Monday, October 26, 2009

Mortgaging Democracy

“Will the Tamar Bridge be sold?” That was the question posed by the Western Morning News earlier this month. And not just the bridge. Torquay’s Torre Abbey was mentioned too, though in both cases the relevant local councils denied any sale plans.

Gordon Brown’s announcement that he plans to sell off our public assets was, the paper told us, treated with derision by the councils. It went on to note that “while not able to directly force local authorities to sell their assets, fears have been voiced that the Government could slash the annual grant awarded to each council”, leaving them little option but to sell. While the report described such a move as “sinister”, the editorial went on to back the strategy. Well, it would. We’re talking about the Northcliffe press here, owners of the Daily Mail (the paper that backed the Blackshirts).

Sinister indeed. Which is why local communities in Wessex may well ask what the Government thinks it’s doing targeting local public services for cutbacks now that it’s spent all its money on bailing out the City of London. The real culprits in all of this are laughing literally all the way to the bank. Whether the public sector is a willing seller or an unwilling one, the deal only works if there’s a willing buyer. And there’s no shortage of them apparently. Financial institutions are always awash with money to buy whatever government offers for sale at knockdown prices. So where’s the banking crisis?

Or the budget crisis? There’s always money to fight needless wars, even if doled out so grudgingly that soldiers’ lives are even more needlessly put at risk. And Labour and the Tories are agreed that overseas aid should be protected – and increased. Not to put too fine a point on it, public services in this country are being cut so that those in other countries can be expanded. At our involuntary expense. King Alfred the Great famously sent alms to India in fulfilment of a vow taken when besieging the Danes in London. India today has no need of alms, having nuclear weapons, a space programme and even a foreign aid budget of its own. Yet need or no, it is one of the beneficiaries of our largesse.

Asset sales don’t make sense if you end up renting the asset back for ever and a day. They aren’t about keeping taxes down. They’re about keeping democracy down. Labour claims to be the party of modernisation, the party that refuses to let the present be controlled by the past. It would be truer to see it as the party that lets the present be controlled by the future, as debt slavery constrains the options of generations yet unborn.

For the Conservatives no less than for Labour, the idea of local authorities that own next to nothing is an attractive one. It’s their people who will benefit from the consultants’ reports, the legal fees, the management buy-outs. The issue for regionalists and other decentralists is that local assets, once sold, cannot be guaranteed to remain locally controlled. Bus services run from the Town Hall are answerable to the electorate of the town. Bus services run from a head office in Northumbria or Scotland are answerable to shareholders who may never have even heard of the place being served. The case for local or regional public ownership of the so-called ‘natural monopolies’ is partly about preventing the abuse of a dominant economic position for private profit. But these days it also forms a powerful component of opposition to globalisation, a strong pair of hands resisting the magnet of corporate concentration. No wonder the WTO makes privatisation its primary goal.

Councils that are nothing but bundles of contracts can’t see the point of vital democracy. No-one needs to hear the views of councillors any more because if they’re not in the small print already they can’t be made to count. (Poor service has to be tolerated until the contract is renewed.) If it’s not about debate but only about deals, the councillors are redundant. Step forward elected mayors to do the powerbroker thing, to talk tough with big business and big government. Elected mayors are not a sign of strong local democracy but the very opposite. They are what happens when a community signs its civic life away for a fistful of empty promises.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Organising Murder

"War is organised murder, and nothing else."
Harry Patch

And so the extraordinary life of Harry Patch, the last Tommy of the First World War, has ended at his home in Wells. His years as a centenarian were spent as an eloquent spokesman for the Lost Generation of 1914-18, imparting what he could of experiences beyond the comprehension of his listeners. There were no illusions: the war was "a family row", Remembrance Day "just show business".

The terrible irony is that as Patch’s past is laid to rest, so lives are still being lost in wars of choice. As the coffins pass through Wiltshire’s streets, Brown, Cameron & Co. conspire to whip up war fever, like music hall acts applauding ‘the soldiers of the Queen’. There is talk of ‘a 30-year haul’ in Afghanistan, in this, the 30th anniversary year of the Soviet invasion. The more soldiers die or are wounded, the greater the emotional investment at stake, the lesser the chance of a rational answer to the question, why?

