Friday, August 8, 2008

Whither Wessex?

"At a number of places in his celebrated Imperialism (1902), J. A. Hobson used southern England as an image of the successful, imperialist side of British capitalism: a countryside of plush ‘parasitism’ drawing tribute from overseas via the City, supporting ‘great tame masses of retainers’ in service and secondary industries, and riddled with ex-imperialist hirelings. ‘The South and South-West of England is richly sprinkled with these men’, he continued, ‘most of them endowed with leisure, men openly contemptuous of democracy, devoted to material luxury, social display, and the shallower arts of intellectual life. The wealthier among them discover political ambitions… Not a few enter our local councils, or take posts in our constabulary or our prisons: everywhere they stand for coercion and for resistance to reform.’"
Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, 1981

Next year, political Wessex hits 40. It was towards the end of 1969 that the then Lord Weymouth first mooted the idea of a Wessex identity for the purposes of tourism promotion. Of course, even then, his ambitions were more extensive than that. So how far has reality today caught up with them?

St Aldhelm’s Cross and even the Wyvern are now to be seen flying from public buildings in Wessex, and the list of towns and cities doing so will doubtless grow. Aldhelm is becoming more widely recognised as the patron saint of Wessex. A Wessex Anthem has been written by a Dorset dialect poet and set to music by a composer from Gloucestershire. Our wonderful dialect is attracting new scholarly interest. We even have our own Earl and Countess, a fact of recognition for which we can almost forgive their meagre efforts to live up to the title. The infrastructure of a community is taking shape.

For many of these feats, except the last two, the credit must go to Wessex Society, which Party members helped to launch in 1999, on the 1100th anniversary of King Alfred’s death. The Society has, quite rightly, taken on a life of its own. The membership today includes a peer, a bishop, an MEP, three MPs and the popular musicians Acker Bilk and Gordon Haskell. While some Society members are also Party members, the vast majority are not. It would be false to assume that to be patriotic about Wessex is to be sympathetic to Home Rule. Yet no regionalist can be unhappy that Wessex is finding pride in itself again.

And not before time. While the letters pages of our region’s papers are dominated by those droning on about Brussels, or the unfairness of Scottish devolution, Wessex is being torn apart. Not by the regulators of straight bananas. Nor by some anti-English conspiracy. But by the money men (and women) of the City of London. Our homes, our farms, our deep-rooted businesses, all are simply opportunities for them, opportunities to place their own pockets above the common good. And who can blame them? If we let our politicians let them then we have only ourselves to blame.

In News from Nowhere (1890), William Morris coined the term ‘cockneyisation’. Morris, a Londoner himself by birth, saw it as the process by which crass commercial values seeped up the Thames valley, consuming all they found, oblivious to charm and beauty. Morris was horrified by what he saw in his own day. What would he make of Basingstoke or Didcot now?

Some have suggested simply abandoning the east of Berkshire to London, much as some Welsh nationalists have toyed with re-defining Wales as the Welsh-speaking parts only. Such counsel leads nowhere. Once every limb has been amputated, where is there left to call home? We insist that nothing is up for surrender. If the Cockneys laugh at the Wessex accent, then it’s time to laugh back and remind them where they’re now living.

Gently, of course. Because we make no distinction between native and settler who alike love Wessex. Take away in-comers and our Party would collapse. There are all too many Wessex natives who have been taught to despise their heritage for us to be choosy.

But if it’s not about race, it’s very much about space. New homes by the hundreds of thousands are planned and we’re entitled to ask searching questions about why our farmland is to be destroyed to make way for them. We’re still awaiting even a half-convincing answer.

Folk are rightly upset about what’s happening. ‘Change’, we’re told. Yes, but what sane person supports change when it’s irrespective of better or worse? What we demand is the restoration of politics, of the right to make choices democratically and to see them implemented, not side-stepped. For that, Wessex needs a party it can call its own.

We know that New Labour has no mandate in Wessex. Wessex has never voted Labour, yet has periodically suffered the consequences of votes cast in Scotland, Wales, London and the big cities in Mercia and Northumbria. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have any solution to this. Both seek to control the Westminster machine themselves, and letting Labour in from time to time is the price they’re willing to pay. A Wessex Parliament would keep Labour out, for good, unless Wessex voted Labour. A Labour government at Westminster – or equally a Tory or LibDem one – could no more impose its policies on Wessex than it can today on Scotland and Wales. A vote for the Wessex Regionalist Party is no wasted vote. A vote for either of the main opposition parties is a wasted vote because all they can offer is to buy time before Labour is back with a vengeance.

There’s much to dislike about Labour, but not all. Strip away the PC twits and the wolves in sheep’s clothing and there remains a faintly beating radical heart. It was a movement that Wessex could, in the right hands, have endorsed. Looking at the deep blue map of today, it’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago Wessex was a predominantly Liberal region. It was a region with a strong tradition of mutual support, as shown by a thriving network of friendly societies. But it was also a region rightly suspicious of the collectivist instincts of the rising Labour Party. So much so that it has ever since preferred the safety of voting Tory.

Wessex Regionalism is a philosophy that necessarily reflects the political complexion of the region itself. But it’s also one that taps into the unfinished business of old-fashioned liberalism. Not the spiteful, totalitarian kind embraced by Thatcher and Blair but the truly radical programme of constitutional reform and social emancipation cut short by the rise of hard-line socialism. It was no accident that the wartime Common Wealth party had its origins in Wessex, a party advocating vital democracy, common ownership and morality in politics. Nor that WR office-holders over the years have included at least three ex-members of CW’s own Executive Committee.

