Author Anthony Clavane on why Yorkshire voted Leave
13:35 28 July 2016
As an ardent Remainer, I was convinced, like the pollsters, pundits and bookies, the vote was in the bag. All residual traces of flat-Earthism had surely been erased four years ago when the London Olympics confirmed that a modern, vibrant, outward-looking, post-cool Britannia was here to stay. Danny Boyle’s brilliant opening ceremony was unashamedly patriotic – the patriotism of Shakespeare, the industrial revolution, the NHS, the Beatles and, well, Mr Bean – but also, like the Games themselves, an ebullient hymn to an open, progressive, inclusive multi-racial society entirely at ease with itself.
At the same time, as an ardent Yorkshireman – albeit one who has lived in self-imposed exile for the past three decades – a brief, edgy segment from Boyle’s pageant had given me pause for thought. I’m not sure what the millions of television viewers around the world made of the clip from a gritty, depressing, grim-up-north film featuring a scrawny schoolkid and his kestrel, but it was clear to me that the director was paying homage to White Rose defiance. The 1970s poster for the movie featuring Billy Casper’s iconic two-fingered salute, aptly summed up the region’s penchant for sticking it to the Man. Particularly if the Man hailed from the soft south. “Whether you’ve seen a film like Kes or not,” Boyle later explained, “it’s part of your culture, your heritage. It’s running in your veins. It’s an invisible fingerprint that everybody carries, whether you ever sit down and watch it or not.”
This quote helps to explain why almost two thirds of people in South Yorkshire voted for Brexit. It gives us an insight into why there was huge support for the Leave campaign in Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – and even a narrow majority in the former Socialist Republic of Sheffield (still twinned, I believe, with Donetsk). In fact, throughout the six-million strong county, thousands of 21st Century Caspers delivered their own up-yours verdict on three decades of near-invisibility. Since the appearance of Ken Loach’s low-budget masterpiece, based on the late Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For A Knave, many of Yorkshire’s towns and cities had experienced the continuing demise of their industrial culture. The gap had widened between rich and poor, haves and have-nots and north and south. The destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities, accelerated by a 1980s’ manufacturing collapse which wiped out almost a fifth of Britain’s industrial base and left large swathes of the broad acres trapped in hopelessness, almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.
While researching a new book on Yorkshire’s sporting identity I visited ghost towns where high streets were deserted, libraries had been shut and jobs were scarce. But the spirit of Kes, I also discovered, had not died. Both the Hines book and the Loach film offered a glimpse of what it was like to rise, soar even, above a hopeless situation. One of my interviewees, Ian McMillan, aka the Bard of Barnsley, pointed out that “Kes is our creation myth. It’s our Moby-Dick, our Great Expectations. Billy Casper’s story reminds us that we are worth writing about. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen.” You do not have to accept your fate, know your place or be battered into submission, especially on a football pitch by a Manchester United-supporting bully. In the movie’s most famous scene, Brian Glover’s callous PE teacher, Mr Sugden – “I’m scheming this morning, all over the field, just like Charlton used to do. Anyway, Denis Law’s in the wash this week” – insists on being both referee and team captain, taking every free kick and blowing his whistle whenever he’s tackled.
Sport is as good a metaphor as any to understand why the old mining and steel heartlands voted Out. Since the evisceration of the communities which sustained its teams, and drained away its economic lifeblood, huge sections of Yorkshire have been disenfranchised by a new, international sporting order which is perceived to be bullying, out of touch and capricious. Just like its great industries, many of Yorkshire’s great football teams have never fully recovered from the harrowing of their region. Although enjoying fleeting success during the boom years of the 1990s, several big names have lurched from well-publicised financial disaster to despair. Both the Premier League and Champions League have come to be seen, like the EU, as ruthless global organisations dominated by a small group of mercenaries.