The argument that blowing other countries apart protects us from terrorism is too silly for comment. And while the main party leaders drag us back to the days of Empire, when the Union flag was earning its nickname of ‘the Butcher’s Apron’, they might consider the record of all who have messed with Afghanistan before. The British lost the First Afghan War. They withdrew after the Second. And the Third, tactically a British victory, was strategically a lasting win for the Afghans. The Soviet Union too left humiliated, its whole empire imploding. Not the most encouraging set of precedents. On the first occasion, in 1842, Britain's expeditionary force was all but wiped out. Supposing himself the sole survivor, Dr William Brydon finally made it back to the gates of Jalalabad, he and his horse exhausted. The scene is depicted in Lady Butler’s great canvas, The Remnants of an Army, which hangs in the regimental museum of the Somersets at Taunton Castle.

The prospects of an oil pipeline from central Asia to the coast? Now that’s more like it. A far more convincing explanation of why lives are being laid down for ‘freedom’. Such is the curse geology has laid throughout the Mahometan lands. And as the oil runs out, so instability will worsen. Still more lives will be lost or shattered until we embrace the principle of economic subsidiarity: that nothing should be produced further away from the user than is absolutely necessary. The key to peace does not lie in a global economy micro-managed by totalitarian liberals but in living within environmental limits, regionally and locally. We can have prosperity without growth. But we cannot have growth without conflict.

Meanwhile Brown, Cameron and the rest of them responsible for organising murder in the 21st century must stand trial for their crimes.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Danger: Electricity

It might seem churlish to complain that Gordon Brown has committed the necessary millions to electrify the Great Western main line from Bristol to London. After all, enough money has been spent on other parts of England, and beyond. But complain we do.

Our demand, for the past 30 years, has been for a Wessex-oriented transport system to link our principal cities without having to depend largely on routes directed towards London. An electrified Great Western is certainly not that. A glance at the Government’s map shows that electric trains will run from Paddington to Bristol and on to Swansea (amazing what a Welsh Assembly can achieve), with short stubs branching off to Newbury and to Oxford (how nice for the commuters and the dons). Trains from Plymouth to Bristol and Reading will remain diesel-hauled (but as the locals aren’t bankers and don’t as a rule vote Labour, no-one is going to care). Well, we do care. We care that our money is going into a scheme that is all about sucking the life out of ‘the provinces’ even faster. Why, in a sane, regionalised economy, would anyone want to go to London, the great casino that oversees our so-called wealth? If investment in spine rail routes is needed, why not Plymouth to Paddington or Exeter to Waterloo? Instead of which, an environmentally devastating dualling of the A303 trunk road is now made all the more likely so that Cornwall may compete with Wales.

Electrification too carries an environmental cost, green though its credentials can indeed be if the right renewable sources provide the power. Brunel’s railway is a masterpiece of design, so much so that the UK Government placed it on the tentative list of nominations to UNESCO for World Heritage status. Electrification will change the experiences that are Maidenhead Bridge, Sonning Cutting and Box Tunnel. Unavoidable change can be an opportunity for panache complementing Brunel’s own, and where this is so there need be no net loss. But British electrification schemes are not going to win design awards. In Sweden the supports for the overhead wires have been coloured green, so they blend in; ours are exposed, grey metal. Works of art they are not. So when the accountants’ butchery is complete, we may ask, what will be left of the line to meet UNESCO’s tests of 'authenticity' and 'integrity'? Wessex tourism will lose out on yet another huge potential resource.