Dissatisfaction with what the major parties all offer is growing. Extremists are likely to be the beneficiaries if no more attractive alternative is presented. Frustration is turning to anger and anger to rage. The alternating wings of the Laboratory Party have conspired to deprive us wholesale of the control over our lives that we have a right to expect. Decisions that used to be made at the level of individual schools or hospitals are now made in London, either by ministers or, increasingly, by the courts. Decisions on housing and planning that used to be made in town and county halls are now made by quangos stuffed with business interests and reporting to Whitehall-knows-best. Buses, electricity and water – vital services that used to be locally owned and controlled – now belong to the Scots, the French, the Germans and the Spanish. How long before the Russians and the Chinese follow them in?

Common sense dictates the appropriate scale of any service or enterprise. Nothing should be done at a wider level that can be done as well or better at a more local level. Whether it’s a public service or a private enterprise the same rules should apply. While there’s a plausible case for aerospace or pharmaceuticals to be organised on a continental scale, given the high development costs and need to meet U.S. competition, things like buses, electricity or water are tied to their local and regional geography. There’s no case for international empires in these sectors, except to maximise market share. And that’s a case we should have the right to reject.

Politics? Yes please. And the sooner the better.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Property & Privilege

One of the more amusing, if nonetheless unpleasant aspects of the current financial meltdown is the speed with which ardent free marketeers have rounded on the regulatory authorities for not being tough enough with them. Regulation that inhibits profits is bad, lack of regulation that fails to prevent losses is equally bad. Regulation, for its beneficiaries, is shamelessly a one-way street. Like the school bully out of his depth, the City of London is now running howling to teacher.

The so-called libertarians have got it badly wrong. Of course, there will ever be the political masochists who accept whatever consequences their ideology requires of them, but without practical solutions to real world issues they have no audience. Their gods have failed us and we no longer hearken to their sermons. It was always a cheek to argue for the end of State intervention when without State intervention to uphold the sanctity of property and contract their economic model lacked its most basic footing. Without police there is no property and without courts there is no contract. These things require a State and a democratic State will not confine itself to meeting the demands of the rich alone.

The libertarians’ greatest lie has been to link personal liberty and property, arguing unfettered property rights to be the true guarantee of democracy. History shows this to be false. Victorian Britain – before the secret ballot – saw countless cases of tenants evicted for voting against their landlord’s wishes. That was his right as landlord, but what was his right to be landlord at all? Libertarians stop the clock at now, entrenching all past gains, however made. Justice can go hang.

As a general rule, human rights begin at birth and end at death. Property rights have no such mortality. They pass onwards from generation to generation, but the origins of the chain of transmission are often deliberately obscured. Title ultimately derives from an act of conquest. Saxon dispossessed Celt, Norman dispossessed Saxon. And every honest transaction today rests on that tainted foundation. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s much-abused quip that property is theft is not far from the truth.

If property is not to be theft then it must be found a rightful possessor. And in that judgement, use value has always outweighed exchange value. Those who wish to use the land take precedence over those who wish to hoard it. That is the basis of the common law doctrine of adverse possession. A squatter’s rights have long trumped those of the paper owner who made no effort to enforce his claim. Sadly, the onward march of statutory land registration is biting deep into this ancient wisdom, so that more and more we are ‘bound in with shame, with inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds’. A fresh approach is due.

To prefer the claim of the homeless to that of the idle land speculator is not to condone the destruction of Wessex by endless population growth. Development should be controlled by the community through planning laws, because in our over-crowded region the days of putting up a shack on the common are long gone. But when farmland is sacrificed because existing homes lie empty, for no other reason than that the owner wants to keep them that way, we have a society with very warped priorities indeed. Perhaps the way forward is to give parish and town councils the right to oversee vacant land and buildings on their patch, and the power to force a sale by auction wherever they are not satisfied with the owner’s explanation. Public bodies should be as subject to this power of scrutiny as anyone else. In truth, land is never ‘owned’; all land is held as an estate under the Crown. Property is a privilege, not a right, and it should not be permissible to abuse that privilege.

The re-deification of private rights in land is one aspect of a wider loss of reality by society at large. Because our economy no longer depends on gathering, growing or making things, business has created class after class of virtual assets, which it then insists that the law should protect against anyone else wishing to do the same. Only with the State’s connivance can profit be made out of denying access to what was once free. ‘Intellectual property rights’ are the new enclosures. They do not belong in this world but in that of Alice in Wonderland. How else can one begin to characterise attempts by the U.S. Government to patent the DNA of indigenous peoples?

Copyright is the privatisation of censorship. It restricts the flow of information in a free society, slowing down cultural development. It outlaws the labour of those who do the copying, while rewarding those who have done nothing since the initial publication of their work. Nothing has been stolen but a figment of the imagination. The record company still has the master recording. The publisher still has the author’s manuscript. These are the only true assets in the industry of make-believe. There will always be a market for the genuine article, endorsed by its creator, but those who don’t want their work copied shouldn’t publish. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, no-one should expect to be paid for being flattered. The law should protect the buyer from fake goods they don’t want, not from fake goods they do want.

Copyright is a paradise for lawyers. How much copying is too much copying? Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code would have been inconceivable without the work of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in The Holy Blood & the Holy Grail. Yet he was cleared of plagiarism because they had claimed their own, equally imaginative work as fact. Wessex-born author J.K. Rowling is estimated to be the 12th richest woman in Britain, worth £560 million. Could Harry Potter have been created without the use of the English language in which the books are written? Or without reference to the Western magical tradition? No? So can society sue JKR for its share? Apparently not. If we want continuing creativity we should remove the cotton wool from our writers, musicians, film-makers and software engineers. Why do more work if you can live off past royalties for ever and a day? Of course, their fortunes would be considerably smaller. But a world with fewer millionaire celebrities would be a world with a more balanced sense of values. Not to mention a more realistic view of the contribution any individual or corporation can actually make to the culture with which they work.

