Growing up in postwar Leeds, you always knew where the
Yorkshire Post stood on the issues of the day. You knew where its sister paper
the Yorkshire Evening Post stood, too.
The clue was in the name of the
Victorian-era company that owned them both – Yorkshire
These were monopoly local papers
which, in the manner of Tories of the Harold Macmillan era, routinely refused
to use the word Labour, always preferring to talk about the Socialists.
Tory bias was a big reason why, though we lived in Yorkshire, my family always
took, along with the Daily Worker
, the more liberal Manchester Guardian
The Yorkshire Post has been
through various ownerships and incarnations since the owners finally dropped
the C-word in the 1960s.
But it’s a paper whose political loyalties to the
Conservative cause have rarely wavered until quite recently.
Which is precisely
why David Cameron
and his party ought to take the Post
angry localist eloquence about the Christmas floods in Leeds and elsewhere very
Monday’s Evening Post front page
was a devastating piece of local
journalism, but the timing ensured it also attracted national political
Under the one-word headline “Indefensible”, it marked the Leeds
floods with a rare and excoriating front-page editorial.
“Rain and the
inevitable rise in river levels is a fact of life in England, and always will
be,” the paper wrote.
“The fact remains, however, that such events as witnessed
in Leeds this weekend are unthinkable in the capital and much of the
south-east, where state-of‑the-art flood defences have long been in place.”
Leeds was “the beating heart of
northern England” it continued – a claim that will be read with scepticism on
the other side of the Pennines [and, indeed of the Tees].
But the conclusion surely spoke for Lancashire
and Cumbria as well as Yorkshire and the north-east.
“We demand that prime
minister David Cameron announces immediate action to ensure that this situation
is not repeated in Leeds, or anywhere else, EVER AGAIN.”
Whether or not you accept all the
premises in the argument, and some of them are questionable, the Post spoke
with great force for two pressing national priorities.
Any political party that
fails to speak for both of them may find itself as much at risk of destruction
as the inadequate flood defences around York proved to be last weekend.
The first is the recognition that flooding is now an imminent
threat to ordinary people in large swaths of the north of England, from farming
areas like Cumbria’s Eden Valley and the Yorkshire Ouse catchment area, to
northern towns from Carlisle in the north-west down to Selby in the south-east.
Not only does the flooding of cities affect
far more people, it also threatens to make a mockery of things that hold a
nation together, like transport and essential services.
The scale of this shared awareness of the threat of
floods to devastate lives on a wide and enduring scale is something new.
have, of course, been serious floods before – ask an inhabitant of Cockermouth
or York. What is new is that flood prevention has become a national economic
and societal priority to a previously unimagined degree.
The scale and repeated
nature of the recent damage require it. The need reaches everywhere that the
waters have reached, and beyond.
But there is only one agency that can grip the
task decisively, fairly and in the shared interest – and that is the state.
Nothing else can do this. No one else has the money or authority.
prevention has become a test of the credibility not just of this government but
of the British government in general.
That’s where the second big
threat to the established order comes in. These floods are not just a security
issue but a northern issue too.
They have highlighted the reality of the
north’s subordinate place in the London-dominated scheme of English things and
the potent bubbling resentment against it expressed by the Evening Post’s
outburst of passion.
Yorkshire, with its large population and its strong sense
of identity and pride, is a much more troublesome tribune for this outlook than
any other area in the north.
It’s that people in the north feel their needs have consistently
been given less priority than those of people in the south and London.
absence of nationalism stops the north being, politically speaking, another
Whether it feels unfair in
low-lying parts of the Thames or Severn valleys I’m not so sure. As the Bible
says, it rains on the just and the unjust alike.
But you only have to look at
the London focus of so much infrastructural renewal, never mind the mere
existence of the Thames Barrier, to see why there is a genuine grievance here.
The most important thing about the Christmas floods of
2015 is, without doubt, the misery of having your house, your street, your
village and now even your city under water.
But it’s almost as important that
it is our country, northern England, where this is happening, though perhaps it
just doesn’t feel like that in Chelsea or Shoreditch.
This is a test of
national solidarity as well as government.
Unless we also see the floods as
an episode in the continued loosening and perhaps even the collapse of the UK,
we will not see their full danger and potency.
It will take more than a visit
by Cameron in his wellies to persuade the victims that the government is on
their side. It will take more even than government money, projects and
activism, even supposing these are on offer.
It will take an enduring
conviction that the north matters just as much as anywhere else in Britain. And
at the moment, that conviction just is not there.