Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Choice At Last

Our President Colin Bex and Secretary-General David Robins were in Bristol at the weekend to help our candidate for the Eastville Ward, Nick Xylas, with his campaign there.  All three are shown here at an impromptu stall set up in Eastville Park.

Nick unexpectedly had the chance to move to a new flat that same weekend, leaving him, equally unexpectedly, to rely on others to do much of the leafleting.  Fortunately, Nick had the process well-organised, with lists of addresses prepared for each polling district.  A surprising number of addresses were not on the electoral register at all, which may be down simply to folk moving house or possibly to the recent changeover to individual rather than household registration, which may have cost the unwary their right to vote this time round.  As we keep saying, the Victorians thought through electoral law very carefully and it’s suffered heavily from ignorant meddling over the past two decades, postal vote fraud on an industrial scale being the worst consequence revealed so far.  And what else is currently kept under wraps?  No wonder some question what, in the absence of real reform, is the point in voting.

Bad weather didn’t help us and it now seems highly unlikely that full coverage of the ward will be achieved ahead of polling day tomorrow.  The best we can hope for is that by targeting key locations within the ward we do our bit to ensure that news will pass around by word of mouth or electronic media.  Nick takes the long-term view that 2016 is primarily about learning how best to do a local election campaign, with the idea already in mind that 2020 and the run-up to it offer the opportunity to do the thing really well.  One suggestion is a regular ward newsletter – the Eastville Wyvern perhaps?

This is the first time that voters at a local election anywhere have had a Wessex Regionalist on the ballot paper, so we as much as they can make our mark.  Nick is the first WR candidate to contest a seat wholly located in historic Gloucestershire (the Wansdyke Parliamentary constituency, contested in 1983, included some Gloucestershire wards but was predominantly in Somerset).  With this election therefore we can claim to have raised our standard in every one of our eight historic shires.  And – who knows? – we may yet be pleasantly surprised when the results are declared on Sunday.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Wessexit

Of all the reasons for remaining in the EU the most compelling arises from quietly contemplating the alternative.  Being marooned on a small island run by Gove, Johnson and IDS is a chilling prospect.  It also smacks of betrayal of those elsewhere working for a better Europe.  The Danes in particular fear isolation without their sceptical British friends.  What needs testing – and testing hard – this month and next is the idea that Brexit would unleash a decentralist wave upon whose crest regionalists as much as eurosceptics will surf smoothly to success.

That was the idea dismissed this week in a front-page report in the Western Boring Views.  Mark Berrisford-Smith, head of economics for HSBC UK Commercial Banking, told regional business leaders in Plymouth that negotiations over Brexit, and associated economic uncertainties, could pre-occupy Government for years, delaying other decisions, with the decentralisation agenda being one item moved to the back burner.

Of course, ministers could clear their desks of unnecessary distractions by pressing ahead with that agenda right now, but that sort of trust has never existed between central and local government and no amount of crisis will create it.  Our diagnosis is that the sickness goes to the heart of the relationship.  Earning central government’s trust should be no part of local government’s job; central government should exist solely as the obedient servant of the localities that elect it and if it fails them it should expect to be abolished forthwith.  Wessexit.

So let’s not get too excited by the idea of devolution, Osborne-style.  It’s not what we’ve campaigned for all these years.  The Municipal Journal last week allowed Cllr George Nobbs, Leader of Norfolk County Council a page to share his frustration.  Beneath a photo of the East Anglian flag and the headline ‘Killing off devolution’, he wrote:

“There is no more enthusiastic proponent of regional devolution than myself.  I have supported the idea of moving powers from Whitehall to East Anglia all my adult life.  When on Budget day the Chancellor announced a draft deal for East Anglia I nailed my colours to the mast in the most literal way, flying the flag of East Anglia from Norfolk County Hall.  However, remarkably, the institutional arrogance of central government seems set to give us a deal that cannot be sold locally.  As it stands not one of the three counties that make up the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ look likely to be able to sell the current deal to members or residents…

The current ‘devolution deal’ was the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the Scottish referendum result and bears no resemblance to any other form of devolution in the UK, other than the insistence on the office of a London-style mayor for rural England…

The office of elected mayor is fine for London but universally opposed in shire county England.  Senior government ministers have said time and time again that in the past devolution has failed because it was top-down.  They had learned, they said.  This would be bottom-up.  We could design our own deal.  We would be in the driving seat, they said.  When we urged them to consider any alternative to an elected mayor (because we couldn’t sell it to our citizens) they said it was non-negotiable.  ‘No mayor no deal’ was the answer.  They were not even prepared to consider changing the one word mayor for another title.”