The world of money is a house of (plastic) cards. The State, while taking all the poison thrown at it, is happy to sanction the whole range of legal fictions out of which money is ‘made’ at the public’s expense. Fractional reserve banking. Limited liability. And guaranteed property rights, even in things that don’t otherwise exist. Isn’t it time we got real and left Wonderland behind?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Meaning of No

Sir Desmond Glazebrook: ‘Surely a decision’s a decision?’
Sir Humphrey Appleby: ‘Only if it’s the decision you want. If not it’s just a temporary setback.’
‘Yes, Minister’, 1981

The rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon by Irish voters has been the subject of much triumphalist crowing by Eurosceptics, much dismissive arrogance by Europhiles and much fevered speculation by the pundits. It clearly is not the end of the line for the Europroject, nor is it just a democratic bump on the road to ever closer union. Those without entrenched positions have called for a debate on the future of Europe, for pause and reflection. Nice try. And good luck. Because it’s the right answer.

The debate is not illuminated by those sad folks for whom the European Union is a conspiracy. Whether it is meant to be Hitler’s legacy or Stalin’s is not always clear but for the sake of the argument it matters not a jot. The conspiracy could just as well be run by the Vatican, the CIA, Al Quaeda or the Elders of Zion. And occasionally the argument is precisely that it is. Europe deserves better than such tabloid tripe.

But that does not excuse what is done in the Union’s name. A truly great generation concluded that a repetition of the Second European Civil War was avoidable only if national rivalries were transcended for good. They have been let down badly by institutions awash with corruption and incompetence. They also failed to see how the hope enshrined in ‘ever closer union’ would become in later hands the seedcorn of a totalitarian super-state. (It is ‘ever looser union’ that will really cut the nation-states down to size.) Worst of all, we, in Wessex, have been let down by successive British governments who have simply signed everything the bureaucrats have put in front of them. And then blamed everyone but themselves for the consequences.

The Wessex Regionalist Party defends the interests of Wessex. That is our basic position. We have no automatic loyalty either to the United Kingdom or to the European Union: loyalty must be earned by actions. We do not accept that the interests of Wessex should be sacrificed to an alleged common good, whether English, British or European. We are not anti-European; nor do we uncritically accept all that is done in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Our aim is a decentralised Europe, a European confederation of small nations and historic regions that recognises our continent’s traditional cultural diversity as its greatest strength. We must limit the centralisation of powers both to Europe and to the current state capitals such as London and Paris. At the same time, we recognise that such a Europe, whose chief political units would be smaller than today’s nation-states, could not survive without common institutions to address the bigger economic, social and environmental problems we all face. Pollution, for example, is no respecter of frontiers. In a regionalised Europe, Wessex would be represented directly at European level; we would no longer have to rely on disinterested ministers from London to put our case for us.

Our aim is therefore to uphold the principle of subsidiarity, that nothing should be done at a wider level that can be done as effectively, or more effectively, at a narrower level. Transfers of power outwards should always be subject to a referendum of those affected and must always be reversible. This is not the case with the existing European treaties and we therefore insist that they be re-negotiated.

The European Union is remote, unaccountable and dominated by vested economic interests – but the same criticisms can be levelled with at least equal force at our own institutions. Its record on environmental protection and social welfare legislation has put successive British governments to shame. Nevertheless, it has presided over colossal failures – the Common Agricultural Policy foremost among them – and radical reform of structures and priorities alike is long overdue.

We reject the super-state model of the EU as over-centralised and conformist. The EU should address transnational ecological issues; regulate multinational companies; regionalise the European economy; balance needs and resources within Europe and with the rest of the world; resolve disputes between member states and promote understanding between their peoples. (And how about promoting knowledge of Latin as the neutral European language?) Other issues, including trade and economic policy, should be left to the regions to deal with. These should be free to co-operate on matters of shared concern with groups of like-minded regions, free either to reach agreement on issues of particular interest to them or to do their own thing without criticism from others. This is a multi-track Europe. It is not a multi-speed Europe, a phrase suggesting that the destination is pre-determined, with only the pace still to be set.

If a club enlarges its membership, the scope for disagreements automatically grows and new ways of working are needed. This ought to be treated as an opportunity, not as a threat. Yet all the reform talk is about increasing uniformity over an ever wider area, with less and less scope for national sovereignty. This is no way to enthuse people about Europe. Rather than scrapping vetoes we should be restoring them – and extending them to regional level so that Wessex, no less than Luxembourg, can safeguard its vital interests. The result will be a more diverse Europe, with policies better tuned to regional realities. We should have the courage and confidence to assert that it will not be a weaker solution if the European Union as a whole can agree on fewer things than it has in the past. Far from it. The Irish vote is not the beginning of the end. But, if taken as a constructive rebuke, it could yet be the end of the beginning.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Beware of Barbarians

“…the forces of vandalism and cruelty are ever ready to exploit or destroy what so many generations have painfully laboured to create…”
Dr Herman Finer, 1933

Change itself is the only constant but there are different kinds or degrees of change. Some changes enhance the quality of life, others can diminish it (which is why 'modernisation' - the New Labour creed - is not self-evidently beneficial). Wessex largely 'missed out' on some of the key historical events that transformed other parts of Britain - the Viking settlement, the Industrial Revolution, massive conurbations. Our past is more visible than the past of those areas where subsequent changes have destroyed much of what previous generations wrought, those things that are essential to a sense of being part of a continuing community, stretching far back into antiquity and with a correspondingly rich and diverse set of reference points.

