Sunday, January 25, 2015

Burying the Past

“The theory goes that, if there is trust in society, then its bureaucracies will be more straightforward and effective – the cost and time of transactions between companies will be reduced and less time will be spent paying lawyers to draw up costly contracts, and in litigation.  A handshake is free.  Anyone who has tried to conduct business in France or America will have soon become aware of the massive inconveniences involved with living in a society where the default setting is to assume the other person is trying to pull your trousers down.  Danish companies are freer about sharing knowledge and divulging secrets to one another; this has been cited as one of the reasons why, for instance, the wind turbine industry flourished here in the 1970s, ultimately becoming the world leader.”
Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle

With an 87% turnout in elections, Denmark also trusts its politicians.  Like Scotland, it has such a thing as society.  We don’t.  We have a London-obsessed oligarchy constant in its conspiracy against any such thing.

BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? came from Keynsham this week.  It was great fun listening to Labour’s Peter Hain telling Bea Campbell of the Greens that voters can’t expect to vote for the party they like best, because that’s not how our electoral system ‘works’.  For the Tories, Owen Paterson described that system as the means by which we choose who will rule us.  The dinosaurs just don’t get it.  They think that we’re the servants and that they’re the masters.  We’ve let them believe that long enough but the tipping point is coming.  The whiff of revolt is in the air.

One sign of that is the proposed widening of the TV election debates from three party leaders to seven.  There’s a growing consensus that the election will produce a brilliantly rainbow-hued parliament, and perhaps in response a grand coalition of the dinosaurs, huddling around the dying embers of their evil empire.

We were asked this week if, since seven party leaders have already been invited to take part in televised debate, we should be included too.  Well, why not?  Where’s the arbitrary line to be drawn between those parties that are ‘in’ and those that are ‘out’?  Is it to be on the basis of past election results?  What if opinion polls show them to be wildly out-of-date as a guide to voters’ current intentions?  There truly isn’t a simple answer.

It’s a circular argument to say that only the more successful parties should be allowed the oxygen of publicity.  Ending that circularity means addressing much more than just the TV debates.  Smaller parties have been – and still are – systematically discriminated against.  It starts with the election deposit, a tax on smaller parties, who are in effect fined for daring to challenge the status quo.  It then continues throughout the campaign.  We’ve reported on one or two instances where hustings have been slanted towards the parties pre-selected by the organisers as worth hearing from.  And it all ends with discourtesy to the losing candidates at the declaration of the poll.

As an example of the stitch-up that is British ‘democracy’ we need look no further than the Electoral Commission guidance on the running of hustings.  In this document it’s glibly assumed to be fine to exclude some of the candidates as long as it’s done on a so-called ‘objective’ basis.  There’s no such basis.  That’s just a way of dressing up subjective prejudice in the garb of past performance, not future prospects.  The only objectivity is the ballot paper, on which all candidates are equal and the past counts for nothing.

Watch the debates.  Those who claim that small parties have no influence should think again.  David Cameron wasn’t happy to have to face UKIP, seen as the party to split the right-wing vote.  So he said no, unless the Greens were added, seen as the party to split the left-wing vote.  Not a bad outcome, for parties judged small and thus irrelevant.  Now Cameron’s nightmare has got a whole lot worse.  In a seven-party debate, he has one party to the right of him, and five to the left.  Thoughts from the Left will thus dominate the debate numerically.  The parties of the Left haven’t had a chance like this in a generation.

Cameron has to take part or he’s finished.  But if he does, he’s going to be ganged up on.  The most likely alignment is that the three main parties will all sound the same, leaving the other four to present an alternative.  Three out of those four will largely agree on what the alternative is.  The tired Labour nonsense about fringe parties splitting the vote – the vote that Labour considers its birthright – is turned on its head in the media spotlight.  Ideas that Labour might once have endorsed, but ditched in its fumbling for the centre ground, will get more airtime than ever, precisely because they’re not the preserve of one monolithic party.

One should never forget that ‘did not vote’ currently accounts for a larger share of the electorate than any of the parties.  Everything really is up for grabs.  Imagine that in Wessex that first column in the graphic below is the share of the vote cast for the Wessex Regionalist Party, and what would flow from that.  So let’s not be hearing any more moaning from other candidates about WR taking their votes away.  Our votes are our votes, not theirs.


