In Downton’s domain, a post-Brexit push for an independent voice
YORK, UNITED KINGDOM | The aftershocks from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — and the rumbles over whether the post-Brexit United Kingdom should remain united — are being felt in the land of Lord Grantham, Lady Mary and Carson the butler.
As British leaders negotiate the messy divorce from the European Union, some in this vast region of Northern England, the setting for the popular and nostalgic television drama “Downton Abbey,” are calling for more independence from Westminster, further complicating a challenging balancing act for Prime Minister Theresa May.
“Devolution is no longer a case of yes or no,” said Stewart Arnold, leader of the Yorkshire Party, a small but growing movement that is advocating for what the locals are calling “Yexit,” or greater autonomy from London’s rule for the region.
About 200 miles from London and sporting a population slightly larger than nearby Scotland, Yorkshire has a history of independence from southern England. Famed for “Downton Abbey,” strong tea and a nononsense attitude, Yorkshire residents call the region “God’s Own Country,” celebrate Yorkshire Day and still speak a dialect that combines Old English and Norse words.
“I see lots of Yorkshire flags flying here, as many as the Union Jack,” said Mr. Arnold, rattling off a list of Yorkshire luminaries that includes the Bronte sisters, playwright Alan Bennett, pop star Scary Spice, and Oscar-winning actors Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley. “Yorkshire’s boundaries go back something like 1,500 years. It’s been a county, a Viking kingdom, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and it also has Roman history.”
Long before Brexit, the central government in London had already ceded powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, granting those nations of the United Kingdom their own parliaments and executives called “first ministers.” Two years ago, in what had been considered a high-water mark for Scottish nationalism, Scots voting in a referendum narrowly opted to remain in the U.K.
But in the wake of the June referendum to depart from the EU, divisions are surfacing again as many voters in regions such as Scotland and Northern Ireland were strongly for sticking with the EU even as the country as a whole voted to secede.
Scotland’s leaders are calling for a new independence vote if Ms. May pursues a so-called hard Brexit, or a departure from the EU without a new trade deal to maintain British access to European markets. Saying she will start the two-year-long Brexit process in March, the prime minister has sought to allay Scottish concerns by pledging a smooth Brexit transition.
Yorkshire partisans said they don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t pursue a path similar to Scotland’s, though they stop short of calling for secession.
“Everyone’s proud to say they’re from Yorkshire,” said Simon Wade, a 42-year-old bartender from Kirkby Fleetham in North Yorkshire. “It’s a beautiful part of the country. There’s a reason this is a tourist destination.”
Echoing concerns expressed worldwide about globalization, Mr. Wade said he and his patrons and neighbors feel the British government has devoted too much attention and resources to wealthy London and its suburbs in recent decades, even as the manufacturing base in northern England has been decimated by foreign competition, forcing young workers to go elsewhere for work. The jobless rate in Yorkshire and the Humber region in September was 5.6 percent, compared with 3.6 percent for the booming southeastern part of the country.
Yorkshire businesses haven’t been hurt by the short-term fallout from Brexit. A recent business impact survey found that nearly two-thirds of the businesses in Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East region reported signs of growth and rising sales since June, as the worst economic projections of the Remain camp failed to materialize.
“In fact, more businesses are seeing their sales and profit grow,” Adrian Berry, chairman of Yorkshire-based R3 and a partner at Deloitte LLP, told the publication Business Quarter this month. “This could be attributed to the strong rate of consumer spending which, having initially dipped after the vote, rebounded quickly.”
Despite the limited fallout today, Yorkshire partisans are tired of London elites floating solutions to the region’s problems that never materialize, Mr. Wade said. “There are lots of voices here that don’t seem to be heard.”
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned after voters approved Brexit over his opposition, proposed allowing voters in Yorkshire’s major cities — Leeds, Sheffield and York — to elect their own mayors and grant those officials power over transportation networks and economic development. Ms. May hasn’t said whether she would follow through with those plans.
But in August she responded to an open letter penned by Yorkshire business and community leaders and acknowledged their concerns. “For too long, the United Kingdom has been much too dependent on growth in London,” the new prime minister wrote in a letter to The Yorkshire Post, saying the government was spending billions to improve infrastructure and support innovative businesses linked to the local universities.
If the proposal is approved, Yorkshire’s new mayors wouldn’t enjoy the quasi-autonomy of Britain’s three national assemblies, analysts said. Their powers would probably resemble those of London, where voters in 2000 opted to create the first-ever democratically elected mayor in Britain. The London mayor controls local police and fire departments, waste management and other traditional big-city duties.
“The kind of powers on offer are not huge; it’s not anything like Scotland’s Parliament,” said Andrew Blick, an analyst on British constitutional reform and devolution at King’s College in London.