While there are no official statistics for Wessex, it is noteworthy that England’s ‘South West’ has the richest heritage of all the Prescott zones. It has 19% of England’s land area but 24% of its listed buildings and 36% of its scheduled ancient monuments. So how fares this heritage? Not well. English Heritage reports that 140 of the region’s finest listed buildings and monuments are ‘at risk’; the figure for the ‘South East’ is even worse, at 176.

These are matters that money could put right (for about £100 million, if the Lottery were not being looted for London’s benefit). But there is a darker disease that money alone will not cure. The very ethos of conservation is being undermined, by those who are entrusted to be its guardians. We have seen Labour put housebuilding ahead of the environment, present greed above future need. We have seen Natural England, the Government watchdog for nature conservation, landscape quality and countryside access question the value of Green Belts. We have seen Bath & North East Somerset Council bemoan the lack of tower cranes on the skyline of their historic city. It’s tower cranes that bring in the tourists, isn’t it? Why waste time on Georgian gems when you can gaze at Modern masterpieces in the midst of a permanent building site? Bring on the comic outpourings of inflated egos pumped up with money by the crassest of the overclass!

Anti-conservationism (destructionism?) is in full cry in the dying days of New Labour. Not since the 1960’s have we seen such bitter hatred for the past.

Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our insularity. Continental cities do it better, promoting the best of “contemporary design” (whatever that ill-conceived phrase may denote). Well, as it happens, they usually manage conservation much better too. It was continentals who invented conservation. Not the National Trust. The first ancient monuments legislation was introduced in Sweden early in the 17th century. The first listed buildings legislation in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt early in the 19th. The first (and only temporarily) successful conservation campaign was perhaps in Cordoba in 1523, when the council sought to outlaw damage to the city’s incomparable mosque. And the first failure was perhaps the decree of the Roman Emperors Leo and Majorian in 458 against damaging ancient buildings and monuments in the Eternal City.

Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our nation’s neurosis. Anally retentive, no less. Poor old Freud. He’d surely have had a field day with architects and developers eager to obliterate their forefathers’ work so that it’s not around to stand comparison with their own feeble offerings. Yes, the very best architects and developers of today deserve the grand opportunities of previous generations but it is a myth to suggest that such do not exist (and cannot exist without destroying our heritage to make room). Let Foster and Rogers ruin Milton Keynes if they must. But spare the rest of us.

Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our inability to live comfortably with 21st century reality. Is it not rather a sign of our immaturity that our aesthetic judgement can be so easily impaired by what the calendar tells us? Architecture that was bad in 1999 will not be any better for being built today. A moment’s reflection will reveal that “contemporary” architecture is any architecture that happens now, which in practice is largely architecture that reflects the taste of the New Labour ruling class. Why should the style of the 21st century be so-called Modernism, a pastiche of the 1960’s, itself a pastiche of the 1920’s? Modernism is passé, long ago ceasing to be modern. And what has such thinking, in its internationalist guise especially, to do with the genius loci, the sense of appropriateness to place? Good architecture is always derivative; it is otherwise empty of cultural content. So the message it sends must always be closely evaluated.

Concern for the past, we are told, is a denial of our dynamic society. We cannot live in a museum. Our cities are living cities that must change to survive in the modern world. But there is a difference between a way of living that sustains the richness of our surroundings – including its time dimension – and one that wilfully destroys it through injudicious development. Every building demolished is a window on the past closed and that is why each decision requires careful reflection. We are being robbed of experiences that should be our birthright simply so that others can show off on a massive scale, can make their mark on history instead of taking their respectful place in it. It’s like carving your name on a mediæval bench-end. In our drive to be good global citizens, we build culture in breadth at the expense of culture in depth. Without roots, we are exposed to the chill winds of market forces taking us wherever they may blow. We have a choice then between ancient wisdom and transient sensation, between living as if we mean to stay and living only for the moments that our grasping anxieties lay before us.

The problem is essentially one of education. The value of the past has been neglected to the point where its very existence is threatened, perhaps as never before. European Architectural Heritage Year 1975, which started so many good trends, is a generation away and much of its momentum has been lost. Even the physical results are wearing thin, as environmental improvements come up for repair and renewal and the philistines move in. All it takes to flatten a building is to mention the money that development can ‘make’ (especially when it’s all in a ‘good cause’). The defenders of charm and beauty must begin again. Cheerfully. Since the price of civilisation is always eternal vigilance.

Wessex is changing fast and not necessarily for the better. It needs to change to improve, because it is not the best it will ever be. But improvement should not mean for better or for worse. Perhaps, in our day as in Alfred’s, things round here are going to have to change if things are going to stay the same.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 'G' Word

At the end of March, the Brown regime announced plans to further nationalise the control of development in Wessex. Those who thought local opinion could not be sidelined any more than it is already will be sorely disappointed.

Remember that when Labour took office in 1997 it inherited sweeping powers to interfere in local decision-making. Whitehall could direct councils to change their planning policies, and could over-rule specific decisions through the iniquitous appeals system. It still can do all of this but this was not enough.

In 2004, Labour abolished the right of councils to approve their own planning policies. At local level, these are now subject to approval by an unelected civil servant, who has to act within the framework of national policy and new regional plans. Regional assemblies – composed mainly of councillors but with a significant non-democratic element – have responsibility for drawing up the latter. But not the power. The Secretary of State has to approve the draft, with whatever changes he or she likes.

Now the assemblies are to be abolished. Good riddance, we say. We want a real Parliament for Wessex, not a talking shop for some arbitrary administrative zone that is Whitehall’s creature. But a Parliament is not what’s on offer. Indeed, there is no offer. Just more centralist diktat.

