Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gearing Up

Surveyor is the magazine for highways and transport professionals.  This month’s issue is headlined ‘Return of the Regions’ and opens to reveal an editorial by Dominic Browne, and more besides.  The editorial starts as follows:

“In January of this year the Department for Transport (DfT) launched a small (by government standards) pilot competition for local authorities to find ‘total transport’ solutions in rural and isolated communities.

To some this may have seemed fairly innocuous; a scrambled attempt to cover ground in local services left barren by revenue cuts.  Yet the guidance for bidders contained a line that appeared to herald something more than spin, smoke and mirrors; something that looked like an honest appeal.

‘Service integration has not been attempted on any scale up to now, so the essential first step is for local authorities to work out how to go about it.’

Events this month, where we have seen the wheel of public reform turn once more, recalled this line.

When the coalition government first came into power, the word regional was banned.  Localism was the new watchword.  This month saw the concept of regionalism bloom again.  Across the North and the Midlands two major bodies built of local authorities are ready to take on statutory powers for regional transport planning.  While in the West Country, Surveyor has been told there is an ‘aspiration for more formalised regional control of transport’.

Further south, we see major sub-regional groups developing.  In the East Midlands we have the two great communities of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire planning a joint combined authority and in ‘England’s Economic Heartland’ of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, we have an integrated total transport plan blossoming that, in its conception, actually pre-dates the DfT’s competition.

Some of this goes back to traditional English regionalism.  The North, and to a lesser extent the Midlands, have always been comfortable seeing themselves as individual cultural entities, while some even still see Cornwall, another beneficiary of recent devolution, as a country in itself.  In the south, where demarcation is more of an economic issue, sub-regional transport planning may be more practical.  The capital of course, effectively a region in itself, already has the might of Transport for London working for it…”

Poor old South.  The devil’s in the demarcation, isn’t it?  Boundaries may be fuzzy but we know where the North and the Midlands are.  We might even be able to point out East Anglia, another traditional entity but now one sadly subsumed into the ‘East of England’ Prescott zone, where it rubs shoulders with north London.  But the South?  And the West?  Here it gets confused.

In 1919 Professor C.B. Fawcett published a famous, not to say infamous, work entitled Provinces of England: A Study of Some Geographical Aspects of Devolution.  It included a map of 12 provinces, defined by physical features and ignoring county boundaries.  The only nod to history was the re-use of certain names as labels of convenience.  Cornwall and Devon were combined as the ‘Devon Province’.  The ‘Wessex Province’ comprised no more than the Solent basin.  In between was an area stretching from the Wye valley to the English Channel, grouped as the ‘Bristol Province’.  Fawcett explained its name as follows:

“Round Bristol the popular regional name has been ‘West of England’ or ‘West Country’.  But our Bristol Province has no better claim to the name ‘West of England’ than the West Midland Province has, and a less claim than could be made on behalf of Devon; while the term ‘West Country’ has different local meanings from north to south of England – in Durham and Northumberland it refers to Cumberland and Westmorland.”

Generations of the more materialist regionalists have praised the prof for his objectivity and lack of sentiment.  Most fail to comment on the fact that in 1942 Fawcett revised his map, now with 11 provinces, several minor and some major boundary changes, plus a couple of name changes while he was about it.  Surely unassailable objective reality ought not to be that malleable?

Cultural geography is about people and the place they call home.  It picks up where physical geography leaves off and it’s what’s rightly central to any discussion about English regionalism from below.  It’s because that voice from below is so often suppressed that we have this difficulty with demarcation down south.  It’s why we’re assured that it’s absolutely all about economics, and the functional parameters of accommodating and responding to growth, and not at all about culture.

Is Cornwall part of the ‘West Country’?  For a Cornishman, the west starts at Truro and carries on to the Isles of Scilly.  Cornwall has the Cornish Riviera.  Devon has the English Riviera.  You might think the penny of national separation would have dropped by now.  So if England’s West Country extends no further west than the Tamar, how far east does it go?  According to a recent study of regional accents by YouGov, no further than Somerset.  Not even as far as Brisawl, me lover.

The ‘West Country’ is a slippery term because it’s defined by those living to the east of it.  It’s what’s down west from London and as London’s sphere of influence grows so the West Country shrinks.  Between the wars it was still possible to describe Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset as the ‘Middle West’ (the reference is from Lovely Britain, edited by Mais and Stephenson), somewhere too far west to be the Home Counties and not west enough to be the real West Country.