First it was Prescott, now it’s Osborne.  You can have any colour of devolution you want as long as it’s black.  So black you can’t see what’s going on.  The mayoral model is non-negotiable because it’s part of a London-party consensus that values opaqueness above all.  The democratic model, taking decisions openly, in full view of the press and public, and transparently, subject to the forensic examination of political debate in council chamber or legislative assembly, is judged not fit for purpose.  End all the politics, we’re told.  Actions, not words.  But efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things, and without continual accountability it’s very easy both to do things wrong and to do the wrong things.

Next month, we’re told, we need to reject the unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy in favour of, well, what?  How is accountability unfolding here?  We need to put our own, British values first, apparently.  Values like privatising our schools and our NHS, transforming them into profit centres far beyond any hope of democratic redress.

We’ve been told many times that the dissolution of English political unity would be too high a price to pay for the benefits regionalism brings, even if the regions reflect deep-rooted identities like Wessex and East Anglia.  Yet the displacement of our historic shires by ‘Greater Lincolnshire’, ‘North Midlands’, ‘Tees Valley’ and other mayored innovations isn’t viewed as a problem.  (Nor is it viewed as part of the ‘euro-plot’, as would any attempt to give England the regional governments now standard across all large west European countries.)  As Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, also writing in the Municipal Journal, noted, “The new rash of elected mayors for improbable geographies face some real challenges in getting noticed in any way at all.”   That’s just it though.  They’re not there to be noticed.  A revolution in how England is governed is now underway as secret deals are lined up for sign-off.  Personality mayors and commissioners for made-up areas will preside as local services are handed wholesale to global financial interests.

Do the public care?  According to Ben Page’s data they do.  Around half (49%) support the principle of decentralising local decision-making powers, with only 17% opposed.  There are two main worries that are shared by 58% of those who don’t support devolution.

One is the spectre of ‘postcode lottery’ – the fear that services would start to vary between areas to an unacceptable degree (though it’s surprisingly acceptable for the Irish or the French to have different standards).  Keeping the number of English regions well below double figures is one way to minimise this fear: the present hotch-potch of ‘improbable geographies’ is going to have to be sorted out sooner or later and the sooner the better.  Another way is to make devolution real, so that regional politicians cannot blame Whitehall if they fail to match the standards of the best.

The second worry is that politicians in the provinces aren’t up to the job and so can’t be trusted with real power.  That’s hardly surprising: real talent isn’t going to be attracted to run an ever-shrinking range of services subject to ever more intrusive interference from ministers and their civil servants anxious about poor performance.  Breaking that vicious circle is easy.  Tolerate responsibility through the ballot box, open up the opportunities and the talent will come.  Or, to be more accurate, it will stay exactly where it is and not be lured to London.

If being locked indoors with the Tories is the best reason for opposing Brexit then a good second is that the debate has been framed in terms of sovereignty instead of subsidiarity and on those terms Brexit poses an unacceptable risk.  That risk is that sovereignty regained will be sovereignty hoarded.  All Europe needs a debate on what can be done closer to the people than it is today.  Even if that means identifying things that are done too close to be done well – because there are some activities that can now only be effective on a scale beyond that of the classical nation-state.

It needs to be a European debate, not a British or English one, because only in the idea of a Europe of a Hundred Flags can small nations and historic regions achieve the recognition the nation-states are determined to deny us.  We hear a lot about how the EU is a malignant conspiracy to destroy those nation-states and their historic identities long-forged in good old-fashioned lethal conflict.  Michael Gove looks forward to ‘patriotic renewal’, while Jacques Attali fears another Franco-German war before the century is out.  Meanwhile, the British State for which we’re supposed to boldly patrify shows how much it really cares about our identity, turning our ancient shires, the roots of our democracy, into clone-zones of the metropolis and topping each with its own little Caesar.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

Bristol City Council is still weathering the storm it brought down upon itself for not marking St George’s Day this year, having argued that the city is ‘too multicultural’ for such an event.  Lack of interest might have been a plausible excuse, but not that all cultures are valued except one.

