Yorkshire is a county that has always stood out. Whether it be its food or its landscape, there has always been something different about Yorkshire – it’s the reason its residents are proud to say that it truly is ‘God’s own country’. And something that is unique about Yorkshire is its political history.
From the days of the recusants and non-conformists to William Wilberforce and his impassioned opposition to slavery to the early beginnings of the Labour Party and to today’s own Yorkshire First Party, people in Yorkshire have always felt that they have a unique political identity.
The very start of democracy
It may be surprising (or not!) to learn that the first ‘commoner’ to go to the House of Commons was in fact a Yorkshire man. In Chris Bryant’s stunning and lengthy two volume biography of parliament he is clear to inform readers that Mauger le Vavasour, a member of the Vavasour family of Hazelwood Castle was amongst the first of 13 civilians to attend Henry III’s council, created by ‘Provisions of Oxford’, in parliament in 1258.
It was at this time that Westminster was slowly but surely changing from a medieval king’s place of luxury to the very seat of British politics. Vavasour might have been the first commoner from Yorkshire to attend, but he would certainly not be the last.
Yorkshire’s desire for distinction
This desire to be distinct comes from a deep, complex past. Yorkshire spent a significant amount of time under the Danelaw, the area of Northern and Eastern England controlled by the Danish Viking empires, and this period was followed with the Battle of Hastings and the Harrying of the North, where Yorkshire resisted the Normans.
The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, under the reign of Henry VIII would also go on to have a key place in both Yorkshire and British history. The revolt, provoked by the king’s break from the Catholic Church and partly by economic unrest, started in Yorkshire and gained some momentum further South before being suppressed.
That 9,000 men followed Robert Aske to occupy York in order to prove their unhappiness with Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell is a testament to the independence of mind and willingness to prove a political point that is at the heart of Yorkshire’s politics.
The non-conformists and politics
Religion lay at the heart of the pilgrimage of grace, and it would be religion that would motivate many of Yorkshire’s most brilliant early political figures. Non-conformist Protestants would shape much of Yorkshire’s political destiny during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The English Civil War (1648–49) was a defining moment not just for Britain but for Yorkshire. By executing Charles I and declaring England a republic, Oliver Cromwell fundamentally altered the political makeup of the country. Parliament transformed from a superfluous, convenient body for the King, to an integral part of the machine of government.
Some of the most important members of the puritan elite at this time were from Yorkshire. Lord Fairfax (born at the family seat at Denton Hall, between Ilkley and Otley) was the leading parliamentarian general for most of the war until he was outmanoeuvred by Cromwell.
Alongside him were the likes of Sir John Hotham, Governor of Hull at the time of its Siege who prevented Charles I from gaining its arsenal; John Lambert, one of Cromwell’s most effective generals who also helped create the constitutional framework for the Republic and John Nayler of West Ardsley who was one of the great preachers of the era. These men were central to the success of the English Civil War and without them Britain would not be as we know it today.
And yet despite their common desire for a political system that was not constrained by the monarchy, the men all suffered either in battle or falling from Cromwell’s favour. The non-conformists of Yorkshire soon realised that simply replacing Charles I with Oliver Cromwell wasn’t any great change – they had merely swapped one dictatorial figure for another.
William Wilberforce – the independent MP
Throughout the 18th century, as the House of Commons grew in significance and influence, MPs realised that they would be stronger acting together in parties, than going at it individually. The two major political parties for most of the 18th century were the Tories and the Whigs. Each would have representation in Yorkshire, but it would be a truly independent MP from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, who would have the most impact.
Though initially elected as a Tory and a great personal friend of William Pitt the Younger, prime minister and leader of the Tories, Wilberforce would sit as an independent for most of his career. Like Fairfax and Lambert, Wilberforce’s faith would drive his politics and set him on a lifetime crusade to end slavery in Britain and its Empire.
Wilberforce would face opposition from his home city of Hull and from many former friends but the determination of Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists would eventually win through. After many years of work, speeches, and resolutions against the slave trade (12 passed in 1789), the Slavery Abolition Act was finally ratified 1833.
Wilberforce’s contempt for the utter vileness of slavery and the desire to abolish it, is typical of the political makeup of Yorkshire; one that was formed by morals and independence of thought.
The birth of the Labour Party
Wilberforce’s radicalism and commitment to equality was reborn in Bradford in 1893 with the creation of the Independent Labour Party. As Harold Wilson, one of Labour’s most significant leaders and a man borne out of Yorkshire, is alleged to have once said, “The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism”. This non-conformist tradition, this belief in making the world a better place was crucial to motivating the likes of Philip Snowden to form Labour.
Snowden, born and raised in Yorkshire, had been vitally important in stoking the support for socialist ideas in the area. His string of local victories on councils and administrative boards helped build a foundation for what would eventually become the Labour Party.
Whilst the Independent Labour Party did not make the same mark on British political history as its eventual successor would do, its birth in Yorkshire is a testament to the independent thought of workers, trade unions and ordinary people across Yorkshire who believed that rather than stick with the two party system of the Liberals and Conservatives they could form a new party.
The Independent Labour Party and the strength of the Labour movement in Yorkshire throughout the 19th and 20th centuries follows directly in the tradition of independent and innovative thought that characterised those who went before it.
It is also the Labour Party that grappled with the thorny question of a proper constitutional settlement for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by establishing the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish parliament.
The Yorkshire Party and the future
It is the vexed question of a settled constitutional arrangement for England that remains. Labour toyed with the proposal for directly elected assemblies for the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. It was tested with the referendum in 2004 in the North East that was roundly rejected by the voters.
But despite the struggles, the issue has not gone away. Parties that advocate for greater devolved power exist throughout the UK and one such party that has continually stood out in people’s minds is the Yorkshire Party.
The Yorkshire Party, originally Yorkshire First, was first founded in 2014 but its roots can be seen in the distinct politics of Yorkshire’s past. Its aim to create a devolved decision-making assembly for Yorkshire would grant the region greater powers and make Yorkshire on a par with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Given the prominence of directly elected mayors like Andy Burnham in Manchester, Dan Jarvis in South Yorkshire and Tracey Brabin in West Yorkshire, the emphasis on greater local powers and a desire for more regional decision making is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Whatever the future holds the people of Yorkshire will always be politically independently minded. The history of Yorkshire is one of progress. It is one of individuals standing up for what they believed in regardless of the opinion of others. It is a history that the people of Yorkshire should be proud of.
The tradition of independent and forthright politics is one that Yorkshire has always had and one that is will hopefully have for a long time to come.