Wessex today is split west-east – between the ‘South West’ and ‘South East’ Prescott zones – but another line would be north-west / south-east.  Even in the days of our independence we had Wessex west of Selwood and Wessex east of Selwood, the diocese of Sherborne and the diocese of Winchester.  As with the Highland / Lowland line in Scotland, our geography has shaped our history, creating divisions for others to exploit if they will.  Whereas a self-governing region could work to strengthen the lines of communication that bind us together, the priorities of the London regime for centuries have been to follow the lines of least resistance, the tentacles that reach into deepest Wessex.  There’s the Bath Road, the Kennet & Avon Canal, the Great Western Railway and the M4 going to the west; the Portsmouth Road, the London & South Western Railway and the M3 going to the south.  Or so it’s presented.  The reality is that of travel in the opposite direction, for these are not primarily the bonds of a resilient and self-confident region.  They’re the great veins along which our region’s tribute flows up to London, never to be seen again.

The demarcation problem in ‘the South’ is insoluble so long as London is allowed to dominate.  The North and the Midlands aspire to break free of London and they have the distance and the spirit to make it so whenever they choose.  As Surveyor’s editorial notes, the South may be tending to see its future solely in terms of sub-regions, satellites submissive to the will of the Great Wen, not defined, as others are, in resistance to it.  So long as that’s the case then it deserves the environmental and social catastrophe that’s heading towards it as London overspill eyes its fields.

It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Wessex has a flag, Wessex has a patron saint, Wessex has its own, much abused dialect.  We have as much right as any Mercian or Northumbrian to govern ourselves.  In so far as we’re on London’s doorstep, our culture in the front line facing the steamroller, we have a stronger and more urgent case than they do.

Our first priority, naturally, is to jettison the idea of the ‘West Country’, a concept far too flexible for its own good.  Wessex is an alternative name that retains the idea of being placed geographically to the west of London.  It does so without the notions of ineradicable inferiority, mental dumbness and infinite recession into peninsular twilight that have characterised a view of the ‘West Country’ handed down from above.  One busy lopping off our eastern shires one by one.

Time to stand, men of the west.  And then push back.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Unenlightening Europe

Quelle surprise!  As we noted in September, France was an easy target for terror.  So, ten days on from the Paris attacks, how’s the reaction unfolding?

Canadian blogger Vlad Tepes sums up the polarisation:

“The most important thing you can do when people you don’t know are murdered by Muslims in an act designed to promote the primacy of Islam, is show your moral superiority to people who would like to take meaningful action by demonstrating grief…  People tripping over themselves in self-sacrifice, trying to tell the people who want them dead or enslaved how there will be no ‘backlash’ instead of at the very very least going en masse to the mosques and screaming: ‘stop the hate’.”

Eloi turning on the Morlocks then?  But would that help or not?

And when the candles and the flowers and the teddy bears have been cleared away, what will remain?

There’s little serious anger that carries through.  From a position of strength, that would be good news.  From a position of weakness, it only underlines that weakness.  The silence is nervous.  It’s well-known that the ISIS strategy is to destabilise Europe, to make normal life unpredictable, to create the conditions in which submission to the gangsters’ will seems the safest option.  Part of that strategy is placing Europe’s leaders apart from the led.  They won’t be targeted.  They’re too useful as they are: mostly perceived as bumbling, incompetent, and lacking any will to defend their people.  Get rid of them and you only invite the more determined to replace them.

François Hollande ramps up the rhetoric but results will be another matter.  Pending anything better, la gloire is back.  France is bombing Raqqa, because France is now at war.  France was bombing Raqqa anyway, because that was just fooling around?  The tricolour has been much in evidence across the globe.  It’s forgotten, for now, that its history is no more glorious than the swastika’s.  Remember the Vendée, the génocide franco-français.  France’s politicians, gathering last week at Versailles, belted out their national anthem, as we’re all now encouraged to do.  ‘Do you hear, in the countryside, the roar of those ferocious soldiers?  Let's march, let's march!  Let an impure blood water our furrows!’  Yes, they still get away with that, but it’s not our Europe: it’s a gory theatre of the absurd, founded upon a lie (that France in 1792 was not the aggressor).