The English top flight, the most lucrative league in the world, has tended in recent years to be a Yorkshire-free zone. Some of the game’s most famous clubs – like Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United – imploded during the post-Hillsborough era, ignominiously hurtling down the divisions. Attendances at rugby league matches have fallen; despite its Sky-sponsored Super League makeover, the region’s “national sport” remains an overlooked game, lacking the financial power of its southern-based, Establishment rival. The county cricket team have, admittedly, enjoyed a recent revival, winning back-to-back championships. But, like the “living-the-dream” football clubs, they have paid a big price for monetising these dreams; not only have they run up a hefty debt but they remain haunted by the ghosts of a civil war that, for three decades, consigned them to sporting irrelevance.
Yorkshire likes to see itself as an ignored, neglected, even dispossessed county, cast out into the wilderness. There is a tendency to romanticise what has sometimes been a parochial, insular attitude to “the outside world” – and to mythologise stiflingly-claustrophobic Victorian neighbourhoods, pockmarked by overcrowding, poverty and bigotry. After virtually disappearing as an economic force, as a result of de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policy and a post-crash squeeze on incomes, it has now voted to remain invisible. This baffles me.
Such a penchant for self-sabotage was criticised in another great social realist film of the 60s, Billy Liar. Unlike Casper, this particular Billy had a chance to transcend the limited confines of his background, to make something of his life. “It’s easy,” his girlfriend Liz, played by the ebullient Julie Christie, tells him. “You get on a train and, four hours later, there you are in London”.
At the end of Billy Liar, the Yorkshire anti-hero, played by a very young Tom Courtenay, jumps off the train before it sets off for the Big Smoke. He bottles it, turning down the chance of joining Liz – Julie Christie! – in the swinging capital. Liz slumps into her seat, clearly baffled. As with Kes, I have watched this movie many times and have always ended up screaming at Courtenay to stay on the train. Back in the socially-mobile 60s, the actor himself was in the vanguard of a post-war generation of northern working-class heroes who migrated to London – and were regarded as ambassadors of their communities. These edgy provincials barged through the privileged ranks of the elite. They were, unlike now, given opportunities – this was an era of full employment and rapidly rising living standards – and they eagerly grabbed them. Just like their fellow actors, their towns and their teams, they were aspirational, desperate to be part of the wider world.
If there is hope, it lies, perhaps, in Hull, Courtenay’s home town. It is proudly independent, revelling in its sense of apartness; the English Civil War began in 1642 when its merchants slammed shut the gates in the face of King Charles’ tax collectors. But it remains aspirational. Its football team are back in the Premier League. It is gearing up for an exhilarating year as the UK City of Culture, during which it expects to attract thousands of European tourists. It manages to combine local pride and global ambition. “It is in the world,” wrote adopted Hullensian Philip Larkin, “yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance.”
As Andy Burnham said towards the end the of the referendum campaign, the Remain camp was “far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull”. It failed to engage with the remote, east Yorkshire port which, like Casper, felt badly let down by the Establishment.
The city had once been a major centre of shipping but the 70s’ conflict with Iceland – the so-called Cod Wars – had destroyed its trawler fleets. Westminster had simply stood by. The then-Labour government, under pressure from the Americans, who needed Iceland as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, had allowed the Nordic country to impose a 200-mile fishing limit, causing the staple industry to rot and 15,000 jobs to disappear.
So you can see why Hull flicked two fingers up at London, Brussels, globalisation.
But Liz, I’m sure, would have been an ardent Remainer. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”, she would have told those communities desperately clinging on to their disappearing manufacturing heritage.
You can fill your post-industrial vacuum with EU-driven regeneration. You can continue to benefit from the £2.5billion that finances charities and community centres, the £2.9bn that has helped Britons find work and start their own businesses and all the other European funding that has revived waterfronts, redeveloped galleries and built new museums. You can soar like Casper’s kestrel, reinvent yourself as part of a vibrant, outward-looking, socially-responsible Europe, realise your full potential.
Sadly, God’s Own County decided to leave the train. To leave itself behind. To remain in the wilderness.
Anthony Clavane is a journalist and author, his new book A Yorkshire Tragedy is out in September. To pre-order go to amzn.to/2aØzTFG