Come polling day, will it matter?  No.  Even if the major parties are deserted in droves, the electoral system will save their skins.  But at a cost.  The more the vote fragments, the greater the discrepancy between what we vote for and what we get, the more the days of first-past-the-post are numbered.  Ultimately those parties that try to defend it will be swept aside by an outraged electorate.  One that's had enough of their combined efforts to limit the choice that in every other field we're told is the essence of freedom.  The only tactical voting worth considering is not to choose the lesser of two evils but to vote for whatever hastens their end.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Jeux Sans Frontières

Events in Paris this week have exposed Europe’s anxieties to the full.  Let’s consider some of the possible reactions.

On the far Right, and among the not-for-prophet movement generally, this is I-told-you-so time.  Even those who disagree with the politics must find recent analysis strikingly prescient.  And at least it’s an opportunity to highlight some double standards.

Then again, cui bono?  Who benefits?  Will Le Pen prove mightier than the sword, deepening the backlash?  About the only certainty is that there will now be further restrictions on civil liberty in order to intensify the ‘war on terror’.  Threats to national security will be enumerated, movements for autonomy doubtless among them.  Those who like the theory of a false-flag operation – a few fanatics supplied with guns and training by the security services and then shown the direction to go – will point to other conspiracy theories that turned out to be at least partially true.  The humanitarian catastrophes that have resulted from intervention across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are too systematic and repetitive to be put down to incompetence.  Those in charge know what they’re about.  The challenge for anyone else is to say what that is, though for starters what do the letters O.I.L. spell?

That sense that there isn’t a trustworthy narrative is bound to be destabilising.  Its consequence is fear and more fear, coupled with appeasement as a means to restore breathing space.  Freedom of expression will not be defended (if anything, the pressure will be to remove freedom of non-expression in the hunt for the non-conforming).  Liberals and anyone to the left of them will certainly not defend it, because it’s a fixed principle and liberal power depends on being able to manipulate a debate and steer its unfolding, contradictory development.  Power, for them, depends on the ability to set, and to arbitrate on the setting of, social and cultural boundaries.  An uncompromising defence of free expression is a nuance-free zone in which born control-freaks can make neither mischief nor money.  There can be no political correctness where nothing’s incorrect.

Migrants, and perceptions of migrants, play a relatively small part in what’s essentially a struggle for hegemony between the elites of Left and Right.  That being so, we cannot expect measured but steadfast leadership from either side.

The closing of the European mind is a mark of Europe’s lost place in the world.  You don’t annoy the oil sheikhs.  You rant against the terrorists, not their funders in the Gulf, whose wealth you court.  Does the Royal Navy’s new base in Bahrain serve any credible military purpose, or is it a taxpayer-funded shop window for the UK arms trade?  The BBC’s Robert Peston last month suggested that the dramatic slide in the oil price has been deliberately engineered to put high-cost oil extraction – fracking, deep sea, etc. – out of business.  And after that, the price will again rise.  It’s all a game, mes amis, c’est tout un jeu.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Spirit of ‘15

Last year’s commemorations of the First World War were a good excuse to re-open old wounds and close our eyes to modern Europe.  Now consider that 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.  In 2014 the French were our glorious allies against the Hun.  This year, it will be their turn to feel the cold shoulder, if not exactly the cold steel.  Better still, we shall be marking the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  That will be a splendid opportunity to overlook historical niceties.  Like the European context in which the first English Parliament arose.  Or the inconvenient fact that while the English (in 1215) and the Irish (in 1216) each had a Magna Carta to defend their threatened liberties the Scots never did (they still manage well enough without one).

London’s Lefties will be all frothing uncontrollably about the need for the modern UK to have a written constitution.  There will be conferences and seminars, websites and book launches.  No-one will ask whether ‘modern UK’ isn’t a bit of an oxymoron, or why for 800 years we’ve obsessed over keeping our rulers in check instead of challenging their assumed right to rule.

This time in 2013 we predicted that that would be the Year of the Wyvern.  We were a year out.  In 2014, the Wyvern made its mark, with local councils endorsing the flag, flying it proudly for St Ealdhelm’s Day, and our Secretary-General unfurling it for the BBC as part of their debate on devolution.  So what of 2015?