Hollande insists that he will defend the Republic.  Not so much France.  Not so much the French.  La République, a hate cult of hypocrisy, historic enemy of European regionalism, the proto-fascist State over which Hollande presides, one that despite his best efforts still cannot bring itself to legalise any indigenous language on its territory besides French.  (To quote Musa Anter, a Kurdish writer assassinated in 1992, "If my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your state, it probably means that you built your state on my land.")  Republican values are the new Falklands factor – the art of war turned to domestic political advantage.  A false flag operation?  We’ve no evidence, but the motive is clear enough.

France likes to think it has a special relationship with the Mahometan world, one strangely informed by a millennium of conflict with it, real or imagined.  Charles Martel at Tours.  Roland at Roncevaux.  St Louis on Crusade.  Napoleon in Egypt.  Charles X seizing Algiers.  Charles de Gaulle letting it go.  It’s not actually the most promising basis for peaceful co-existence.

Nor is Britain’s record.  A century ago the UK made promises to the Arabs and the Jews.  It would be simplistic to say that the promises to the Jews were kept and those to the Arabs were not.  Neither got everything they expected.  But the Arabs, and the Kurds, got a lot more than they bargained for.  Promises of self-government if the Ottoman yoke were thrown off became the reality of a new colonial yoke.

In 1920 an insurgency broke out in Iraq against the British occupation.  RAF bombing of the area continued throughout the decade.  The Air Ministry considered it useful practice for other territories where “armed forces are required to give effect to British policy and uphold British prestige”.  Not least because it was so much cheaper than deploying ground troops.  Squadron Leader Arthur Harris reported after several such punitive raids that: "The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage.  Within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape."  At the time of the Arab revolt in Palestine in the late 1930s, Air Commodore Harris, as he then was, declared that "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand, and sooner or later it will have to be applied".  Ancient history this may now be, but the lands cursed with oil have a particular way of keeping the past in mind as they navigate the present.  The wonder is not that Europe suffers from terrorist atrocities.  It’s that patience proved so long-lasting.

What strikes westerners as not-quite-cricket is the worldwide extra-territorial jurisdiction that religious regimes claim, in defiance of international norms.  Killing cartoonists is the ever sharper expression of an idea that began in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and which the civilised world failed to challenge effectively.  In the UK we may tend to remember the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  In France it’s more likely to be the murder in Paris of Shapour Bakhtiar, a remarkable man who was secular Iran’s last hope.  But all such incursions into European sovereignty pale into insignificance set against the western assumption that eastern regimes exist to be changed at will, whatever the locals think.  However tempting it is to bomb Syria without UN authority, the result will be more anti-western feeling, coupled with more European guilt for the collateral damage (damage that’s only terrorism by another name).  Or if nothing is done, an equal and opposite guilt for inaction.  If Europeans are to defend themselves, they must first question on what terms they think it proper to decide the fate of others.

Europe’s defence is bound to become more inward-looking because Europe is forming a smaller and smaller proportion of the world’s population.  (Its share is expected to halve between now and 2050.)  The ultimate triumph of universal human rights is no longer assured, because the expanding populations of the world may have no use for them.  They may view them with indifference, or with hostility.  Either way, Europeans need to be more watchful of what happens to their own rights and make that task their first priority, because it may be that no-one else will.  Europe is busy renouncing its enlightenment heritage because others find it offensive.  Since only those with something to hide are offended by the truth, it would be better not to retreat from the enlightenment but to shine the torch deeper, into our own society and into others’.  But that’s not what will happen.  On the contrary, we’ll continue to allow victims to be created by allowing others to use the value system of the victims’ own society against them.  Nice work for lawyers.

As terror attacks escalate, so the paradigm by which Europe’s rulers rule crumbles.  It survives only so long as it offers satisfying explanations of why the world is as it is.  European unity has been shaken by the migrant crisis, with one of its most unambiguous achievements – the borderless Schengen area – now in tatters.  Counter-terrorism demands closer co-operation across borders, better sharing of intelligence, perhaps a Europe where unity is enjoyed by the rulers even as it ceases to exist for the ruled.  It’s not a Europe that necessarily requires the EU, democratic or otherwise, which may be one reason why the EU is under political challenge.

Predictions of Mahometan conquest are far-fetched but only because they’re wrongly framed in military terms: a formal State structure can survive long after the internal reality of which active minority wields power in society has been utterly transformed.  One only has to look at Tower Hamlets under Mayor Lutfur Rahman to see how easily the corruption of Bangladesh can be reproduced wholesale in a London borough if standards are not upheld.  Given the London party consensus that elected mayors are better than open government, we can only expect to see more of this.  But even Europe, tolerant, self-loathing Europe, ever apologetic, ever happy to accept that two wrongs make a right, has a tipping point, a point of calling to account.