Others do things differently.  Professor John Denham is Director of Winchester University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics.  Interviewed by Wessex Society for its magazine The Wessex Chronicle, he recalled the situation in Southampton during his time as a Labour MP there:

“I helped organise St George’s Day in Southampton and Southampton’s a very diverse city – so how do you have a St George’s Day which can involve everybody and yet is still an English festival?  The story we tell is that Southampton is a great English city, that’s been there throughout English history, and it’s always been made up of all the people who’ve lived there, which because it’s a port city has always been people from all over the world.  People can understand that you can be both English and very diverse, through your history and everybody that’s come together to make the city.  A couple of years ago I was working on this with a young Sikh woman councillor, born in Southampton, and we discovered that we both had had relatives in the British forces serving in the Far East during the Second World War.  That’s an example of how family and local histories can be inter-twined as part of a common story.”

The difference then is that Southampton projects the primacy of territory, locally and nationally – loyalty to place rather than to race – whereas Bristol appears scared of any continuity with its foundational past.  Curiously, when it comes to Wessex and the marking of St Ealdhelm’s Day, the roles are reversed.  Bristol is happy to fly the Wyvern outside the Council House (or ‘City Hall’, for the Anti-Mayor and his fellow deniers of distinctiveness); Southampton still sits in stony silence, unmoved by calls to fly.  Perhaps this will be the year Southampton sees sense?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review of 2015

Every year when we submit our accounts to the Electoral Commission we are also required to provide a 'Review of Political Activities' covering the year just gone.

The 2015 Review has recently been forwarded to the Commission and here is what it says:

“The major event of the year was the General Election, which saw our President, Colin Bex return to Oxfordshire to again challenge David Cameron for the safe Tory seat of Witney.  The overall result was no surprise but Colin was pleased to see a 77% increase in his own vote and a midway ranking among the candidates, concluding that if voters remain willing to keep their options open this bodes well for the future.  Indeed, it was our best result since 2001.  The first-past-the-post voting system continues to disadvantage smaller parties; it creates presumptions about who is worth hearing that prevent a minor party candidate even putting forward an alternative point of view.  This was again the case at Witney, where Colin and other minor party candidates were barred from even attending the hustings.  Local press coverage was seriously incompetent, even to the point of publishing inexcusable untruths, though full colour feature articles in both editions of the Wall Street Journal ensured global awareness of the Wessex cause.

The importance of online activities was underlined by a sharp spike in viewing figures for the Party’s blog during the campaign.  In April, there were nearly 3,000 page-views, nearly double the peak of interest during the Eastleigh by-election in 2013.  In May, the Party was left without a core website following the catastrophic failure of the Zyweb platform that hosted it.  Thanks to Rick Heyse, a new Full Member with the requisite skills, the Party now has a new site – www.wessexregionalists.info – to which are gradually being added the range of features increasingly expected of a party website in the 21st century.  Colin Bex has been an active ambassador for the Party, attending conferences on climate change, in Paris, and democracy, in Brussels, and the June march in London against austerity.  On the march, he spoke with Jeremy Corbyn, soon to be the Labour Leader, about the need for regionalism.

A wholly Conservative Government took office in May with some two-thirds of the electorate either not supporting or actively opposing it.  It has demonstrated a deep hostility towards regionalism and local democracy, even as financial pressures compel public services to re-organise on a regional basis.  It continues to advance the view – shared with Labour – that the imposition of unwanted elected mayors is a preferable substitute for substantial devolution to democratic regional assemblies.  In the second half of 2015 our attention shifted to the May 2016 local elections.  Nick Xylas was endorsed as the Party’s candidate for Bristol City Council, Eastville Ward and much activity has focused on developing a framework for that campaign.