If last year remembered the start of the First World War, this will recall the end of the Second (as well as the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death).  It sounds like an opportunity for Labour to put Blairism behind it and rediscover the spirit of ’45.  Last month saw the death of John Freeman, the last man alive to serve as a minister in Attlee’s government.  That was the death not just of a man but of the memory of an idea.  There is no way that Labour can rediscover its past, because its front bench is corrupted beyond redemption by the Blair and Brown years.  Labour in 1945 offered a different world.  Labour in 2015 will struggle even to cobble together a markedly different vision.  When it’s seriously suggested that they might prefer a coalition with the Tories to working with nationalists you know the game’s well and truly up for them.

Common Wealth, the wartime socialist party to which we owe much of our thinking, was sceptical even at the time that Labour would deliver.  John Freeman resigned as a minister in 1951 over the introduction of NHS prescription charges.  Under Blair and Brown, Labour went on to set the NHS up for privatisation.  When David Cameron promised that ‘the NHS will be safe in my hands’, it was a claim he needed to make, even if he didn’t believe it and few believed him.  But is the NHS safe in Ed Miliband’s hands?  In Labour’s case it might be thought that past actions speak louder than present words.  Voters in at least one Wessex constituency this May can expect to have an alternative they can rely on.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The War on Identity

“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.  Destroy its books, its culture, its history.  Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history.  Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.  The world around it will forget even faster.”
Milan Hübl (1927-1989)

History is written by the victors.  Just now, it’s the centralists who are winning across much of Europe.  They have spied their opportunity and seized it.  But history hasn’t finished with them yet.

There are three reasons why we take an interest in regionalism on the mainland, and in the regions of France in particular.  One is that a Wessex-centred world must view Brittany and Normandy as a more meaningful ‘next-door’ than Northumbria or Scotland, separated from us by Mercia.  That’s an illustration of how seeing things from the perspective of the imperial states creates a bloc mentality that really does block out other aspects of geographical reality.  A second reason is practical solidarity, because the Jacobin mindset is something that gets passed around Europe like a virus, finding new strength from new victims.  When Alsatians, Catalans or Tyroleans suffer at the hands of control-freak states, we know very well that we could be next.  The third reason is ideological solidarity, because English regionalism can be part of a trans-European ideal, the Europe of a Hundred Flags.  If it fails to see itself in those terms, then it will fail to achieve its potential to engage and enthuse.

How fares the Europe of a Hundred Flags today?  Very poorly, as one imperial state after another starts to roll back the gains made since the Second World War.  Europe is being restructured in ways that threaten to undo all its achievements in terms of economic (and even political) democracy, social welfare, environmental protection and cultural autonomy.  All these things need to be defended on a secure territorial basis, the basis provided by regional identity.  Our assets.  Our institutions.  Our neighbours.  Our land.  Our way of life.  London parties not welcome.  Amazingly, the mainstream Left can’t even begin to understand the importance of this.  Labour puts up candidates against the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.  What good can possibly come of that?  Labour ekes out its existence as a parasite on the system, having no views on how to change it for the better.  In some ways, it’s set to make matters worse.  As its continental allies already are doing.

France has now definitively redrawn its regional map.  The partly German-speaking region of Alsace has come off worst, merged with two French-speaking regions to create ‘ALCA’ – Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardenne, an area bigger than Belgium.  It’s one of several such combinations, doomed to be known by their initials, just like, as one French MP put it, cattle-brands.  Alsace heads a long list of regions to be abolished as their number is reduced from 22 to 13.  Others include such historic names as Aquitaine, Auvergne, Burgundy, Limousin and Picardy.  The one group who can celebrate are the Mouvement Normand, since the re-unification of Normandy is one feature of the plan.  Wessex looks out at what will now be officially the coast of Brittany and Normandy; it’s only further inland that the chaos becomes evident!  They can, as always, look back at Cornwall, with Wessex waiting to take its place alongside.

So have the Normans been good garcons and filles?  It might seem so to the Alsatians and the Bretons.  These two peoples are ones whose loyalty to the French State has often been regarded as suspect, as if loyalty isn’t something that has to be earned.  Now they’re the two peoples most bitterly disappointed and with good reason to ask why they should remain part of a State that won’t even recognise their existence.  Brittany remains truncated, while Alsace will be wiped off the map.  A challenge has been launched in the Constitutional Council, alleging inadequate consultation, but for now the plan is to implement the cull on 1st January 2016.