Expect far Right, anti-EU parties to fill at least part of the vacuum left by the collapsing paradigm of the politically correct.  Expect xenophobia to make no distinction between guilty and innocent: a presumption of innocence is essential for justice, but not for security.  It’s not impossible to imagine some countries taking things as far as mass expulsion of religious minorities deemed too troublesome to remain, especially once those countries are outside the EU.  It’s what happened in Spain in the 17th century, a move obviously considered worth it despite the economic damage it wrought.  Many of Spain’s moriscos ended up in north Africa, swelling the ranks of the Barbary pirates who took their revenge on Europe’s coastal communities, including those in Wessex.  Terrorism is nothing new and neither is the suite of possible responses.  About the only ‘self-evident truth’ is that the less Mahometanism there is in Europe, and in the world, the less terrorism there can be.  That calculation, that suspicion of the murky middle ground, that condemnation even of the fiercest fighters against the likes of ISIS, is the real tragedy.  Europeans aware of their history and confronted once again by an ideology that demands the death penalty for thought-crime may rather be safe than sorry.  It doesn’t lessen the tragedy.

If far Right parties fill part of the vacuum it’s also true that they can’t fill it all.  There are equal opportunities for other visions of Europe: most vitally a Europe of small nations and historic regions, decentralised, democratic, inclusive (of those willing to be included), yet passionately protective of traditional rights and committed to international justice rather than to the addictions of repression and war.  It’s a strong possibility in the longer term, but getting there could be a close-run thing.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Mercia on the Move?

Yesterday our President and Secretary-General travelled to Stafford to attend a meeting of the Acting Witan of Mercia.

The Acting Witan arose out of a group called the Mercia Movement, who researched and published as The Mercia Manifesto their vision of an autonomous and sustainable bioregion in the English Midlands.  In 2001 this led to the calling of a widely publicised Mercian Constitutional Convention to debate a draft constitution for the region.  The Convention worked patiently and good-humouredly for many months to agree a constitution.  Its efforts culminated in a declaration of independence read out in front of the Birmingham Council House on Mercian Independence Day, 29th May 2003.  Those who wished to remain active in campaigning for de facto self-government constituted themselves as the Acting Witan and have continued to lead political regionalism in Mercia.

At one level this may all sound like play-acting, the Government-of-Mercia-in-Internal-Exile.  In fact, relentless legitimacy is remarkably powerful in its ability to put the London regime on the spot.  The Acting Witan has signed up over 2,000 people as registered citizens of Mercia.  How many citizens does the UK have?  None, is the answer, only subjects of a Norman Crown.  How good does that look in comparison?  The Witan’s Convener, Jeff Kent, has succeeded in having himself removed from the electoral register on the grounds that he’s a Mercian, not British citizen.  Bureaucracy has no way of knowing how to respond to the unexpected and so eventually gives in.  We were told of correspondence with the London regime in which civil servants are being backed into a corner until they ultimately accept the role being written for them, as the UK’s appointed negotiators over the formal transference of power to Mercia.

Meanwhile, Mercian consciousness is growing, thanks to helpful events like the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard.  We were shown letters from successive Leaders of Stoke-on-Trent City Council looking forward to working with the Acting Witan in promoting Mercian culture.  Plans include a Mercia Day, which Stoke acknowledges will need to be co-ordinated with other local authorities across the region.

One reason perhaps why regionalism is rushing up the agenda, driven this time from outside the London parties, is the size of the gap between what those parties laughingly call ‘devolution’ and what the term actually implies.  While Scotland has a First Minister accountable to Scotland’s parliament, the regions of England are to be reorganised into arbitrary areas headed by elected mayors that no-one asked for.  And accountable?  Oh yes, once every four years, and in the meantime free to strut about like Mussolini to conceal their lack of real power.  Patience with London’s lies is wearing thin.

Natural and human systems often have a weak point that is an aspect of their greatest strength.  The London regime’s greatest strength is its antiquity, and its weak point is the ultimately unlawful nature of that, namely, the Crown stolen at Hastings.  The Acting Witan plans, when its resources allow, to set up a regional court to try establishment figures for numerous crimes against the land and people of Mercia.  Seats in the public gallery can be expected to go very early that day!