Policies adopted during the year have emphasised our radical difference from the current mainstream.  The Party now explicitly supports a confederal ‘Europe of a Hundred Flags’, more democratic governance of public limited companies and a referendum on the future of the monarchy, while opposing child genital mutilation, ritual slaughter and the renewal of Trident.  We continue to benefit from the ‘Scotland effect’ as the SNP consolidates its hold and voters in England also look around for alternatives to the failed London parties.  The level of justifiable optimism within the Party is higher than for many, many years.”

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Keeping It Under Your Hat

With 11.5 million documents to read through, we’ve not heard the last of the revelations from the Panama Papers.  David Cameron is on the defensive, though Jeremy Corbyn’s attacks are blunted by the fact that his party was once led by one half of the Blair couple, now rumoured to be worth a cool £60 million.  If Labour’s a party with the interests of the common man at heart, it certainly hasn’t acted like one.

Equally revealing is the information that Cameron blocked EU plans for greater transparency over trusts.  It brings into sharp relief what’s at stake in the EU referendum because the issue presented as pro- or anti-Brussels can in fact be reversed and presented as pro- or anti-London.  Brexit won’t deliver regionalism but it could very easily produce a London regime on steroids.  Johnson as Prime Minister, ousting the fatally discredited thinking of the Cameron / Osborne axis, but even more in thrall to City backers.  Massive deregulation paving the way for active promotion of the UK as the place for the globally corrupt to do business.  London helping itself to still more of the national wealth while denying other parts of the UK still more of the powers needed to turn themselves around.  Openly, the fight for Brexit is being fought in the name of democracy, and on that score sound points can be made, but, behind the scenes, kleptocracy would be the real winner.

A clear pointer to the direction of travel appeared this week when Dominic Grieve highlighted that tax-dodging is an industry that provides a great many much-needed jobs.  In places like the British Virgin Islands that matter so much to all of us, if we can just remember where they are.  It does indeed provide jobs, socially useless ones, just as it destroys socially useful jobs by denying the public purse the funds with which to sustain them.  Such is the mentally sick, insecure society that Thatcherism has spawned, ferreting around for whatever bits of work are on offer from a parasite class to whom caps must forever be doffed.  Dismantling the tax havens is technically a very easy thing to do; it’s just politically impossible to pass the necessary legislation because of a longstanding Wesm’ster consensus against it.

George Osborne’s plan to nationalise all local authority schools, and then privatise them – a bit like the Dissolution of the Monasteries – is another pointer to the direction of travel.  Academies don’t have to teach the national curriculum, so it will presumably disappear, along with parent governors and any other vestige of democracy that might give children the wrong idea about how our society can be run.  Why would you need a national curriculum, written down and open to challenge, when it can simply be ‘understood’ by the chief executives of the big McSchool academy chains?  Understood, that is, to mean teaching that a fraudster is just a better entrepreneur than the competition, that tax-dodging is wealth creation and that the only thing the law-abiding individual need ever fear is the over-mighty State?  Dis-education and mis-education are the new battleground because what you don’t know can’t hurt you, can it?

Englishness is many things but one of the most cherished is a love of secrecy, or privacy as it’s usually termed, a pathological distrust of the other that underpins the rejection of any potential for collective action.  It’s why we prefer houses, even in city centres, to the flats that those on the mainland regard as a far more rational use of land.  Across most of Scandinavia, tax returns are public documents: folk don’t have hang-ups about what they earn or the tax they pay on it.  Perhaps they believe they really have earned it: so many of our top ‘earners’ know deep down that their salaries are out of all proportion to their real social value.  English society, obsessed with covering up the truth in order to protect a ruling class who aren’t worth their privileges, is a society at war with itself.  The rulers keep winning by setting each serf against all the rest and presenting themselves as the good guys.  It’s been like that for 950 years.

The system was imposed from outside, from Normandy.  Can it be overthrown from within, or will it take some major help from Brussels to achieve our liberation?  The history of those 950 years furnishes one very clear answer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Devo Min

There are quite a few bright spots for Wessex folk to cheer about in today’s budget – and not just a freeze on cider duty – but look beyond the headlines.  It’s good to see money for children’s A&E in Southampton, but isn’t the rest of the NHS on life support?  A “more resilient train line in the South West” (in other words, dealing with Dawlish) is backed, though this actually only extends to a feasibility study that’s currently stalled.  We mustn’t forget the £20 million to help young families onto the housing ladder in the South West”, funded from the 3% stamp duty surcharge on additional properties.  Osborne says that’s a reward for good behaviour – “proof that when the South West votes blue, their voice is heard loud in Westminster” – but if we controlled our own resources and made our own decisions the cynical bribes wouldn’t be necessary.  With MPs in the South West still being urged to rebel over HS2, it seems they could do with more than a little regionalist help in turning up the volume.

