Stewart Arnold interview: '˜Debate is no longer yes or no over a devolved Yorkshire, it's how'
Hailed as the “grandest” opening in the storied history of the world’s biggest annual sporting event, Yorkshire’s hosting of the Tour de France Grand Depart put the region’s name in lights on the global stage and kick-started a renaissance in local cycling.
But according to Stewart Arnold, the leader of the Yorkshire Party, the spectacular success of the two days of sport in July 2014 could ultimately have an even greater significance.
Mr Arnold, a passionate advocate of region-wide devolution, described the arrival of Le Tour in the Broad Acres as a “seminal moment” in the process of transferring powers to make decisions about Yorkshire to local leaders rather than Ministers and Whitehall mandarins.
“We weren’t the preferred bid from the UK government, so we had to do this on our own, and when we did do it, we did a fantastic job, the best Grand Depart in the history of the Tour de France”, says Mr Arnold on a visit to The Yorkshire Post’s office in Leeds.
“It was a huge success, and the irony is that tourism is one of the few things that we have devolved to the whole of Yorkshire, so we can do stuff with that.
“And people at the time said to me ‘this is just a cycle race, just think what we can do as Yorkshire if we were given responsibility for health and social care and education and the environment, housing and the economy and all those sorts of things’.
“It was the first time that it struck people on a really broad scale that we can do stuff here, we don’t have to go cap in hand to London any time we want a bit of rail investment, let’s get on and do it.”
Coincidentally, 2014 was also the year that Mr Arnold and co-founder Richard Carter launched the Yorkshire Party (then known as Yorkshire First), standing three local candidates in that year’s European elections and pledging to campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament or Assembly.
The party has yet to get one of its members elected, though it has high hopes for a by-election in Doncaster council’s Town ward on June 14 following a fourth-placed finish in the recent Sheffield City Region mayoral vote.
Mr Arnold, who combines his work with his own advocacy and mediation company and a role as a part-time lecturer at the University of Hull, would like to concentrate full-time on the Yorkshire Party, which is staffed entirely by volunteers.
“It would be great to have some rich backers, the [Ukip donor] Aaron Bankses of this world, to throw millions at us and say ‘get on and win some elections’,” he says. “But we are a party that is bottom up, we have various donations from individuals.”
But as well as challenging in the ballot box, the party’s strategy also involves influencing other parties to get the issue of Yorkshire devolution higher up the agenda.
And though the last two years have been characterised by a frustrating stalemate on that front, with no region-wide deal agreed as Manchester, Liverpool and Tees Valley race away into the distance, Mr Arnold feels these efforts have been a success.
“You have to look at the example of Ukip and say that actually a political party can influence the debate if it starts to challenge the other parties in the ballot box. That is what Ukip did with the Conservatives, David Cameron had to try and lance that Ukip boil and say ‘we are going to have that referendum’.
“If you go back to the original days of the success of devolution in Scotland and Wales in the 60s and 70s it was largely due to the success of the SNP and Plaid Cymru winning seats and challenging, particularly the Labour Party, which put devolution onto the table.
“In 2014 the debate was about devolution to Yorkshire, yes or no, and we are now at the stage of ‘yes, devolution is coming, in a form, how does it come, what do we want from it, what sort of powers and responsibilities’.
“That is how the debate has moved on, so we are already starting to talk about One Yorkshire hopefully coming about, but you have The Yorkshire Post, the Yorkshire Party, the Archbishop of York, the trade unions, the CBI, 18 out of 20 council leaders want devolution and they want One Yorkshire, so that to us is key, to see how far that debate has moved on.
“We will keep pushing as we want as many powers as possible. Having waited all this time, to come up with a bit of local economic management and a bit of bus management and a bit of skills training, if that’s all that devolution ends up being, I think people will say ‘what was all that about, all that discussion we’ve been having’. It’s got to be meaningful and have an impact on people’s lives.”
The current push for devolution is not the first time efforts have been made to transfer powers to the regions. At the time of John Prescott’s failed attempt to establish an elected assembly for the North East in 2002, Mr Arnold was the chairman of a campaign to push for a similar institution for Yorkshire.
Looking back on it now, he believes that the proposed powers being transferred were “pretty insignificant” and that this was a factor in the plan’s failure. But he says the banking crisis and recession which has marked the last decade means it’s now vital for something similar to be put back on the table.
“The rationale that John Prescott put in the White Paper for those assemblies is still there, it’s even stronger now. We’re incredibly over-centralised, and it’s not good for the areas outside of London that we’re so far behind.”
Despite the extra bureaucracy it would likely entail, he says an elected assembly is preferable to a mayor with a cabinet of council leaders as a means of providing democratic accountability.
“This devolution process is not about economic renewal, and social renewal, but also about democratic renewal, there is that opportunity. If we just go back to the old ways of doing things, a strong man or woman for Yorkshire, is this really the new politics?
“You would still have a spokesperson or leader from the assembly, as they do in Wales and Scotland, but I do think it works better.
“As you go around Yorkshire people do feel a bit left out, they see the success in Leeds, success in Sheffield and other parts, but some of these peripheral places, perhaps those on the East coast, some of the smaller towns like Bramley and Keighley, feel quite left behind.
“And the figures show that, the economy in Yorkshire hasn’t recovered from the banking crisis. We have stalled for the last ten years.
“So I am always much more favour of pushing power down to those people and giving them responsibilities to take on and try and renew and revitalise their communities.”