During the debates it was made clear that the restoration of traditional provinces is not something that will be tolerated.  Sometimes, as in the case of Normandy, it happens by accident, but accidents do happen.  Reorganisation is about improving the efficient, functional operation of the French national territory, as viewed from Paris.  Substitute ‘English’ for ‘French’ and ‘London’ for ‘Paris’ and it becomes a familiar story.  Indeed, an article in The Regionalist in 1991 stated that “By introducing its own definition of Brittany, excluding Nantes, France has been able to sow confusion and to re-assure itself that Brittany is, after all, only a French region that France can make and unmake at will.”  Before long the phrase was taken up by Silesian autonomists arguing that the division of Poland into artificial voivodeships is likewise a project to supplant historic provinces with regions that Poland can make and unmake at will.  Napoleon is as much a hero to the Poles as to the French, having briefly liberated their country from the surrounding empires.  Yet in both France and Poland, notions of national liberty are built upon the ruins of regional identity.

Cross the Alps and we find that the ruling party in Italy has introduced a Bill to reorganise the Italian regions, a cut from 20 to 12, replacing historic names like Piedmont and Tuscany with Jacobin-style geographical labels – Regione Alpina, Regione Appenninica, Regione Adriatica.  The message is the same as in France, or England, or Poland: regions exist to help the centre manage its territory; they do not deserve to exist as something worthwhile in their own right or to be an inspiration to those challenging the centre’s monopoly of real power.

Two proposed casualties are the small regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alte Adige, home to Italy’s French-speaking and German-speaking minorities respectively.  Both these areas have a special regional status that was introduced following the defeat of fascism, in recompense for persecution under Mussolini.  The German-speakers of south Tyrol feel particularly betrayed, with counter-demands now being made for greater autonomy, independence and/or re-union with the rest of Tyrol, from which this area south of the Brenner Pass was separated after the First World War.

With France and Italy deracinated, Spain can expect to be next.  One of the happy peculiarities of regionalisation there was that the boundaries were left largely to the locals to decide.  And one result of that was a relatively large number of single-province regions that saw no need to link up with their neighbours.  These account for 6 of the 15 mainland regions.  So while there are some large regions with a similar population to Wessex – Andalucia and Catalonia for example – there are others about the size of Cornwall – Cantabria and La Rioja.  Both these smaller regions are required in their devolution statutes to allow for the possibility of merger with their big neighbour Castilla-Leon and no doubt will come under pressure to do the deed.  It’s interesting that Spain is tightening up its anti-protest laws.  Clearly, those in charge are expecting trouble.

Across Europe, the 2008 financial crisis has spawned new, happy-clappy parties and movements of the Left.  Their leaders talk a lot about greater public ‘involvement’ in decision-making but are (un)surprisingly cagey about who will actually take the final, unappealable decisions.  Spain’s Podemos is an example, opposing Catalan independence in favour of having some undefined wider ‘influence’.  Moves to get the SNP into formal coalition with Labour are part of the same outflanking manoeuvre that tries to tempt with fleeting political concessions instead of agreeing the need for lasting constitutional changes.  (Though getting to look at the real UK accounts certainly WILL be tempting for Salmond and Sturgeon!)

Among the large continental states, that just leaves Germany, where the possibility of re-drawing regional boundaries has come to the surface several times since 1949.  So far, the democratic Germans have always put firm proposals to the vote and not since 1952 have the voters decided to agree a regional merger.  (Even that was largely about re-uniting an area that had been split by the zones of occupation.)  Germany is often quoted as the model for other continental countries.  In France the debate was driven – or poisoned – by the idea that France needs regions of ‘European scale’.  Yet Germany is actually marked by huge diversity.  There are regions like Bavaria, almost as big as Ireland, but also tiny city-states like Bremen and Hamburg.

So what is a region of ‘European scale’?  Does the EU have a view?  The EU, sensibly, doesn’t.  European statistics are kept on the basis of regional and local units that ultimately are determined by the Member States’ own legislation.  Sometimes that works in favour of identity, as when Cornwall obtained Objective 1 regional aid status, for which it would not have qualified as part of a slightly more prosperous Devonwall area.  Sometimes it can result in a kind of statistical apartheid.  Welsh local government is planned to be reorganised again (for the third time in 50 years).  The Williams Commission that looked into the matter disappointed any nationalist who might have longed for the reconstitution of Morgannwg or Gwent.  The reason?  That west-east split, linking depressed coalfield areas to their respective, wealthier coasts, would endanger European aid.  So the poor coalfield has to stick together, separate from the coast.  In terms of the infrastructure European aid might fund, it’s nonsense, as transport largely radiates from Cardiff and Newport, following the valleys from south to north.

