Could Yorkshire become England’s first semi-autonomous province? In a post-pandemic, post-Brexit landscape, Colin Speakman, author of Yorkshire: Ancient Nation, Future Province – which is being launched at the University of Bradford on 17 November – thinks so. As co-creator of the Dales Way, he’s well used to finding navigable routes across treacherous terrain.
Colin Speakman is probably best known as the co-creator (alongside the late Tom Wilcock) of the Dales Way, an 81-mile scenic trek and one of the most famous ramblers’ routes in the UK. It wends its way from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, with linking paths from central Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate, all the way to Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria.
Along the way, it takes in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, climbing up from its historic spa town starting point and then sweeping up and over the mountainous backbone of Yorkshire that is the Pennines, passing through Appletreewick, Hebden, Grassington and Deepdale, before crossing into Cumbria.
Devolution for Yorkshire: a transformative journey
In many ways, the Dales Way is a journey that is all about transformation. Those who accept its challenge move from confined townscapes of brick and stone to the boundless, borderless gaping wonder of windswept moors. In this sense of being a transformative journey, the Dales Way could be seen as a metaphor for Yorkshire devolution, and that is the subject of Speakman’s latest book, Yorkshire: Ancient Nation, Future Province, published by the Gritstone Publishing Cooperative. It is part polemic, part manifesto, and has a foreword from the newly elected mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin.
Speakman, now 80, sees devolution as a natural destination for Yorkshire, not least because of its size. He points out that Yorkshire is as populous as Scotland (both have 5.4m inhabitants), and is more populous than Wales, both of which have devolved parliaments. The county is also larger than a number of mainland European countries and its economy is worth £110bn per year – twice the size of Wales and greater than 11 EU countries.
Yorkshire’s history, people and places
Speakman’s book gives a brief but illuminating history of Yorkshire from Roman settlement through to Viking and Norman invasions, the War of the Roses, and the historic origins of Yorkshire’s enigmatic White Rose (look up the Battle of Minden, 1759). This leads up to the still-reviled local government reorganisation of 1974, which saw the abolition of the famous and emblematic Ridings.
The book also takes us on engaging detours into Yorkshire’s people and places – from writer Michael Bradford (The Fight for Yorkshire) and poet Ted Hughes, to Stoodley Pike obelisk and the Gothic folly hiding in Hackfall Woods.
Whitehall’s attitude to Yorkshire: “neo-colonialist”
Speaking at the University of Bradford ahead of the launch event, Speakman, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university in 1997, said, “The book is about devolution but it’s also about Yorkshire, its people, its landscape, its huge strengths and resources”. He addeding that it centrally concerns the fact that “much of this is mismanaged by central governments of whatever political colour. We are as big as several European countries and yet we’re held back by a neo-colonial attitude from Whitehall”.
One of the many consequences of this is that West Yorkshire is the biggest conurbation in Europe without a modern light rail transport system. In fact, there have been no new rail lines created in Yorkshire since the Beeching Cuts in the 1960s.
The book outlines a path to deliverance from what he calls the ‘nostalgic imperialist’ mindset of government by London.
From cultural strength to political change
In his pre-launch talk, Speakman described the post-Brexit and post-pandemic world as a moment of change, which brings great opportunities. Launching his book at the University of Bradford was, he felt, highly appropriate, not only because the institution itself celebrates change but also because of his confidence in its student population: “it will be the young people of today who bring about the changes of tomorrow”.
His ideal would be for England to move towards having a regional federal structure the way they do in parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. How is that to be achieved?
The key starting point for Speakman is a strengthening of culture – pride and confidence in Yorkshire as a ‘brand’, like Normandy in France or Bavaria in Germany. By celebrating and strengthening a shared sense of culture and belonging, political change, he feels, can be achieved. Yorkshire’s white rose could be a powerful unifying symbol and a rallying point for change.
As he says in the book:
“A process of voluntary self-identification is… the best way to bring Yorkshire people together into a Cultural Province of Yorkshire. This will ensure that, sooner or later, legislation to formalise this recognition will follow. Yorkshire is a state of mind as well as a place, something and somewhere people can opt into, to choose to belong to, not be ordered to by fingers on a bureaucrat’s keyboard. Ultimately, that will be its appeal and power.”
A step towards independence?
Yorkshire: Ancient Nation, Future Province is many things: part history, part tour-guide, and perhaps also one more step along the path to realising Yorkshire’s dream of devolution.