For the assemblies’ powers are to be transferred to quangos, the Regional Development Agencies, appointed by Whitehall and answerable to no-one else. As a sop to local democracy, it was proposed that draft regional plans should be signed off by a forum of local authority leaders in the region. But the detail reveals that – in the event of disagreement – the draft will be submitted to ministers with a note merely setting out points of dispute. The Local Government Association has correctly observed that this removes any incentive for the RDAs to take public opinion into account.

The South West RDA gleefully claimed that the new structure could ‘remove the barriers to growth’. In plain English, that’s you and me. The public. The folk who actually live here and see our environment being trashed daily. The folk who, if we were to take back the power to run our own lives, would see these quangocrats spend the rest of their working days making amends. Under the closest supervision.

Because they certainly aren’t fit to be doing any job that gives them the opportunity to ill-treat the environment. Anyone – whatever their role – who uses the phrase ‘economic growth’ positively is a proven menace. Their sanity should be treated as suspect and if they’re politicians they need to be unseated as soon as possible. Those who talk about ‘the economic opportunities of climate change’ are simply beyond hope.

The ‘g’ word – growth – assumes that what humans have done to their planet for millennia is what they can and should go on doing. We’ve lived with the consequences so far, so what’s the problem?

The ground may be perfectly smooth until you come to the cliff’s edge but the edge is there and it isn’t going anywhere. The planet is finite.

Assume that Planet Earth’s carrying capacity is depicted as a ceiling, a straight line. Racing towards that ceiling is the graph of economic growth. We need to stop short of the ceiling if we are to leave any room for wildlife, say 10%. Because even the most selfishly materialist must pause to ask what life-saving medicines are disappearing as the rainforest is cleared?

The bad news is that we breached that 10% some time around 1970. The really bad news is that we breached the ceiling itself around 1975 and are continuing to escalate beyond it. Saving Planet Earth is not about slowing down the rate of economic growth. It is not about stopping economic growth. It is about getting off the escalator altogether. Because otherwise we shall reach a point, perhaps around mid-century, when rocketing population meets collapsing oil reserves. And then it really is every man for himself. Already, there are ominous signs of a global food crisis.

The Scots are starting to get it right, with calls for a greater emphasis on wellbeing in place of self-destructive growth. No wonder their deputy First Minister called last week for a government that will speak up for Scotland – not shut up for London. The same goes for Wessex, whose lack of a voice is legendary.

You might think that some in government would be concerned. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undoubtedly is, and is spearheading a move for realism within Whitehall. For now though, the Treasury rules. An attempt to introduce a European soil protection directive to safeguard our future food supply was stalled by the UK and three other member states at December’s Environment Council. Brown’s aim is simply to free up more and more land for development, dressed up in greenwash about “sustainability”. He’ll have made sure it won’t be his family who starve.

In the years ahead we may be looking at a kind of ancien regime collapse in Britain, whereby the institutions of government simply cease to function. The control freakery will accelerate as those with their hands on the levers of power become more and more desperate in their authoritarianism. Who trusts the State today? Why should anyone have confidence in those now actively working to destroy our quality of life?

To keep us on the growth treadmill while they and their economic dogmas are losing touch with environmental reality will not be easy. We know that critics will be dismissed as ‘prejudiced’, while Labour’s own prejudices are protected from exposure. We know that Labour will increasingly resort to legalised violence to get its own way, fully supported by the Conservative ‘opposition’. Its gag laws and its ever-increasing centralisation of power indicate the direction of travel all too well. We know that the financial house of cards, the ‘engine of growth’, the City of London, is in fact the engine of our destruction – and that it's becoming increasingly difficult to hide the fact.

The London papers are full of what to them are gloomy stories. Estimates vary, but the credit crunch could cost some 20,000 to 40,000 City jobs. Bring it on. Because is it really such a bad thing? Won’t the world be a better place without them? Won’t Wessex breathe a sigh of relief as fewer of our farms and homes are snapped up as hobbies by those with too many millions to burn? And isn’t the lesson that the time is now ripe for Wessex folk to be running our own resources for our own benefit?

Or will we give the slick spinners of corporate candyfloss yet another deadly chance?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Minding Our Own Business

"Peace is a coin which has two sides – one is the avoidance of the use of force and the other is the creation of conditions of justice. In the long run you cannot expect one without the other."
John Foster Dulles, 1956

Dulles was not a man whose actions lived up to his words. Nor can anything better be said of the world’s rulers today. Five years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in turmoil and for those countries involved in its conquest it is the spectre that will haunt a generation. Not simply because there is no peace but ultimately because there is no justice. So long as Bush, Blair and Brown are free to strut upon the world stage, fêted as statesmen, anger will continue to fester and resolution will remain elusive.

Our Party’s policy is clear. It is for judges to decide the legality of war, not politicians or their pocket lawyers. The context for such a ruling must be the indictment of those who orchestrated the invasion, those who, in the formula of the Nuremberg Tribunal, formed part of the common plan or conspiracy to wage aggressive war.

That means, in the United Kingdom context, both Blair and Brown, along with their respective cabinets and the majority of Labour backbenchers. It remains an enigma that the Labour Party continues to exist at all. How can people of goodwill continue to devote their political lives to so vile and valueless an organisation?

But the Conservatives are no less liable to stand trial for war crimes. All but 16 of their MPs present voted for war, an even worse record than Labour’s. (The rebels included three from Wessex.) Apparently they did it because they believed the Prime Minister. The job of Her Majesty’s Opposition is always to do precisely the opposite of that. By failing to do their job they too have forfeited all moral authority. One needn’t think the LibDems are off the hook either. It’s true that they voted against, so no charges stick there, but they gave the war their total support once declared, arguably the least principled position imaginable. Our chaps deserve support, the reasoning goes, because they’re only obeying orders. Now, where did we last hear that excuse?