Our relations with the Acting Witan have always been exceptionally good.  Both our movements recognise that the other is trying out an experiment to see if it works.  Ours is to see if an English regionalist party can follow the electoral path to success that the Celtic nationalist parties have mapped out.  The Mercian road to regionalism seeks instead to re-invent politics itself from the bottom up.  It’s not a race, but we both hope to learn whatever we can from the experiences of the other.

WR started earlier, in a blaze of publicity in 1974, and have managed largely to avoid splits and splinters.  Mercia has not fared so well, with a galaxy of often tiny groups claiming to speak for the region, sometimes reacting to the discovery of the others by refusing to work with them.  It could be a parody of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: the Mercian People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Mercia.  From what we observed yesterday, that seems to be on the point of changing.  The ground has been cleared.  Now the time to plant has come.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Price of Wealth

Poor things.  All in it together?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Letting London Go

Wastemonster has often voted for evil.  And now for EVEL – English Votes for English Laws.  Quite right too, as far as that goes.  Which is not very far.  The Daily Express, predictably, took it way too far, with a blustering piece by Leo McKinstry today about the great, tax-oppressed nation of England, paying for the Scots to have socialism.

It never gets through to armchair English nationalists that Scotland and Wales have devolution because they have nationalist parties prepared to run the London parties out of town if they don’t deliver.  Where’s this one-size-fits-all England then, getting on its high horse about uppity Celts?  Who organises it to get up out of its armchair and do something about it all?  Anyone but the Tories?  Do the voters of Surrey really care what happens in Devon or Durham?  Or is it just a pretence, this ‘England first’ attitude forever conveniently forgetting that half the country even exists?

At least a regional identity is something that can be built around common interests, even if takes persistent hard work to do so in the face of media hostility.  Across most of England it isn’t hard to see what that common interest is once you think about it.  We all have a common interest in seeing London’s near-monopoly on power, wealth and talent broken up and our regions restored in its place.  The great scroungers of British politics aren’t in Scotland: they’re in London and EVEL doesn’t touch them.

Some years back, we had a discussion within the party over whether Wessex demanding home rule was proper form.  If Britain’s union with Ireland is dissolved, then Scotland’s with England, England’s union with Wales must follow and then an admission that it never had one with Cornwall.  In which case, if the same logic continues, Wessex must let go of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia.  And Londonia or whatever else pulls itself together in the south-east corner.  Then, and only then, will Wessex itself be free, free of a burden it took upon itself 11 centuries ago, a burden that has crushed it and empowered its opposite.

That’s what it’s all about.  Letting London go.

There are three stages to resistance.  The first is emotional: the anger and bewilderment that comes with realising how far the system has betrayed the promises it made to us.  Then there is the intellectual response.  What can I do, as an individual?  What goods or countries can I boycott?  Where can I invest ethically?  What petitions can I sign?  Then there is the response that really makes a difference, the action of working collectively to transform the way we do things, to build a new physical reality, new places and links, where dependence on London has gone.  It’s the only way.  Let it go.  Replace it with something better.

We’re assured that the City is the great engine of national success in a world of free and fair trade.  Is that so?  Do our crops grow faster every time Tarquin closes a deal?  One of the things that sets WR apart from the London parties is that we view the City as it actually is.  As a cesspit of speculation and ‘socially useless activity’ parasitical upon the real economy that has to foot the bill every time hubris takes over.  If all the debt it keeps pumping out were simply cancelled by law, would anyone actually suffer?  Let’s imagine a world without it.  Let’s imagine Great Fire II.

It’s a baking hot, dry, summer’s evening, the kind so common with climate change.  There’s a national drought, made worse by over-development in the south-east exhausting the region’s aquifers, and water is currently rationed.  A fire breaks out in Pudding Lane, EC3.  Firefighters struggle in vain to contain it as water pressure drops.  Burning refuse is swirled along by the wind into the open windows of half-empty offices whose workers are preparing to go home.  Blowing up buildings to create firebreaks just isn’t practical, the buildings now being so tall.  After three days the wind changes but by then the firestorm has consumed the whole of the financial district.  The banks, the insurance companies, the hedge funds, the investment trusts, the advertising agencies, the corporate law firms, the media consultancies.  Would it matter one bit, or would the real world just breathe a sigh of relief?