So much for a Europe that works for its peoples.  Instead we have inflexible funding rules – the Europe of the figures – re-shaping our very constitution, for good or ill.  The most sensible boundaries – in terms of community geography – may be ruled out in favour of much less sensible arrangements in order to save the funding.

Who are the EU’s real masters then, if not us?  A generation ago there was the fervent hope that an alliance of europeanists and regionalists might be the twin millstones that would grind away the imperial states, dividing up their powers between them.  If the EU hasn’t been the most active of allies, it’s perhaps because the European ideal has been much more easily co-opted by the centralists, by those who wish to write the imperial-state idea wider still.  And that shouldn’t surprise us.  The EU is the creature of the treaties that establish it and those treaties are written by the Member States.  They may concede consultative institutions like the Committee of the Regions but they aren’t going to sign their own death warrant.  Rather than meet the financial crisis by cutting their own wasteful spending and devolving power, they look to save money by cutting out somebody else’s tier and centralising power instead.  Money has to be saved now, urgently, if the centre itself is to be saved.  Attacking any identity lucky enough to have been respected this far is the quickest win.  The promise in ‘The Vow’ to not abolish the Scottish Parliament some time down the road is significant not because it was said but because it was thought necessary to say it.

More recently, the EU bureaucracy itself has realised the importance of keeping its national paymasters sweet.  Barroso could have opened up a debate on internal enlargement, about the further treaty changes needed to avoid any ambiguity over what happens when part of a Member State secedes.  His neutrality was just too Pilate-like for the EU’s own good.  It came across not as neutrality but as change-weariness.  Not more treaty negotiations.  Just to please the Scots and the Catalans.  Do they really think their national freedom should matter that much?  Juncker has already set the tone of his presidency, sceptical about environmental and social protections that hinder Europe’s bid to join the race to the bottom.  His warning to Greek voters about the kind of government they should or shouldn’t elect is further proof that the ‘post-democratic’ Europe advocated by Peter Mandelson is firmly taking shape.

Regionalists have always been wary of Europhile claims, while equally distancing ourselves from Eurosceptic adoration of the imperial states.  There is a genuinely third way that is not about those states, nor about a Jacobin map of Europe where identity is to be erased as a barrier to ever closer union.  Actions produce reactions and the current war on identity will produce a renewed determination to resist.  A determinaton to build a different Europe, the Europe of a Hundred Flags, in place of the worthless regimes in London, Paris, Rome and Madrid – and of their Brussels puppet.  (That so many assume Brussels to be the puppet-master just shows how well the imperial states know their work.)

We should increasingly expect to see nationalist and regionalist parties succeed at the polls, making inroads into the dead thinking of Europe’s indistinguishably conservative / socialist establishment, while seeing off those equally indistinguishable challengers who are just more of the same.

It’s been said, and not wholly in jest, that a nationalist is a regionalist who means it.  One who isn’t fooled by the Labour Party or the Parti Socialiste into backing change that isn’t really there.  Many regionalists, who’ve been deliberately moderate to win concessions from the centre that are now being torn up in scorn and suspicion, will be asking whether separatism is such a dirty word after all.  States with a more authoritarian tradition will be turning up the heat.  States with a less authoritarian tradition will be trading clunking old chains for sleek new wires.  Either way, advocates of autonomy will need to be careful who and what they trust.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Crackers

In the run-up to the festive season, all three main London parties set out their stalls on English devolution.  On the whole, they’re rather against it.

Labour were first, with a promise to devolve power to ‘city regions’ and ‘county regions’.  Anything but region regions.  These areas appear to correspond to those of the Local Enterprise Partnerships, business-led quangos that have never faced the electorate before and won’t be facing it in the future.  Is Labour’s plan to hand big business control of our money on a plate and pretend it’s what we, the people, want?  The lack of detail on governance arrangements could imply pretty much anything.  What is clear is that powers will not be devolved to directly elected councils: if that was the plan, Labour would have said so.