It is an odd situation in which we find ourselves. In 2003 the majority of the House of Commons became composed of alleged war criminals; an election later, many of them are still there. But that is what happens when the electorate fails to punish politicians for their bad deeds and leaves the meting-out of a harsher and less discriminate justice to the murderous rage of suicide bombers.

We are not the government of Wessex and so, at this juncture, can only take the longer-term view. We cannot magically undo the present mess. We cannot rescue the electorate from the consequences of its folly. What we can do is suggest how the longer-term view should shape a future worth struggling for.

One of the recurrent themes of the past five years has been the extent to which British troops have been sent into combat inadequately equipped. Of course, any sympathy for the troops must be tempered by the fact that no-one forced them to join in the first place; from now on, a boycott of Labour’s armed forces by all principled men and women would do a power of good. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a gap between what the armed forces are capable of doing and what they are currently expected to do. It should surprise no-one that the military would close the gap by spending more on defence. A better way would be to spend less. The smaller the armed forces, the weaker the temptation for politicians to play games with soldiers’ lives, to stake their own legacy upon foolish foreign adventures of no conceivable relevance to the defence of the realm. To lecture others on the evils of WMDs, while continuing to stockpile our own, is the depth of hollowness and hypocrisy. If we would be heard, let us rid our own country of them first.

We say this in full knowledge of the importance of defence and allied industries to the economic well-being of Wessex. Preparation for war has dominated our region for centuries. Defence procurement provides Bristol with one of its largest sources of office employment. Hampshire is ‘home’ to both the Royal Navy, at Portsmouth, and the Army, at Aldershot. Further north, air bases at Greenham Common and Upper Heyford became by-words for Cold War fear. Huge areas of Wiltshire and Dorset remain today fenced off as military establishments and training grounds. The villages of Imber in Wiltshire and Tyneham in Dorset, requisitioned ‘temporarily’ for the Second World War, have never been returned to their former inhabitants.

Defence underpins much of the region’s economy, directly or through purchases in the aerospace and electronics sectors. So reduced defence spending must be matched by increased spending on the creation of alternative employment in sustainable industries for those displaced. MoD land is an asset in more than the financial sense. While armoured vehicles have done damage to the archaeology of Wessex it is also true that the exclusion of modern development and agricultural practices has done much for the landscape and wildlife in areas like Tyneham. The future use of redundant defence sites poses huge issues for the planning system. Sites need to be made over to local communities who will cherish them as their environment, not developed, as so often happens, to accommodate the on-going irresponsibility of London overspill.

The world’s nations with the highest quality of life have achieved their enviable position by eschewing the craze for glory. Opponents of the British Empire used to be called ‘Little Englanders’. If we are now judged ‘Little Wessexers’, so much the better. There are so many things to be done around our home, things that centralist governments have put off indefinitely, pleading poverty. So many public service improvements that are needed. So much new infrastructure to prepare Wessex for the post-oil world. Yet sadly, much of the wealth that could fund our future is currently being wasted.

The United Kingdom spends nearly £30 billion every year on defence, £1 billion of it specifically on Iraq. It is also the fifth largest arms exporter in the world and subsidies of arms exports cost taxpayers around £900 million a year. Wessex has a share in this too. Wessex Regionalists condemn the arms trade, whose consequences for global security cannot be limited to the countries to which arms are sold. What hope for peace is there when the ten largest arms exporting countries include all five permanent members of the Security Council?

Another £7.5 billion annually is spent on our behalf on overseas aid. That includes £825 million for India over the next three years. The UK provides one-third of all world aid to that country, one rich enough to have developed its own nuclear bomb in 1974 (grotesquely named ‘Smiling Buddha’). To question these priorities of our government is not to criticise the goal of lifting poorer countries than our own out of grinding poverty. But as well as demanding some responsibility on their own part it is worth remembering that many of these countries were better off when they did not ‘benefit’ from being part of the global money economy, burdened with debts they can never repay. If we would help them now there are better ways than recycling our money through them on its way back to us. Supporting their right to decide their own futures and not suffer the one imposed by the ideologues of the World Trade Organisation might be a good place to start. To buy local, not global, is another. Fair trade is better than free trade. But why trade at all, if we can make it ourselves? If we must give money to other countries, let it be through voluntary contributions, ethically organised, not through the tax and spend policies of governments with murkier agendas of their own.

We have always said that folk on the spot know best what money should be spent on. So let’s be putting that principle into effect, in Wessex, and throughout the world. By all means let us co-operate, more so than today, in the promotion of world peace and justice. But let us also be clear what is primarily our business and what is emphatically not.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bonfire of the Inanities

Should we have a new archbishop? Not just a new archbishop of Canterbury, but a new archbishopric. Of Winchester.

Wales separated from Canterbury in 1920 and there is a similar demand for a separate Cornish Church today. So why not a separate Wessex Church? It’s not a new idea. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester from 1129 to 1171, spent years agitating for Winchester to be the seat of a new, westward-facing province with himself at its head. As the North’s population shrinks and the South’s continues to burgeon, Canterbury has more to do and York less, so maybe it really is an idea whose time has (belatedly) come.

But whether you think it a good idea or not, it’s a matter for the Church and not for our Party. The formal separation of Church and State is one of the few great ambitions of 19th century radicalism still unfulfilled. The recent interjections of Rowan Williams – Labour’s appointee to run the State Church – have illustrated precisely why religion and politics need to be kept apart. It is not the case that ‘militant secularists’ would prevent the religious expressing their faith through their politics (though supposed ‘militant secularism’ is about as nonsensical as ‘militant human rights’). The point is that any political debate on moral principles must address them as such and not assume that faith can be used to short-circuit rational argument. Otherwise, liberal democracy is doomed. Saddest of all the reactions to Williams’ words are those that bray that Britain is a Christian country, as if the statistical fact of a Christian majority is basis enough for treating non-Christians as second-class citizens. Individuals have religious convictions; countries do not, unless the State is to be envisaged as an instrument for the oppression of the non-conforming.

