In Down­ton’s do­main, a post-Brexit push for an in­de­pen­dent voice

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY BEN­JAMIN PLASKETT

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.

Re­sent­ing Lon­don

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.

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