Labour have seen in Scotland what happens if you devolve real power to substantial areas and they want no more of that.  Having concluded that even the pseudo-regionalism of the Prescott zones constitutes too big a threat, they are now into ‘area-ism’, dividing England into clumps of counties.  The Environment Agency’s new areas – it abolished its regions in favour of areas in April – could provide clues as to where Labour may be heading.

The Siamese twins followed on Tuesday last week, with a glowing end-of-term report they wrote themselves about how they’ve decentralised power.  Can’t say we’ve noticed actually.  Then appended to it are the respective party positions of the Tories and FibDems.

For the Tories, English devolution is primarily about strengthening the all-England dimension – devolution from the centre to the centre – through English votes for English laws.  True to their feudal roots, they reject entirely the idea of regions in favour of local self-government, strictly limited and deferential, under the watchful, absolute authority of a Norman-style parliament supervising the children at play.  As with Labour, their plans involve concentrating power as much as possible in the hands of celebrity mayors with the charisma to shut down any inconvenient debate.  And, of course, they want to have another go at breaking the link between local identity and parliamentary constituencies.  The paper makes no reference to Cornwall, the Cornish or national minority rights, but does mention all the other home nations by name.

A few phrases stand out.  There would be a presumption in favour of devolution, but checks in place would aim to ensure powers were not granted inappropriately.”  Oh dear.  The powers that Whitehall decides it’s ‘inappropriate’ to devolve are exactly the ones worth having.  We have to build the political movement that will force these creatures to acknowledge that subsidiarity means we decide what it’s appropriate to centralise, not the other way round.

Then there’s local growth.  The report launches straight into a discussion of how decentralisation can accelerate growth.  Hold on.  Let’s first decide whether growth is appropriate for our area, shall we?  Not according to the London parties.  EVERY initiative to regionalise power in England has been about the economy.  Not ONE has been about democratic choice.  In the 1940s we had Regional Boards for Industry.  In the 1960s we had Regional Economic Planning Councils.  In the 2000s we had Regional Development Agencies.  All applying an answer to a question we never heard asked.  Namely how the ‘provinces’ can best contribute to enriching the City of London / HM Treasury.  Absolutely not how the regions can set their own agenda.  Every time they try that, the regional institutions are abolished faster than you can say ‘distinctive sense of identity’.

According to the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, last week, “Localism means a choice over how the needs of communities are best met, not whether they are met.”  Or even being allowed to say what they are.  Lewis was responding to an adjournment debate initiated by Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset, whose trenchant criticism of the Government and its Whitehall machine might surprise those who remember him being part of it just three years ago.  Come April he’ll be telling everyone how breathtakingly wonderful it’s all been.  Hansard records that his neighbour, the Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare, may have similar concerns but, being still on the Government payroll, is barred from voicing them.  A jolly jape is this ghastly game of ‘Parliamentary representation’, where one’s adoring constituents are but meat to the procedural grinder.

All the parties continue to pick at the idea of a constitutional convention.  Either as a way to come up with some workable fix (forget it) or as a way to send everyone to sleep.  We’ve been telling everyone the most fundamental answer to the West Lothian question for decades now.  Why keep asking it?

Of the three parties, the FibDems say the most encouraging things about regional devolution, quite pointlessly since they remain bound to work with one of two larger parties that hate the very idea.

The fact remains that all the countries of the United Kingdom are conquered countries.  Scotland was (and still is) conquered with bribes.  The others were all conquered by unimaginably violent means.  Those who sit in London and fine-tune the unwritten constitution are all accessories after the fact.  They are not our friends.  They laugh at the aspiration to be free of London rule.  And they seriously expect us to see the joke.  Go on, pull the other one.

Losing Direction

Last week, plans were announced for a Bucks / Oxon / Northants combined authority, a move that raises important questions of local and regional identity.  We’re assured that this is just a practical measure of co-operation that won’t affect day-to-day services but these things have a habit of acquiring their own momentum.

The case for a combined authority is that it might unlock billions of pounds of public spending.  It can make the case for new infrastructure, such as an Oxford-Cambridge expressway or completion of the East-West Rail Link.  But can’t the councils already do that?  For better or for worse, it could open up for development those relatively sparsely-populated areas that form Oxfordshire’s historic boundaries with its eastern and northern neighbours.  These are areas that have remained undeveloped because they’ve been on the edge, although the edge may be where they’re comfortable being.