We’ll be studying the financial detail before commenting further on those aspects that naturally fall within the Chancellor’s brief.  Meanwhile, we can comment at once on those that don’t but are there anyway.  ‘Devolution’, so called, can’t be taken seriously so long as it’s viewed as part of some national productivity campaign, no more than a footnote in the Government’s spending plans.  Constitutional change should be about democratic renewal, not the further empowerment of unaccountable business interests.  Are we happy too with the theft of our publicly funded schools in their entirety?  Theft it is, to nationalise the powers of a tier of government closer to the people, without its consent.  Where’s the referendum on that?

That’s why the devolution deals announced today are so pitiful.  If the local councils agree, there’ll be a Mayor for ‘Avon, Mk. II’, on top of the one Bristol already has, and despite the one Bath has just rejected.  Other parts of Wessex are still trying to line up their bids for more of the same.  In East Anglia, councils willing, there’ll be a Mayor too, heading the first region-wide elected administration in East Anglian history.  Like it or not, there won’t be a Mayor of Wessex.  Which is just as well.  We demand the open, transparent debate of a legislative assembly, like Wales or Scotland, not a behind-the-scenes fixer placed beyond accountability for a full four-year term.  The whole mayoral obsession is part of a failure to understand that London’s dominance over England is about the inter-regional distribution of political power, not the fact that it has a Boris and we don’t.

As with the North East referendum in 2004, what’s currently on offer may end up rejected locally as too little to bother with for the democratic and financial costs attached.  We’ve maintained a bold alternative that’s been rejected by all the London parties, essentially for the mortal sin of being ambitious in what we propose for Wessex.  All we need say in response is, where’s your vision then?  End the excuses, start rolling out REAL regional devolution, and do it now.

Monday, March 14, 2016

More, or Less? You Choose

Yes, you do.  Because just when you think that London, after all it’s had so far, can’t get greedier yet, along comes Crossrail 2.

The ‘National’ Infrastructure Commission last week recommended that the scheme – a north-south rail link across the capital – should be funded at once, “as a priority”, so it can open in 2033.  Its Chairman, Lord Adonis, said that London needs Crossrail 2 “as quickly as possible” to relieve congestion on Tubes and trains.  “Crossrail 2 will help keep London moving… we should get on with it right away”.  The smart money is on funding being announced as soon as Wednesday’s budget.

Now, it’s arguable that Crossrail 2 is an excellent scheme that will indeed deliver the benefits promised.  But so too are many others.  Wessex cities don’t have congestion on their underground metro systems because we’re still waiting for them to be built.  Many of our market towns could do with their trains back: many have mushroomed in size since the trains were lost through dodgy accounting under the Beeching axe.

The initial east-west Crossrail cost £14.8 billion.  Crossrail 2 will cost between £27 billion and £32 billion, at 2014 prices.  Adonis’ Commission recommends that London should contribute more than half the money.  Why not all of it, since it’s of no benefit whatsoever to us?  What about getting us moving too?  Why not a moratorium on any new national funding for infrastructure in London until the rest of the ‘United’ Kingdom has caught up?  For how long?  About 100 years should do it.

Why does this happen?  London’s MPs don’t form a Commons majority.  In fact, 89% of MPs represent constituencies outside London.  Even adding in London’s commuter belt doesn’t take us anywhere near a majority.  So why do our MPs so submissively vote for our taxes to be poured into this bottomless pit?  Why do they soak up the lies from ‘experts’ that this is a good investment from which we all benefit in the end, even as we look around us at our shrivelling community landscape?  It’s time our politics – so good at pretending to represent social class divisions – grew a geographical dimension to match.  The SNP have shown how it’s done.  The revolt needs to come south.