leeds University of the report of the commission chaired by Gordon Brown into the future of the union of the United Kingdom. In response to a question from The Yorkshire Post, Mr Starmer commented further on One Yorkshire “What I don’t want is the commission as the place where we have an argument about boundaries or new mayoralties".
“You could have quite an interesting academic discussion for five years about precisely how you change all of that, but that’s not how I want to run a Labour government,” he added.
Although the correspondent acknowledged that ‘Sir Keir did not rule out returning to the idea (of one yorkshire) in the future’.
In fact Gordon Brown had already made clear in his report that ‘still less do we focus on redrawing boundaries…which some advocate, as that was outside our remit’.
So where does that leave those who champion having a representative body at a Yorkshire level to drive political and economic change? There is everything to play for.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Yorkshire Party are committed to the idea. The Labour Party will next year undertake an extensive public consultation on the Brown Commission’s proposals.
One Yorkshire supporters need to campaign more visibly and restate the key arguments. At the meeting of the One Yorkshire Committee in January we will discuss staging a major rally to demonstrate support on August 1st (Yorkshire Day) 2023.
The economic gap between Yorkshire and the Humber and many of the other twelve regions of and nations of the United Kingdom is a stark one. In terms of GDP per head in 2020 Yorkshire and the Humber at £25,696 was less than half the level of London but also £4,000 below Scotland.
At a Yorkshire level there is the sense of identity, scale and brand which could begin to affect real change. Would not Yorkshire and the Humber benefit from a powerful, regional democratically accountable, business focused economic development agency just as Scotland has?
Moreover, the Yorkshire Leaders Board, bringing together council leaders and mayors, already exists. It has set up a Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission holding big companies like Drax accountable for their policies.
As an interim measure there are a number of public servants and public bodies which could be made accountable to the Board rather than to Whitehall. These could include the Regional Schools Commissioner who oversees academies, the Regional Arts Council, the Yorkshire Flood and Coastal Committee, the Department of Trade's international trade team and the public servants who distribute and administer levelling up funds.
Gordon Brown himself acknowledges the regional dimension advocating the return of a Minister for Yorkshire. Just as the appointment of a Secretary of State for Scotland did not conclude the argument about devolution north of the border it would seem unlikely to do so in Yorkshire.