"What's going on with Yorkshire is the slow, tentative emergence of regional democracy"


We’ve been fascinated for a while by the irrepressible energy for regional democracy coming from Yorkshire. Here, Iain Martin takes us carefully through the various factions and interests.

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A few weeks ago, Pat wrote here about the UK government's rejection of the One Yorkshire mayoral devolution bid proposed by the vast majority of local authorities in Yorkshire. I thought I'd offer an overview from within Yorkshire.

I am a founder member of We Share The Same Skies and like all our campaigners, I live in West Yorkshire. We only have the experience and capacity to be active here. But we don’t take one specific view on the model or scale of devolution affecting where we live.

Our efforts are focused on regional democracy. We encourage people to think about their own vision for the scale, model and policy priorities for regional democracy affecting where they live - what we call critical conscientisation. (You can read more about how Scotland’s indyref inspired calls for democratic renewal in Yorkshire and the response from those with power and influence in this short thread here.)

We want Regional Democracy from below to meet the devolution coming down from above. The devolution on offer to places in Yorkshire from the current UK government is primarily about devolving a limited number of executive powers to a directly elected mayor, exercised over a mostly urban collection of local authorities that agree to be a 'functioning economic area'. These local authorities will scrutinise the mayor by their leadership's representation in a Combined Authority.

There are some people in Yorkshire who believe that we should take this rare opportunity for decentralising power before it is withdrawn. There are some people here who see either the agglomeration model, or this figurehead model, as exactly what is needed.

There are others for whom a Leeds City Region mayor (roughly West Yorkshire) and a Sheffield City Region mayor (roughly South Yorkshire) is the best option for maintaining Labour's historic dominance of power and influence in the post-industrial West Riding of Yorkshire.

Likewise for some the traditional Conservative dominance of the primarily rural North and East Ridings of Yorkshire is best maintained by not being dependent on votes from the West Riding, much to the annoyance of the strong Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in Hull, York, Harrogate and Scarborough.

This idea that people-centred or progressive policies are most likely to be implemented if the urban areas are not held back by the rural areas is leading some to prefer an urban model of devolution. Likewise the vision for Radical or New Municipalism is based on reclaiming the cities and the network supporting the idea of rebel cities in the UK held its first meeting in Sheffield.

The proposal from local authorities (with key supporters including trade unions, CBI, Yorkshire Post and Archbishop of York) accepted the mayor and combined authority model but aimed to apply this to as much of Yorkshire as possible (Sheffield and Rotherham still prefer a city region model).

This is very significant. Firstly, because it managed to bring together a broad coalition of those in the region who already hold power. Secondly, because it was leaders in the region standing up and not simply accepting the Westminster world view. But thirdly and most of all, it tacitly acknowledged that the government's reasons for devolution are not identical to the reasons expressed by people here.

For many people in Yorkshire, their vision is for something different, something usually more ambitious, than that of the Government. The local authorities proposal tried to find a compromise between regional democracy and devolution. 

Other than Same Skies' small scale efforts, there continues to be very little attempt to engage the population of Yorkshire in discussions about what devolution might mean for their future. There was however a Citizens Assembly in Sheffield that favoured a Yorkshire assembly. There was also some disputed local authority referenda in Barnsley and Doncaster which supported a Yorkshire wide approach.

The reasons for the appeal of an all-Yorkshire approach mostly come into two broad areas: the unique nature of Yorkshire and the ambition to do things significantly from the Westminster approach to policy and politics. Some of those opposed to such an approach fear a negative impact from flag waving, appeals to identity and an 'almost-nationalism' that revels in taciturn old men who say little else but ‘No’ and don't like anything that's 'different'.

These are concerns that are worth considering in the same way as they have been in the context of Scotland's indyref and the UK's Brexit referendum. At the same time however, the evidence suggests that Yorkshire identity is often the least contested and most inclusive form of identity for people living in the region.

Surveys suggest the vast majority (though not everyone) feels that sense of Yorkshireness. But there is a constant debate about whether Yorkshire is the heart of England or not part of England at all (which has implications for the idea of an English Parliament – see discussions here).

This identity is a brand that appeals to those who want to attract inward investment into the region and who want to sell products and services from here to external markets. It also offers a sense of belonging that many believe would lead to buy-in from the majority of the population, perhaps even heading off some of the discontent based on identity issues experienced elsewhere. This partially explains the appeal of One Yorkshire to many.

But it's also the case that Yorkshire has a population bigger than Scotland and an economy bigger than Wales. And for many this creates an opportunity to do things at least as differently from the Westminster model as has been done in Scotland with its modern parliament, proportional electoral system, civic society, new media and policy divergence (primarily in a progressive direction).

This is what Yorkshire Party founder Richard Carter calls 'first rate devolution' and he has always compared it with the 'sixth rate devolution' offered to Yorkshire, which is less desirable/appropriate than the models in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Greater Manchester.

Many outside Yorkshire argue that Scotland is a nation, so their case is different. But I think it's true to say that nothing gets the backs up of people here more than someone who lives elsewhere telling us what we are & what we’re not!

Usually it ends up in a to-and-fro about the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms that existed in parts or all of Yorkshire before England or Scotland came into existence. For the vast majority however it's not about what existed in the past, it's about what we want for our future.

Some of those with such ambition for Yorkshire are therefore in support of One Yorkshire's geography but are wary of concentrating power in the hands of a single mayor or of consolidating the power of the existing establishment in the region. They want nothing less than first rate devolution.

Others however - whose ultimate aim is a Yorkshire Parliament with power to make an impact of the lives of the most vulnerable in the region - are cautiously supportive of the One Yorkshire proposal. This approach is a pragmatic one to take the opportunity of devolution but to do so at a scale that has the best likelihood of gaining support/momentum for developing it towards the 'first rate' model.

Ultimately therefore what's going on with Yorkshire is a debate about what we want, why we want it, what relationships we want with others and what is realistic or pragmatic or expedient in terms of opportunities, power bases, coalitions of interests, political economy and strategic partisan-political calculations. 

What's going on with Yorkshire is the slow, tentative emergence of regional democracy.

Ian Martin is the founder of We Share The Same Skies. More on this topic in his 2018 article for Red Pepper.