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Why We Need a Yorkshire Parliament

Author: Simon Duffy

This talk was given at the launch of the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament on 27th July 2019 in York. The Campaign calls for the creation of a Parliament for Yorkshire, plus democratic reforms to shift power and control away from London and down to the cities, towns and hamlets of One Yorkshire. 

You can find out more about the campaign at: www.yorkshireparliament.org.uk

In summary there are five reasons why the people of Yorkshire will do a better job of taking care of their economy, their communities and the environment of Yorkshire than the civil servants and politicians based in Whitehall and Westminster:

  1. It is impossible to a worse job than Whitehall has done.
  2. Yorkshire can tackle the injustices and inequalities that cause so many of our problems.
  3. A united Yorkshire could negotiate a much fairer settlement with London.
  4. A fairer and more democratic Yorkshire could empower citizens to action at every level.
  5. The people of Yorkshire should decide what matters to Yorkshire.

Of course the benefits of a Yorkshire Parliament are not limited to Yorkshire. It would be better for everyone if the people of Yorkshire had more opportunities to solve social problems, act as full citizens and increase the level of democracy in the world.

The price of colonial mismanagement

It is hard to imagine how the people of Yorkshire could do a worse job for themselves than the job done on their behalf by the current bureaucracy in Whitehall. The price of the long-standing failures of the UK political system and the terrible consequences for Yorkshire’s mismanagement by Whitehall are too easy to list. So here I’ll restrict myself to two rather fundamental facts.

We can start by comparing the incomes of people in Yorkshire and London: Income in Yorkshire is less than £21,000 per head per year (measured in terms of GVA). In London it is more than £46,000 per head year (Harari, 2018). That is, Londoners have more than double the income of the people of Yorkshire. This is not because Yorkshire people are inherently less talented than Londoners or because Yorkshire is some kind of infertile desert with limited natural resources. 

This difference only exists because of gross economic mismanagement: We have an economy that sucks resources, talent and energy out of the regions of England and pours them into London.

This difference is reflected in and caused by differential growth in income: For instance, since the Coalition government took power in 2010, economic growth, although it has been woefully low, has still been 3 times higher in London than in Yorkshire (Harari, 2018). 

It does not take a mathematical genius to understand that these small and persistent differences in economic growth inevitably lead to huge economic imbalances in the long-term. And the North has experienced over 40 years of this “managed decline” and the current constitutional crisis over Brexit is one of its consequences.

The real reason for this problem is an imbalance in power. 

Today the UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world. No other developed country is so dominated by its centre. No other developed country has such a weak, undemocratic and poorly constituted system of local government. This is not just bad for Yorkshire, it is bad for the whole of the UK and it partially explains why the UK has fallen far behind other countries in economic management.

In economic terms the UK is actually about the 25th richest country per head, adjusted for prices (Duffy, 2019). We have fallen a long way from the days of Empire, and in a sense Empire may be part of our problem. As the Empire collapsed the old colonial system of remote administration from Whitehall seems to have come back home. Now it is us Northerners who are the natives who must be pacified and controlled. Or, as one ex-MP and Londoner told me:

“Every great city needs its hinterland.”

To the powerful, Yorkshire is just one small part of the strange and mysterious hinterland that lies far beyond London’s horizon.

It is ridiculous to think that a place like Yorkshire would not thrive if it had more control over its own destiny. Compare Yorkshire to the tiny nation of Iceland, one which flourishes in a far less hospitable environment than Yorkshire, but shares our Viking inheritance:

  • Iceland has a population of 340,000 people, making it the 181st largest country in the world. Yorkshire has a population of 5.3 million (15 times larger) and if it were a country it would be the 121st largest country in the world.
  • Iceland has a high quality welfare system, higher levels of equality and a much better performing economy (14th in GDP per head, adjusted for prices).
  • Iceland - with a population of only 340,000 - has a President, Prime Minister, Parliament (with 63 seats) a Supreme Court and a constitution. And it put 36 bankers in jail, for a total of 96 years after the financial crash.
  • Iceland has 74 municipalities, which control kindergartens, primary schools, waste management, social services, public housing, public transport, services to senior citizens and to disabled people. [At the same scale there would be 120 local communities just within a city like Sheffield.] The autonomy of these municipalities is guaranteed by the constitution of Iceland. 

There is no constitution to define or protect the powers of Yorkshire and of the communities within it. Our great cities like Sheffield, Leeds and Huddersfield can control next to nothing. Even our local schools are effectively controlled by Whitehall. Smaller communities, neighbourhoods and hamlets often lack any meaningful role or structure to support local decision-making. 

Yorkshire is politically neutered, from top to bottom.