One danger of the realignment is that past investment in infrastructure will be under-valued, with Oxford’s strategic position in the Upper Thames Valley ignored.  With its M4, M40 and A34 links and its close connections with Swindon, Newbury and Reading, Oxford sits far more naturally within a Wessex region looking west to Bristol and south to the Solent.  For starters, consider where the Environment Agency, the BBC or the NHS ambulance service place it.  Whatever happened to joined-up government?

There’s no doubt that combined authorities are in favour with Whitehall right now – and on a cross-party basis – but that ought to set alarm bells ringing.  Not being directly elected, their mandate is at one remove from voters.  And if what they do is ‘unlock’ money from Whitehall, how did the money come to be locked up in the first place?

It’s our money, paid in taxes to London.  We shouldn’t need begging-bowl consortia of councils to make the case for having it drip-fed back to us.  A proper, directly elected regional assembly – such as the one Wessex Regionalists demand, and Wessex is 8 million strong – would keep our region’s taxes as of right and spend them on the priorities that matter to us, not the ones handed down from Whitehall.

Too remote?  Not as remote as Whitehall, while the ‘headroom’ above county councils would ensure their continued existence as local bodies directly accountable for their decisions.  Something that ad hoc groupings cannot.  Refusing to think on a truly regional basis is a fault that will come back to bite local government badly.

That Figures

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is good at collecting statistics.  It may be no more than a gnat on the side of the development elephant but at least it knows how to document the scale of the deception being practised upon us by the London regime.  However, there is rather more to the data than a first glance suggests.

Localism, we were promised.  Figures published by CPRE – in a pamphlet optimistically called A Landmark Year for the Countryside – show that in the last accounting year (2013/14), Whitehall overruled 67% of the major housing refusals by local councils.  In 2008/09 it overruled just 31%.  That’s a measure not so much of which party is in power or of philosophical attitudes to localism but of how far the easy solutions have been used up, leaving the controversial ones to follow.  There are currently plans to build 700,000 homes in the countryside, including 200,000 on Green Belt land. 

Government figures estimate that previously developed – 'brownfield' – land could accommodate 1.5 million homes, but 1.5 million isn’t enough for the population growth that the London parties favour.  And CPRE must know this, even if it won't admit it: assuming 2 persons per home, the current net immigration rate of 250,000 a year, and even that no homes are sold to the existing population as it spreads out or re-locates, 1.5 million homes is only 12 years supply.  Besides, brownfield land is more expensive to develop, leading housebuilders to claim that in order to make a profit they'd have to charge housebuyers more.  Or reduce their contributions to local infrastructure.  Not only that, but some "brownfield" land is beautiful parkland, such as that surrounding Victorian asylums.  Some is deep in the countryside, such as disused airfields that might more rationally be dug up and returned to farmland.

There's another statistical deception that also goes unnoticed.  It's said that the supply of brownfield land is continually being renewed as old uses are abandoned, leaving factories, warehouses, hospitals and the like to be redeveloped.  That's true, but if the uses are relocating to greenfield sites – which they often are – then countryside is lost just as if it had gone for housing.  We just don't get so worked up about the figures because they aren't presented in the same high-profile way.  It's also assumed that non-housing uses have more of a 'right' to expand into the countryside, being socially or economically 'essential' and with less flexibility over where to locate.  It's all part of the prejudice that measures development as 'progress' but is selective about measuring the loss to those rural environments into which development is progressing.  Successive governments – though not this one – have had targets for the proportion of housing built on brownfield sites.  None has dared have a target for any of the other uses.  And so no-one grasps the overall picture.  Politically, no-one wants to.  There's something inherently negative about measuring the total loss of farmland rather than the increase of goodies that take its place.  Folk might even panic about where their future food will come from.  As well they might.

CPRE is a fine example of a safety valve, ‘moderately’ and deferentially expressing what needs to be uncompromising rage if it’s to be effective.  Its stance only serves to perpetuate the myth that planning decisions are essentially ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’, rather than bought by the development lobby through party donations aimed at changing national policy.  CPRE naively supports HS2, thinking it might reduce the building of new roads and runways.  It won’t.  You’ll have those too.  Its pamphlet congratulates its Northumberland branch for ensuring that 70% of new homes in and around Newcastle will be on brownfield sites.  So 30% will be on farmland?  Is that sustainable development?  If that’s the best that can be achieved on Tyneside – a depressed area if ever there was one – what chance does the Wessex countryside have?