Make no mistake. There is plenty of that going on under New Labour. Its fear of freedom is deep-seated, dating way back to the puritanism of the Commonwealth, when a despotic Parliament legislated to make sin a crime. Labour still struggles, unsuccessfully, to discern the difference between morality (‘oughts’, achieved by persuasion) and law (‘musts’, achieved by force).

Labour’s gag laws are numerous, increasing in number, and, to the extent that they create political martyrs, counter-productive. Abusing minorities is bad manners but in that context only violence and the threat of violence can justifiably be criminalised. Incitement to murder is a crime because murder itself is a crime. To criminalise incitement to hatred, of any kind, implies that hatred itself is also a crime. In reality, and everywhere else outside the pages of 1984, thought crimes do not (yet) exist, despite all Labour’s witch-hunting efforts to make windows into men’s souls. With the growth of the Internet, and the concomitant pressure to express more and more of one’s views in permanent electronic form, this may be only a matter of time. In many respects, freedom under Labour is already just a memory.

It has been well noted that the targets of Labour’s fear of freedom are always its political opponents, never its political friends. Inciting racial or religious hatred is a crime. Inciting class hatred is not. Lawyers have also been quick to point out how loosely drafted many of the speech crimes are; the result, no doubt intentional, is to further circumscribe debate through self-censorship. It is safer to err on the side of caution than to risk imprisonment for the wrong kind of niceness. Restricting the right to prosecute in such cases to the Attorney-General ensures that only politically motivated prosecutions are launched and that the Labour government is protected from the vengeance of others taking out private actions. The European Convention on Human Rights offers no effective protection for free speech. Article 10 incorporates numerous dubious exceptions, among them the right to ban separatist opinions, inserted to secure the accession of the French Republic, that historic enemy of liberty (and no great friend of equality or fraternity either, despite an admirably secular constitution).

Along with freedom of expression, Labour has targeted freedom of choice. Anti-choice laws do not constrain merely central government and its agencies, legitimate vehicles for public policy. They also constrain the decisions that individuals and private organisations, as well as democratically elected local authorities, may take in hiring staff and managing resources. There can be no justification for such infringements of liberty, for the imposition of one person’s prejudice against prejudice on another no less sentient. Increasingly, the law is being used to discriminate in the very name of opposing discrimination.

The laws are backed up by bureaucracies at all levels, Political Correctness Departments funded by the taxpayer at the expense of cuts to frontline services. We have always been open to immigrants. There can be no disputing the contributions they have frequently made; Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one son of an asylum-seeker who deserves to be mentioned more often whenever immigration is discussed. What is equally true but never mentioned at all is that until the late 20th century immigrants sank or swam by their own efforts. There were no laws to place them beyond criticism, no laws to guarantee their place in the labour market, and no State-funded bodies to provide them with special advantages denied to the common herd.

Because our own freedom-focused tradition is alien to Labour’s fundamental aim of control and coercion, driven by intense self-loathing, Wessex has never voted for a Labour government. Labour, having endorsed the destruction of its old power base in industrial working-class communities, now seeks to build itself a new one. It sees it arising principally through the promotion of mass immigration – way beyond what our environment can accommodate – and through allying itself with the equally puritanical creed of political Islamism.

The results in Northumbria and Mercia are there for all to see: the rise of Labour’s new puppet-masters among immigrant power-brokers, increased political corruption and shameless ballot-rigging, coupled with a growing BNP backlash against the diversion of resources from public services into po-faced parasitism. Sadly for us, the results also include an increasing element of ‘white flight’ as parents who don’t want their children’s education blighted by the School of Babel, or worse to befall them, up sticks and head south and west. If we would save our future food supply from being concreted over, then, until we can regain control of our own lives in Wessex, we must take note of these pressures and publicise them to all who will listen.

No doubt on the far Right there are those who are making longer-term plans. Plans that see Wessex as some ‘national redoubt’ into which a new Alfred will gather what remains of Christianity and the English nation and inspire the reconquest of the Sharialaw. In percentage terms, the South West has the smallest Mahometan population of all the Prescott zones, so it is easy to draw the historical parallels. And a stroll round any of our Somerset coastal towns will reveal as many Mercian accents as native Wessex. Many more will follow; Labour’s plans for the best part of a million new homes in Wessex are not intended to meet our housing needs but the needs of the ‘white flighters’. If we are not to fall prey to others’ visions for us then we must be clear in articulating a vision of our own.

There can only be one law of the land, though infinite scope for voluntary arbitration. The land can be any size but all who inhabit it do so out of choice and are free to leave if its laws displease them (taking their own territory with them if need be). There can be no place for the costly language of ‘community cohesion’: the erosion of majority rights to appease immigrants who have suddenly discovered dissatisfactions they never knew they had. Any who feel alienated from our society must ask themselves whether their alienation is self-inflicted and, if so, the remedy is in their hands, not ours. Finally, if we are to seek an inclusive society, the terms of inclusion must not be so negotiable that we ourselves end up on the outside looking in.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More is Less

Just before Christmas, Labour issued a draft of its new statement of planning policy on what it laughably terms ‘sustainable economic development’. It turns out to be no less than a manifesto for sacrificing our quality of life on the altar of globalisation.