It’s inequality stupid

The consequences of this failure are far more severe than just the relatively poor economic performance of the UK and the even worse economic performance of Yorkshire and other regions outside London. The inequalities in power that determine our poor economic performance also lead to severe economic inequalities between and within our regions. These inequalities then cause severe health and other problems.

For instance, the Due North report on health inequalities found:

“The North of England has persistently had poorer health than the rest of England and the gap has continued to widen over four decades and under five governments. Since 1965, this equates to 1.5 million excess premature deaths in the North compared with the rest of the country. The latest figures indicate that a baby boy born in Manchester can expect to live for 17 fewer years in good health, than a boy born in Richmond in London.”

Inquiry Panel on Health Equity for the North of England (2014)

It seems Northern lives are just worth less. It just doesn’t seem to matter that we will die earlier and that we will experience more ill health and disability in the North. And to date the North has just accepted this fact.

And this is the critical point. An injustice can never challenged, can never be tackled, unless we organise ourselves to identify it and solve it. Just waiting for other people, in other places, to solve our problems for us will never work. We simply leave ourselves at the mercy of the “kindness of strangers”.

Challenging the current settlement

Addressing injustice and economic failure means returning power to Yorkshire; but it also means returning power to Yorkshire as part of a fair settlement - ideally for the whole of the UK. Part of the reason why I think that the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament is so important is that I have studied to some of the ways in which apparent devolution or localism has been undermined by unfair settlements (Duffy, 2012). It is all too easy for London to say:

“Sure, we’d love for you to take back control. Just as long as you don’t ask for any more money.”

In fact one of the tricks that the Establishment has successfully played for decades has been to distort the economy to benefit London, while pretending that London is then distributing benefits back to the regions - like some kind of strange Santa Claus. The pretence is that the London is the king of redistribution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, I have written two major reports, one on services in Conservative Calderdale and the other on Labour Barnsley. What both reports demonstrated is that Northern communities do not even get a fair share of public spending to begin with - never mind private spending. If you compare actual public spending in Calderdale with what you’d expect to find if all public spending was spread equally around the country then nearly £1 billion is missing from the economy (Duffy & Hyde, 2011). In Barnsley similar calculations shows that about £0.75 billion is missing (Duffy, 2017).These are enormous sums which would if they had been invested in Yorkshire would have transformed both the public sector and the wider economy. 

If a similar pattern of missing expenditure holds for the whole of Yorkshire then we can estimate:

  • Yorkshire loses about £16.2 billion a year to creaming-off by the centre.
  • This is a per capita figure of £3,000 per head per year.

But these figures are even more astonishing because they are the complete opposite of what would expect to find and they are the complete opposite of the story we are told. That story is that we need a distorted London-based economy in order to fund the public spending largesse that benefits London’s hinterland. On this logic the dominance of London is all for our benefit! 

The reality is that this on-going economic mismanagement has led to huge inequalities in the private economy and that the public sector then increases these inequalities by allowing London by distort public spending even further. There is no redistribution to support the North, resources are simply being creamed-off before they reach the North.

What is worse is that this is not some one-off distortion. This loss of income has been happening for decades with a growing level of cumulative impact. Moreover, if this Northern money had been spent in the Northern economy it would have then had a multiplier effect that would have also helped to rebalance the private economy. Not only should the settlement be changed and rebalanced, but the North and many other English regions are owed significant reparations for the damage done by decades of creaming-off by Whitehall. 

The power of citizenship

But reclaiming resources lost from Yorkshire and rebalancing the public settlement between Yorkshire and London is only the first step. Much more exciting is to think in terms of the benefits that genuine local democracy could bring to the whole vitality of Yorkshire and its communities. It may seem fanciful to compare Yorkshire to ancient Athens, but Athens was one of the most successful civilisations in human history and its success was built on democracy and the power of real citizenship. 

By citizenship I do not mean people who have a passport. Citizens - in my view - are not people with passports. Citizens are people who care about their communities, who take responsibility for those communities, who work together to make their communities better and stronger (Duffy, 2016). In fact a true citizen does not exclude people because of their passports - a true citizen helps others become citizens, helps them realise their gifts within the community: for their benefit and the benefit of all.

If I am a citizen I do not just belong to a community. I am an equal member of that community and as a citizen I can offer my unique gifts, the things that make me different, back to the community. True citizens bring equality and diversity together to build welcoming communities where everyone can flourish. Democracy is the natural form of citizenship - because true democracy means power by and for the people. 

Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who discovered and defined democracy, would not have considered the UK a democracy. It would rightly have been seen as an oligarchy - a place where power is controlled by a few, for the advantage of a few. At its peak ancient Athens had a population of about 300,000. 50,000 citizens had the right to vote in the assembly and participate in the courts. About 1,100 citizens held office each year, with positions mostly filled by lots (sortition) and with strict term limits and clear accountabilities. Athens (and Attica) was divided into 140 demes, each had its own democratic structures. e.g. demes were responsible for educating the young. [At the same scale there would be 250 local demes in Sheffield.] 

Of course Athenian society was patriarchal and there was a significant slave population; but this a reason to believe that a modern Yorkshire could be even more democratic than Athens, not to accept the current elitist system of politics. One of the reasons why I am so impressed by the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament is that it recognises that the change we need goes far beyond just creating a Parliament and a voting system for Yorkshire. It is also about restoring democratic control at the local authority level and at the level of the local community or neighbourhood - what the Greeks would have called the deme.

In fact this kind of thinking is already emerging in Yorkshire. 

In Barnsley I was lucky enough to study their efforts to shift power down from the local authority to ward and area levels (Duffy, 2017). They are working hard to get councillors and citizens to work together to solve problems at the very local level. They recognise that citizen action can only take place if we respect the human scale of things. Most of us will only be able to truly act as citizens if we enable local local control and to inspire local local pride in our communities.

At a more general level what Barnsley and other more progressive places are beginning to do is to head upstream to solve social problems before they occur. Communities of citizens:

  • Tackle the causes of crime, before spending more on police
  • Reduce inequality and stress, before spending more on mental hospitals
  • Protect the environment, before reacting to pollution, floods, fires and agricultural failure

Unlocking the power of citizenship means working out what powers and responsibilities should lie at different levels and exploring new forms of participatory democracy, sortition and constitutional protection. This is going to be a gradual process, requiring thought, discussion and experimentation. A new Yorkshire will not be built in a day. But only full and active citizenship will enable Yorkshire to fulfil its potential. We do not want to repeat the centralising errors of London inside Yorkshire. 

A flourishing Yorkshire is what we make it

Lastly what is critical to the success of Yorkshire is that Yorkshire determines what success means to Yorkshire. One of the underlying problems with current model of economic and political centralisation is that we lack the power to decide for ourselves what’s important.

This is why the recent decision by New Zealand to reject Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of growth is so important (Roy, 2019).We can decide for ourselves what a flourishing Yorkshire really means. In an interconnected world we can also learn from others what helps and hinders. And together we can find out what helps us to succeed on our own terms.

Personally I will certainly be arguing that we need to create a stronger but also a more empowering welfare state. Taking care of each other and supporting each of us to be active citizens and to fulfil our potential is what I will be arguing. But in a democratic Yorkshire we can disagree, debate and decide these things for ourselves.

Conclusion

The promises of devolution, localism, and now the 'Northern Powerhouse' have been persistently made and persistently broken for decades. The reality has been the complete opposite. The most centralised welfare state in the world has instead further centralised power, even the tiny portion of resources that runs through the hands of local government is subject to controls, targets and political negotiations that leave local areas with no meaningful local control.

Devolution - given as a gift by the powerful or as a party-political calculation of relative advantage will always lead to some partial and dishonest fix. 

If we want to see genuine long-lasting change then we will have to be part of that change.Yorkshire is a place where its people are ready to take responsibility for their own destiny. Moreover the Campaign sees the development of a Yorkshire Parliament as a means to move power further down, not to centralise it at a regional level. Mobilising the people of Yorkshire to demand power the necessary has the best chance of creating a community of citizens who can develop and sustain a better society for everyone in Yorkshire. 

That is why I fully support the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament.

The Centre for Welfare Reform supports the Campaign and wider efforts towards democratic constitutional reform. 

You can read our Manifesto for constitutional reform here: www.fairsociety.org.uk

My slides from my talk are below:


References

Duffy S & Hyde C (2011) Women at the Centre. Sheffield, Centre for Welfare Reform.

Duffy S (2012) Real Localism. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.

Duffy S (2016) Citizenship and the Welfare State. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.

Duffy S (2017) Heading Upstream: Barnsley’s Innovations for Social Justice. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.

Duffy S (2019) Welfare Myths. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.

Harari D (2018) Regional and local economic growth statistics. London: House of Commons Library.

Inquiry Panel on Health Equity for the North of England (2014) Due North: Report of the Inquiry on Health Equity for the North. Liverpool: University of Liverpool and Centre for Local Economic Strategies

Roy E A (2019) Grant Robertson: ‘New Zealand’s prosperity is about much more than GDP growth’. The Guardian: 11 June 2019.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Why We Need a Yorkshire Parliament © Simon Duffy 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.