You didn’t have to be roadside in Yorkshire this week to realise that England is changing

There was a sense of identity and pride - the future is local

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While the peloton, as we have learned to call it, whizzed its way through the Yorkshire Dales in the most perfect weather last weekend, I regret to say that my thoughts were less on the cyclists than on the crowds. It was not only the turnout that impressed – at points the riders could barely squeeze their way through – but the spirit. It was as though London 2012 had been resurrected in Yorkshire.

Everywhere exuded those very un-British attributes of enthusiasm and positivity. Everyone seemed determined to prove that Yorkshire could put on a show, that Yorkshire was equal to the best of the best, that Yorkshire could give its guests a terrific time. There was a sense of identity, pride and good will to all.

Having spent most of my teenage years in Sheffield, I have to say that this is not particularly how I remember at least that bit of south Yorkshire. Along with the grittiness symbolised by the defunct blast furnaces, there was a chippiness about the city, whether in relation to Leeds or (still more) to Manchester. Sheffielders tended to introversion; their university, their shops, their football, were all so wonderful that you didn’t need to stray further. As a newcomer you were suspect; but leaving was akin to treachery.

When Gary Verity – who, as chief executive of Yorkshire’s tourist agency, led its bid for the Grand Depart – observed something similar, noting the chip-on-shoulder attitudes he met after returning to Leeds from years in London, what he said struck a chord. But he was right, too, about the change. The Yorkshire I saw last weekend – all right, on television –was reborn. Not because of the sprucing up, though there had obviously been some of that, but because of what seemed to be a new, still self-reliant, but no longer defensive, spirit. In staging the first two legs of the Tour, Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield had managed to bury their rivalries and pull together.

Which prompted me to muse whether now might not be the time to revisit John Prescott’s ill-fated project for a more regionally governed Britain. A decade ago, the then Deputy Prime Minister had proposed the creation of regional assemblies for England, partly in response to Scottish and Welsh devolution. But everything came to an ignominious halt when the North-east – the first region to be asked whether it wanted such an assembly – turned it down, massively, in a referendum.

But that was then. Whatever Scotland decides in September, the pressure for more regionalism could be on. If Scotland leaves the Union, England will look a very different place; if Scotland stays, it is likely to be granted greater tax-raising powers that are already drawing envious glances from elsewhere.

 

London is no longer the only place demanding that property taxes be spent where they are raised. Yorkshire now has the bit between its teeth, and the Core Cities group, representing major cities in England, said this week that it wanted something similar, plus the right to raise loans. MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, for their part, have contrasted the relative financial autonomy enjoyed by New York or Frankfurt, with the constraints on, say, London or Manchester.

The actual divisions proposed by Prescott may not have been the right ones: the old counties command abiding loyalties and Yorkshire, for one, probably warrants its own unit. I wouldn’t mind betting, though, that the next government – whatever its complexion – will find itself taking another look.

In the meantime, I offer these two postscripts to Le Tour de Yorkshire. One: there is more to Gary Verity than his bluff and sometimes self-important manner in recent weeks might suggest. First, he is not just head of Welcome to Yorkshire, he also farms successfully, and sustainably. Second, he worked in the City of London for many years, moving back north after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He’s a native returned. When, as it surely must, a knighthood comes his way, let it be for services to Yorkshire. But not only to Yorkshire – my second postscript. If the reports of how Yorkshire prevailed over Edinburgh and Florence are correct, and they ring true, what clinched the argument was not just the landscape or Gary Verity’s get up and go, but the rapport he established with the director of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, and his sense for what makes the Tour, and the French, tick.

So, along with the knighthood, how about the Légion d’honneur for Monsieur Verity, too?

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Shevardnadze’s legacy is a very different future

It is a pity that the life of Eduard Shevardnadze has to be seen through the prism of his last 12 years in power, as the second, largely ineffectual and increasingly derided, president of independent Georgia. With the passage of time, I hope that history might judge him more kindly.

Shevardnadze was second only to Mikhail Gorbachev in his contribution to the demise of Soviet communism. It is possible, indeed, that without Shevardnadze at his side, Gorbachev would have had neither the moral nor the political support he needed to dismantle almost 70 years of rule by stultification and fear.

Like Gorbachev and, indeed, Boris Yeltsin, Shevardnadze was steeped in the system, rising to become communist party boss in Georgia before being brought to Moscow by Gorbachev. Like them, he was able to envisage a different future (though not, as it happened, the one that came to pass).

Gorbachev’s appointment of Shevardnadze as Soviet Foreign Minister was inspired. He was hardly the obvious chief ambassador for the world’s second superpower. He had spent his whole life in Georgia and his Russian never lost its Georgian accent. But he was the complete opposite of the dour negativity of his long-serving predecessor, Andrei Gromyko. He was charming, debonair and, to all appearances, humane. He presented a new face to the world.

One of the most courageous decisions he took, and one for which he deserves to be remembered, was in 1988, after the devastating earthquake in Armenia. He announced that Moscow would not only accept foreign aid, but allow in aid workers, journalists and others, without visas. This was a huge departure for a proud country that was still largely closed to the world. With dozens of flights every day just between Moscow and London, it is hard to imagine that isolation now. At least some of that first opening up was thanks to Shevardnadze.

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