Yorkshire - Renewing a Regional Identity

Yorkshire has a strong identity yet it exists in one of the most centralised states in the world.

Author: Colin Speakman

Colin Speakman is Chair of the Dalesway Association, an active member of The Yorkshire Society, a Vice President of the Friends of the Dales, a Vice President of West Riding Ramblers, Vice Chairman of PLACE Yorkshire, President of Action for Yorkshire Transport, and an advisor to the One Yorkshire Committee (formed in 2018 to campaign for greater powers for Yorkshire).

Historically, England - the land of the Angles - is supremely a nation of immigrants, some more recent than others. We have a rich DNA – Celts, Romans, Germanic Saxons from the Rhineland, Angles, Jutes, Norse, Norman French, Huguenots, Jewish central Europeans, and in more recent years Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, South Asians, eastern Europeans and perhaps soon even more Hong Kong Chinese. 

This mix of genes has produced the dynamic culture of many of our great cities, most especially London – a true world city – but left many other parts of England struggling to understand what living in post-imperial England/Britain means. 

The way forward to rediscovering who we are as a people might be to go back 1,000 years ago to pre-Norman Conquest times, when the notion of England was still emerging from several warring sub-nations of these second or third generation Germanic immigrant settlers - Mercia, Wessex, Anglia, Northumbria, Cumbria, Cornwall (a Celtic enclave) and Yorkshire. All spoke very different dialects of English, not always mutually understood, and enjoyed differing cultures.

Remarkably many of these regional differences have survived the millennium since the Norman Conquest. They offer a way of creating a new post-imperial sense of what it is to be English in the 21st century – an England of the diverse regions.

Yorkshire has retained many aspects of its pre-Conquest identity remarkably well. As the 19th century geologist and writer John Phillips suggested, only Devon and Cornwall have a more distinctive topography – in the case of Yorkshire defined by its major geographical features: The Pennines to the west, the Humber and its great estuary to the south, the sea to the east and the Tees Valley/Stainmore gap to the north. 

Crucially at the time following the Viking invasions and settlements this was also Danelaw, a land occupied, settled and ruled independently for a century or more by Scandinavians, with York, at that time the second city of England, a focal point of the sub-nation’s culture, a fact emphasised by the city’s rich Viking archaeological heritage and Norse street names. This importance is retained in ecclesiastical terms with York Minster and its Archbishop being second only to Canterbury in importance and influence. 

The Viking name “Jorvik” corrupted to York is a continuing link with this Norse Heritage, not just int the region’s ancient capital but in the three Ridings derived from “thriddings” or thirds of the old Anglo-Saxon “scir” the term for an administration. Uniquely the “scir” or shire of Jorvik was so large it had to be divided into thirds, the East, West and North Ridings, each administration with its own civic centre initially under the overall control of York. 

Only in 1974 were the Three Ridings which covered the historic counties of Yorkshire abolished, and split into the separate county administrations of North, West and South Yorkshire, with East Riding shared across the Humber and given the somewhat artificial name of Humberside.

Though West and Riding names have also sadly been consigned to history the unitary authority in east Yorkshire (outside Hull) for a time known as North Humberside, is now formally known by its proud name as the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Norse place names and pronunciations abound throughout the county. The Yorkshire Dialect is a still a clear and distinctive form of English, albeit under some threat from globalised technocratic forms of the language, but still preserved in accent, phraseology, idiom. Many scholars have suggested how local speech reflects communal history and characteristic personality of the people. 

In terms of a regional identity there are parallels with Germany who has, thanks ironically to the post-war settlement largely devised British occupiers, a democratic constitution that not only recognises regional differences but has strengthened these differences in political institutions – the 17 Länder or States that make up the Federal Republic. The Länder have their own Government and institutions governed by democratic processes, their own culture, flags and their own sense of being German. Yet the parallels with Yorkshire and Bavaria, perhaps the most independent German Land, are striking, and fascinating. Most Bavarian people – even relative recent immigrants – consider themselves to be Bavarians first and Germans second. Many Yorkshire people are proudly Yorkshire, yet more hesitant English or British – a constant source of confusion. Unlike the red cross of St George or even, sadly, the Union Jack, the proud White Rose of Yorkshire set against a blue background has not been hi-jacked by extremist political groups. Yorkshire Day is about celebrating with a sense of pride that rich diversity - all things that belong to Yorkshire both people and place.

Defining Yorkshire 

Yorkshire is about a sense of belonging. “Being Yorkshire” is as much about having a shared living, open culture, as it is about a sense of place, though this latter is extremely important. It is not about accident of birth, race (whatever that term might be chosen to mean), parental background, skin colour, or politics. It is also inclusive of other heritages – you can be Jewish, Sikh, Muslim or Christian or be of African, Afro Caribbean, French, Latvia, Chinese or Indian heritage yet still belong to Yorkshire, the region where you live and work, and be proud of your dual identity. 

It is about pride in accepting and sharing that unique heritage – the landscape, natural beauty and wildlife, architecture, history, music, art, religion, literature - an aspect of England and being English but in a special and distinctive way, something that poets, writers, musicians, film makers, photographers and artists can and will continue to interpret, re-invent and be inspired by.

This sense of place is equally relevant to people who feel they belong to the whole of territory of the historic three Ridings of Yorkshire, including former areas of ancient Yorkshire now within the boundaries of other local administrations such as Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cumbria and Cleveland

Devolving Yorkshire 

“Being Yorkshire” is about creating a sense of pride in who we were and who we are. It is not political in the narrow sense, nor confined to a “Yorkshire” political party however worthy such an organisation might be. It is far more important to work with and within existing political democratic institutions in a mutually supportive way to sustain and improve the quality of life of the people and environment of the region. It needs to be forward looking – celebrating the past (whilst accepting the dark side including in our region industrial exploitation) but also deciding what kind of future we and our children want for our region, its towns and its countryside. It must be inclusive, ensuring that people from ethnic minority background can celebrate Yorkshire as part of their own ethnicity and have an equal voice in determining that future.

It has been pointed out that Yorkshire has approximately the same population as Scotland, and a larger population than several sovereign states recognised by the United Nations, yet is part of the most centralised state in Europe, if not the world, with as many people are well aware, a serious democratic deficiency.
What little embryonic Regional Government there was in England post 1974 was effective abolished by the incoming Coalition Government in 2010 when the Committee for Yorkshire & Humber Region, one of the nine Regions of England was not reappointed, followed by the abolition of the Government Office for the Region being abolished in 2012. Yorkshire & The Humber as a concept now only survives for statistical purposes.
The many weaknesses of an over-centralised state have been cruelly exposed in the coronavirus crisis. The more decision making can be devolved to regional and local level, the more effective potentially can be the outcome in terms of ownership by all stakeholders of the decision-making process. 

The Yorkshire Society can help, support and provide an evidence base to help achieve such outcomes for our region. 

The Society’s vision for the next forty years is to be: 

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Yorkshire Renewing a Regional Identity © Colin Speakman 2021.

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.

Article | 02.11.21

Constitutional Reform, local government, Neighbourhood Democracy, England, Article

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