One of the lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London is that rebuilding was paid for by increasing the tax on coal.  So it was principally the poor mining folk of Tyneside and Wearside who met the cost through a reduced standard of living.  The 2008 banking crisis likewise saw the burdens of ‘free enterprise’ in distress shifted to the taxpayer and thence to those at the bottom of society.  Voters remain too scared to punish the political class responsible lest ‘the markets’ inflict still more pain.  This is a vicious circle, because their fear arises from a belief, broadly correct, that politicians are gutless enough to allow ‘the markets’ to do whatever they like.  The fact that the UK is one unit, with top-down government from London, makes it as easy for financiers to pull the political strings today as in 1666.

But London is gone.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s nothing but burnt paper, melted hardware, and frantic emails to the cloud for back-up data.  So how would we get by?  As we’ve discussed before, Wessex has a long tradition of local and regional banking, repeatedly decapitated by London-led takeovers.  Our history provides all the precedents for renewing it, through credit unions, local currencies, ethical banking or whatever.  Local councils are more than capable of running their own city or county banks once the laws that prevent this are revoked.  Birmingham ran a municipal savings bank very successfully for 60 years.  It also offered mortgages, on properties in Birmingham and the surrounding counties.  Council mortgages were not uncommon before the 1980s.  We had a world of very varied opportunities before the centralisers and the privatisers destroyed it.  It can be rebuilt.  In places, it’s a process that’s already started.

How about insurance?  That was a prime example of a regionally-based industry, of which the Norwich Union in East Anglia was perhaps the last survivor.  With a familiar fate: it demutualised in 1997 and is now the London-based Aviva.  Wessex in the 19th century had its own equivalent, the Exeter-based West of England Fire & Life Insurance Company, which had a figure of King Alfred as its badge.  When local councils sought to enter the fire insurance market in the early 1900s, they were denied the powers by Westminster.  Yet it makes perfect sense for the fire brigade to offer insurance because it provides a real incentive to prevent and extinguish fires and keeps local the financial benefits of doing so.  At least it should be a local decision, not one made by know-it-alls in London.

With proper preparation, Wessex and every other English region could manage very well without London and its spivs.  Will we get the chance?  That depends.  If no-one voted for the London parties, they wouldn’t exist.  If no-one placed their savings with an institution that does business in London, the City wouldn’t exist either.  Our world is defined by those we choose to act on our behalf.  Every time we vote for them, every time we invest with them, we ask to be oppressed.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

History Made Here

G K Chesterton is often misquoted as saying that those who argue that 'you can’t put the clock back’ obviously know nothing about clocks.  It’s near enough to what he did write – that time only moves forwards but principles needn’t – to let stand.  What’s more, we’re seeing plenty of evidence of it just now.

At Bristol Temple Meads, the 1870s extension to Brunel’s original 1841 train-shed is to be brought back into use for the new electric trains to Paddington.  Maybe FirstGroup, one of our two Scottish rail-lords, will have a bloke in a stovepipe hat to wander about when it opens.  If so, he’s unlikely to admit how badly planned it’s all been, both track and trains.  The old train-shed has to be re-opened because the new carriages are too long (a means of economising on wheels) to fit the curved platforms of the current Temple Meads without scraping the sides.  No wonder the bold plans of the reckless engineer are proving to be a more inspiring legacy than anything that came between him and now.

Last month’s rebranding of First Great Western as Great Western Railway creates the opportunity to board a GWR train for the first time in 68 years.  (That’s not counting in this context the heritage experience of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.)  It is, according to FirstGroup, “using our history to create history”, capitalising on the past even as a major programme of investment for the future gets underway.  Nothing wrong with that, as an idea.  The SNP want to bring back an independent Scotland, last seen 308 years ago.  We want to bring back an autonomous Wessex, even after 949 years.

There’s plenty wrong though with the investment priorities.  Anyone riding in the standing-room-only sardine cans on the Wessex Main Line will know that if you’re not going to London you really don’t count.  Bristol could have a proper underground metro system for much less than the £25bn cost of London’s Crossrail 2 scheme, but it chooses not to.  The Somerset & Dorset line could be re-opened, re-connecting those counties’ centres to our two coasts, for a fraction of the £80bn being spent on HS2.  (In Scotland, thanks to the Scottish Parliament, the 35-mile Borders Railway was re-opened last month for £300 million and passenger numbers are already one-fifth of the predicted annual total.)  Instead, disused trackbed and station sites in Wessex are still being short-sightedly built over, to meet London’s inflated estimates of ‘housing need’.

