Profile: York – and its potential role as Parliament’s new home, a Johnson joke which could become serious

22 Jul

There are few better ways to infuriate the House of Lords than to propose that it should move to York.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, on Sunday sent an email to his fellow peers, headed “The Ivory Coast Option”, which breathes a spirit of extreme exasperation while arguing against separating the Lords from the Commons:

“It is worth reflecting on this: there are 79 nations with bicameral legislatures (parliaments with two chambers, typically a lower house and a senate). In all but one of these the chambers are located in the same city, often adjoining. The one exception is the Côte d’Ivoire whose lower house, the National Assembly, is located in Abidjan, while its recently established upper house, the Senate, is located in Yamoussoukro, some 235 km away. No disrespect to the Ivory Coast, but it is not immediately clear why the UK should follow their lead.”

It was odd to find Lord Fowler fulminating against the suggestion that the Lords should be sundered from the Commons, for the Prime Minister has now ventured to propose that both Houses should move to York during the renovation of the Palace of Westminster, which is expected to begin in 2025.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio earlier this week that as a Lancashire man, any move to York would “stick in my throat”. He considers his own constituency, Chorley, preferable, and says there could be “no better place than Lancaster Castle”, which is sitting empty and “belongs to the Queen”.

But in any case, Hoyle went on,

“I don’t believe the House of Commons is leaving London. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, you know, Parliament is rooted within London, it’s our capital city. As much as I can dream about moving north, it isn’t going to happen … it wouldn’t be good for the Commons.”

What is going on here? When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was asked last Thursday about their lordships going to York, he replied:

“It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. So if they could do it for pleasure, I’m sure they might have a jolly time going there for business.”

Peers do not generally find this funny. Lord Singh of Wimbledon – better known to Radio 4 listeners as Indarjit Singh – has asserted that “York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public”.

Lord Young of Cookham, known as Sir George Young during his long service as MP and minister, has complained that the Government “keeps this hare running”, and wonders who authorised it, and how much public money has been spent.

But Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster and often in the forefront of reform, has indicated his strong support for the idea of taking Parliament, and large parts of the Civil Service, out of London: “I think it is vitally important that decision-makers are close to people.”

Will Parliament move, at least temporarily, to York? Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, suggested yesterday afternoon to ConHome:

“Well I think it may be a tease or a joke. But a tease or a joke can be a clever way of introducing a very awkward subject. Humour is Boris’s way of communicating and the more awkward the subject the more humorous.

“There’s a serious intention there disguised as a joke. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to be spending a lot of time on this at a time of economic crisis.”

In Yorkshire, the idea of moving Parliament north is greeted as a long overdue corrective to southern ways of thinking. In January, when the idea of taking the Lords there was first floated, York Council offered to help with the move.

As a woman long resident in Yorkshire put it yesterday to ConHome, “Lots of parliamentarians are too hefted to the South”  – hefted being a term used of sheep who are taught to graze a piece of unfenced fell, and in succeeding generations stay there without being told. She went on:

“A meeting of North and South can only be for the good. Some of the southern values might be put to the test. Northerners tell it as they see it.

“People here were so pro-Boris at the election. I hope he realises that. They like his very direct style. You could never get an answer out of Corbyn. Northerners want to know what you think.

“They’re not out for themselves the way people are down South. They do feel there’s an element of being second-class citizens.”

Many Labour voters who in the North of England voted Conservative for the first time last December felt that for generations they had been treated by Westminster and Whitehall as second-class citizens, for whom second-class services were good enough.

But the need for “levelling up”, as ministers now describe it, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. Here is Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, writing in the 14th century:

“All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England since those kings mostly frequent the South and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours.”

When one arrives at York, and walks from the station to the Minster, this disparaging tone becomes impossible to sustain. It is a wonderful city, containing within its medieval walls, the most complete in England, a stupendous concentration of wonderful buildings.

The city, founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD, was visited by three emperors and has served as capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, of the kingdom of Northumbria, and latterly of the northern province of the Church of England.

York has been called, as Robert Tombs reminds us in The English and Their History (2014), the natural capital of Britain.

Like most Roman cities, it benefits from admirable transport links, its roads and river supplemented in 1839 by the coming of the railways, for which it became a major centre.

William the Conqueror had crushed, with his customary brutality, the uprising of 1069, in which the two castles erected by the Normans at York on either side of the River Ouse were taken and the garrison massacred, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria “cutting off their heads one by one”.

William’s revenge, the Harrying of the North, entailed laying waste a great tract of country northwards from York: pacification by starvation.

In later centuries, pacification by the recognition of York’s importance was from time to time attempted. As a contributor to The History of Parliament points out,

“Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.”

In 1472 the Council of the North was established in the capable and efficient hands of the future Richard III. The Council’s headquarters was King’s Manor, York, which looks rather small for the Lords but could do if the House is shrunk.

Henry VIII said  there would be a Parliament in York in 1536 to appease Catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but then decided to kill the rebels instead.

According to a recent report in The Times, York is “being lined up by Downing Street as a possible second centre of government”:

“It’s not just the House of Lords. Senior civil servants who are close to decision-making are already looking at Rightmove to see what they can buy for the cost of a terraced house in East Dulwich. And they like it. They are looking at substantial Edwardian villas in Harrogate.”

They will find themselves competing, since Leeds United’s promotion, with Premier League footballers.

Perhaps all this will come to nothing, and York will not have to cope with an influx of politicians. But a site has been found next to the railway station where a temporary Parliament building could be erected, in time for opening in 2025 when the Palace of Westminster closes for repairs.

Johnson has warned that this should be done with “no gold plating”, but how he would love the drama and symbolism of such a move.

And one suspects that many Labour voters in the North of England might start to believe they are no longer being treated as second-class citizens.