Buried within it is a proposal that henceforth housebuilding should be considered as a form of economic development. So Labour’s demonisation of the environment continues. Those who ask awkward questions about population growth – and how to look after a population already two or three times its optimum – are now to be branded as the enemies of prosperity itself.

Of course, in many ways we get the government – and the planning policies – we deserve. Housing has morphed subtly over the past 30 years from a means of shelter – a matter of social need – into a means of investment – a matter of economic greed. The complaint today is not that people are homeless but that they cannot get onto the property ladder. And the answer to the complaint is not to abuse the baby boomer generation for pulling up the ladder behind them (which they’ve done in so many ways, student grants being the prime example). Nor is it to convert ever more fields and woods into bricks and mortar. It’s to tackle the issues of vacant and second homes into which money has been poured on the basis that there’s nothing as safe as houses. It’s also to question why immigration continues unchecked, since immigrants don’t bring their homes with them.

Cynics – and they’re often right these days – will see Labour’s plan as being to stay in power for ever on the votes of grateful immigrants. And besides, just where would a champagne socialist be without the illegal nanny? But if we take Labour’s best shot at face value then we need to scrutinise the shrill claim that more people, more growth, more of everything, good and bad, is the outcome that everyone with a brain must welcome.

Standard of living and quality of life are not necessarily compatible. We should always be wary of equating well-being with prosperity as measured by the economists. That’s because what they measure as the national wealth – Gross Domestic Product – is simply the sum of goods and services produced on the national territory for sale to others. It measures ‘exchange value’ – economic busyness – not ‘use value’. So if we all grew our own vegetables instead of buying them in the shops, GDP would fall.

Some ‘goods’ are actually ‘bads’. A crime wave is excellent news for the economy. More insurance policies are sold, and premiums go up. More locks and burglar alarms are bought, and more security guards employed. It all counts towards GDP. And so does war, an opportunity to use up all that stockpiled military equipment and order anew. Treating avoidable diseases and injuries, cleaning up pollution, and the whole nonsense of planned obsolescence are all ‘wealth-creating’ activities. None of this should come as a surprise. James Robertson, a man whose career spanned the heights of public and private sectors, exposed it all in a book called The Sane Alternative back in 1983. But we just love to go on being conned.

The deepest trap into which we fall is to believe that a growing economy must be good for us, and not just for the super-rich (the 400 people whose earnings now top £10 million per year). So let’s cram in 30 million more workers because the national wealth will double. It might. But the wealth per head will not. Every new worker brings extra demands on public services and infrastructure. Traffic congestion. Water shortages. Astronomical house prices. Longer waiting lists for everything. And looming over all, the elephant in the room, the question of where all the food and fuel will come from when the oil runs dry.

The Economic & Social Research Council has published Britain in 2008, a ‘state of the nation’ report filled with fascinating facts and figures. It tells us that the UK is the world’s 6th largest economy, measured by total GDP. But in terms of GDP per head it comes a lowly 13th. The United States and Canada are ahead of us, but they're the only large countries in the top 12. The little Gulf state of Qatar comes in 9th place and all the others are small European countries. In reverse order: Finland, Austria, Denmark, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, oil-rich Norway, Ireland and, top of the league, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy, with a population the size of Cornwall, has a GDP per head figure that is 2.3 times that of the UK. The combined populations of Luxembourg, Iceland and Norway come to much less than that of Wessex, which is also more populous than either Finland, Denmark, Switzerland or Ireland. Austria and Sweden have slightly larger populations but are in much the same league. Who ever said that big is beautiful?

And who ever said that money can buy happiness? There is generally a positive relationship between income and reported satisfaction with life. But the level of satisfaction is lower in the UK than in Sweden, Belgium and Finland, which have similar levels of income. The highest levels of reported satisfaction are in Denmark, then Ireland and Austria. The average level of satisfaction in the UK is lower today than it was 20 years ago, in spite of higher incomes.

Now, let us consider a third variable: population density. The UK is the 51st most densely populated country on the planet. It’s more densely populated even than China, which comes in at 74th. But where are those countries we have seen earlier as models of prosperity and/or well-being? The Netherlands is 25th, Belgium is 31st (ahead of India at 33rd) but the rest are trailing: Luxembourg (62nd), Switzerland (64th), Denmark (82nd), Austria (104th), then Ireland (141st), Sweden (194th), Finland (200th), Norway (213th) and Iceland (232nd). So, of Europe’s top 5 countries by GDP per head, all have lower population densities than the UK, the two Scandinavian ones by a considerable margin. The three happiest countries too tell the same story.

Wessex has, or rather had, as growth has been rapid since the last census in 2001, a population density of 260 persons per square kilometre. If Wessex were an independent state, it would rank 48th in the world. That is to say, its place is not held down, as the UK’s is, by the empty mountains of Scotland, Wales and the north of England but only by pockets of wilderness in a rising tide of urbanisation. Since the planet’s overall density is 45 persons per square kilometre, Wessex is nearly six times as dense as the global average.

Rising population means rising stress. It means less countryside, and more fraught access to it as Green Belt disappears and roads fill up. It means a shallower experience when we get there, as beauty spots become crowded and tranquillity shrinks and fragments. It means more pressure on the use of land, so higher land and house prices. Already we have the smallest new homes in Europe (and that is not because a wicked planning system is preventing builders from doing good but because a tiny band of far-seeing folk are doing their best to prevent the destruction of our future food supply). And stress is not the only risk that increases. If Labour’s plans are forced through despite the pleas of the sane, many thousands of homes will be built on floodplains, there being no more suitable land left.

The alternative is obvious. Happiness is fewer of us, organised in smaller political units where the environment is what we live in, not what we sell from under our feet to whoever waves the biggest chequebook.