Transport is one policy area where views set down by our founder, Alexander Thynn, in the 1979 ‘12-point programme’ as revised in 1992, remain as relevant as ever.  “Provision of a Wessex-orientated transport system to link our principal cities without having to depend largely on routes directed towards London, and with special emphasis on providing a satisfactory system of public transport”.  That’s what we said then and there can be no doubt that the coming decades will see ever-increasing expenditure on public transport as climate change and peak oil drive a transport revolution.  Away from the private car and back to a familiar model from the last century, less flexible but more sustainable and therefore the only viable option.  But if we don’t fight for Wessex and other regions to gain our fair share of that money, the London regime will as usual take much more than the lion’s share.

There’s more than one reason why FirstGroup would choose to bring back the Great Western.

One appears on the face of it to be simply fashion – there’s a 30-year cycle of centralist uniformity versus decentralist diversity that keeps on playing out in post-war public transport in the UK.  Is it just the preferences of successive generations of senior management and their marketing advisers, or something related to the investment cycle?  Either way, it’s not restricted to trains: some of FirstGroup’s bus interests now operate as ‘The Buses of Somerset’, and like the GWR there’s a new (and locally specific) green livery to replace the garish corporate one mocked as ‘Barbie’.

On the other hand, this could be a more permanent trend, like the worldwide revulsion against privatisation and corporate power.  Corporate transport conglomerates have a problem: the public doesn’t support them, with polls showing majority support for public ownership of trains, even among Conservative voters.  Going local and regional can be a logical corporate response to that, to build public support for NOT reversing Thatcherism and resuming the leftful course of history.  At the very heart of that is being allowed to bid for ever-longer franchises, frustrating any move towards rolling renationalisation.

Building brand loyalty therefore is an urgent defensive measure.  FirstGroup’s rebranding exercise aims to position the GWR as something bigger than an individual franchisee and something therefore to be cherished as an opportunity to do things differently.  Scotland provides a precedent.  The Scottish Government has decided that ScotRail is a publicly-owned brand, to be merely borrowed by the successful bidder that gets to run it for a limited time.  It’s a model with wider application, one that preserves a specific territorial identity against pressures for uniformity, whether they issue from corporate spin-doctors or from an Old Labour government.  It doesn’t necessarily prevent either pressure triumphing but digging-in is corporate rail’s best chance of remaining involved (though a publicly owned rail network doesn’t have to be uniform: the British Railways of the 1950s wasn’t).

Where this strategy fails to inspire is in its assumption that Brunel’s GWR makes a sensible area for purposes other than getting folk to and from London.  It’s no criticism of Brunel’s genius as an engineer to say that this shouldn’t be the basis for defining our regional identity, now and in the future.  Posters telling passengers of the plan to ‘give the west its railway back’ and build our ‘great western region’ may make sense in Bristol but they mean much less in south Wales.  North-south journeys within Wessex, or north-west to south-east, will remain a low priority.  South Wales and ‘Western’ Wessex, instead of better integration with north Wales and ‘Southern’ Wessex respectively, will continue to draw together into some Greater Severnside.  The Welsh Assembly won’t go gentle into that scenario, and neither should we.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Wrapped in Golden Chains

“There's been a lot of pressure to highlight human rights abuses but the Chinese haven't mentioned the DWP once.”
Tory Comedians on Facebook

Questioned in London this week on his country’s human rights record, Xi Jinping responded with the kind of explanation that would have appealed to Deng Xiaoping back in the 80s.  Something along the lines of ‘human rights, with Chinese characteristics’.  Universal, but to be applied only as it suits us.

WR Council member Douglas Stuckey was in London too, joining others in drawing attention to China’s chronic oppression of Tibet and reporting that:

“I was with the Tibetans to view the arrival of the Chinese dictator.  The Chinese showed scant courtesy in dumping boxes of kit all over – baseball caps, red flags, etc – and ordering students and others to line the route.  We should oppose Hinkley Point on grounds of security, technology, finance and humanity.  After all, we should be first to say: ‘once you pay the Danegeld’.”

Earlier this year the Dalai Lama, perhaps the greatest regionalist of all, was another visitor to Britain, and specifically to Wessex.  He was invited on-stage at the Glastonbury Festival (despite the usual foot-stamping warnings from the Chinese) before addressing a rally at Aldershot Town FC that Douglas also attended.  Tibet matters absolutely.  The involuntary loss beyond redemption of an insightful culture that took centuries to form is no less a crime against the world than the mass extinction of species demanded as the price of economic growth.  Tibet also matters relatively.  The media silence is deafening.  Just why destructive events in east Asia matter less than those in west Asia is one of the sad mysteries of the British media malaise.  Are the Tibetans not setting off enough bombs to be interesting?

Until 2008, the UK maintained its long-standing view that China’s relationship to Tibet was one of suzerainty, not sovereignty.  Gordon Brown was the first PM to kowtow on that point.  And clearly not the last.  China’s detailed interest in Tibet arguably began as a defensive move, to keep the British out.  Today, that’s as meaningless an argument as a Union Jack in Dublin now that France and Spain are our allies.  Chinese attitudes to Tibetan nationalism are ones not simply of arrogant opposition Beijing knows best but of old-fashioned outrage that self-evident truths are being challenged.  For Chinese diplomats, the right of nations to self-determination applies to existing states only, and if it does apply to aspiring nations then it is one that must not be exercised.  The State defines the People.  The People do not define the State.

How different things are in Europe!  Well, watch carefully.  The facts are that democratic change here would be ‘destabilising’ too and we just can’t have it.  It might spook the markets.

The Catalans, denied by Madrid the right to hold a referendum on independence, voted for it anyway through elections to the regional parliament.  Alex Salmond, interviewed for Catalan television recently, observed that Scotland had the process without the result, while Catalonia had the result without the process.  Madrid, not content with prosecuting the Catalan leadership for being over-democratic, is now hinting that Catalonia’s existing autonomy might be revoked.  Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows it to do this, in defence of the national interest.  The last person who revoked Catalonia’s autonomy was General Franco: that’s how bad things are.  West along the Pyrenees, in the region of Navarre, NATO is preparing its biggest troop exercise since the Cold War.  Wonder why?

Further north, the French Parliament struggles to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  Not because to do so would make French any less important, but only because it would deny French a monopoly in those historic territories where French is a foreign language.  The Chinese, the Spanish and the French all have the same world view: THEIR rights to self-importance must be protected against any interference in their internal affairs, but the internal affairs of those they occupy are there to be trampled upon.  It makes you feel so good to be British.  At least we allow an independence referendum to be held, albeit with every institution of the status quo briefing against.  But no, there’s no cause for self-congratulation here either.  Consider ‘guided localism’ and all the other sinister phrases the Coalition inspired and the majority Tory government doesn’t even need to repeat.  All these regimes regard autonomy as something they wind out on a string; not one sees it as a reflection of power rising from below, the only direction compatible with a vital democracy.

These are interesting times for Europe because Europe is losing the plot, demographically, economically and politically.  The price is one to be paid in freedom.  We don’t criticise the Arabs over sharia law and the funding of terrorism: we need their oil.  We don’t criticise the Chinese over Tibet or human rights generally: we need their investment.  Even if it’s a desperately bad deal for us, pursued for ideological reasons.  And even if it means handing over the keys to our infrastructure, against sound military advice.

It can only get worse.  The UK is becoming a Cornwall writ large, a place whose heavy industry has been destroyed by changing global markets, leaving only speculation and tourism to fill the gap.  Cameron swims beside Xi like a minnow beside a whale.  It's the pretence of mattering, in a world where even a united Europe looks lightweight and confused.  Who benefits more from the UK becoming China’s new best friend, as the USA’s star sets in the west?  The Chinese have views on trade unions and the work ethic that will fit nicely in Cameron’s Britain, but revenge for the Opium Wars will be sweeter.

The Left, wracked with post-colonial guilt, find it hard to offer an alternative.  China’s economic success is a good news story to them, but if China now has surplus cash to invest abroad then China’s success has clearly been overdone.  As for giving our power and wealth away to those elsewhere in the world who do not share our values, it’s a fair question whether this won’t increasingly lead to the undermining of those values at home.  It’s a debate to which the Left have nothing constructive to contribute.  They’re much too busy attacking free speech, and sawing off the branch that sustains them.

A fundamental aim of the Wessex Regionalists is to contribute to the creation of a sustainable and equitable global economy in which the health, security and liberty of all is paramount, regardless of race or creed.  There’s no better place and time to start building that world than right here, right now.  Do we still have the self-respect as Europeans to do that?  We face a bleak future if we don’t.  So far, all the signs point towards Thatcher’s poisonous legacy that everything has its price and that any exceptions to the rule must therefore be more cosmetic than real.