We are emphatically a pro-rail party, and for many sound reasons. Peak oil is the one that looms ever larger but there are other environmental and social gains along the way. Using rail investment to increase, rather than decrease our dependency on London is entirely the wrong priority. It won’t do for politicians to say that they’re ‘investing in success’ when they use public money to bolster a competitive advantage that London has built largely from previous injections of public money and the presence of the government of a unitary state and global empire. Getting a faster train to Paddington cannot be more important than getting one at all to Portishead. The list of Wessex towns now without stations is ridiculously long: Abingdon, Bideford, Blandford Forum, Bridport, Cheddar, Cirencester, Devizes, Dursley, Glastonbury, Gosport, Ilfracombe, Lyme Regis, Marlborough, Midsomer Norton/Radstock, Ringwood, Shepton Mallet, Sidmouth, Tavistock, Tiverton, Wantage, Wells and Wimborne are just a few. And then there are metro systems to be built for the Bristol and south Hampshire conurbations. Better rail connections for those who have them are bitter rail connections for those who don’t. The Government’s view – that it’s for local and regional interests to raise their own funding if they wish to supplement national priorities – should lead us to ask why national priorities are so heavily distorted in the first place and what we must do to alter them.

Technology is developing fast. The Parry People Mover is an electric rail vehicle using flywheel energy storage, recharging at stations, with no need for a continuous overhead or third-rail supply. Let’s concentrate for the foreseeable future on the basics, rigorously safeguarding abandoned trackbed and buildings. From there we can move forward to re-open those iconic lines like the Somerset & Dorset forming part of a sustainable transport system for the whole of Wessex, not just the favoured parts. The Scottish Parliament is busy re-opening 35 miles of the Waverley line south of Edinburgh, so let no-one tell you it’s a nice idea but it’ll never happen. It’ll happen alright, just as soon as Wessex has a Parliament too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Axeman Cometh

Political discourse in the Disunited Kingdom is now turning to public spending cuts. Brown continues to tell us that capital investment is his priority, as if new schools, hospitals and the rest are of any lasting use without the right professionals to staff them. Cameron promises us ‘an age of austerity’, relieved only by tax cuts for his chums. Given New Labour’s mismanagement of the economy, there are, it seems, now plenty of turkeys willing to vote for a Cameronian Christmas Carol.

Our view is that the ideology of public versus private is less important than what the money is spent on and whether that raises or lowers our quality of life here in Wessex. The priorities of a Wessex Parliament could be – and should be – very different from Westminster’s. There is a plethora of politically correct initiatives we’d never miss if the axe fell on them, including the literally tens of billions of pounds of spending on foreign intervention, military and civil. The ever-imperial Tories have no plans to scale back on that, missing no opportunity to impose their culture of nastiness upon the world’s most vulnerable folk like some anti-social disease.

Some matters will, as ever, be glossed over in the spending review. English nationalists will once again wave the skeleton of the Barnett formula in a bid to scare us, though nothing will change. (Add in the figures the formula excludes and it looks much more likely that Scotland subsidises England, not the other way round.) No-one outside the Wessex Regionalists will take apart the figures for England itself to show how London benefits at our expense. In 2007/08, budgeted ‘identifiable public expenditure’ on London was 117% of the UK average; in the ‘South West’ zone, it was 89% and in the ‘South East’ a mere 84%. London received much more per head than any other part of England, more than Wales and almost as much as Scotland. When English nationalists tell us the Celts get a better deal than the English, a lot hinges on which English you mean.

One of the areas rumoured to be up for the chop could be free admission to museums and galleries. To be accurate, ‘national’ museums and galleries, almost all of which are in London, with a few now also to be found in Northumbria. Wessex has the Science Museum store at Wroughton, near Swindon. And what else? Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is, on the face of it, a national museum. HMS Victory is still officially part of the Royal Navy. Yet admission charges apply. If free museum entry is a good idea – arguably so – then ‘our’ Government should pay for all ‘our’ museums to open free, not those it chooses, overwhelmingly in London. And it if can’t do that, then let the Greater London Authority meet the deficit there, not the long-suffering folk of Wessex.

Just why do we subsidise London, in so many ways, like serfs watching their crops trundle off to their feudal superior’s castle? And what do we get back? Wessex needs its own Parliament, in control of its own money, making its own decisions. With most, if not all, ‘MWPs’ living within commuting distance of the Parliament building – wherever located in our region – we could then at the very least curb the excesses of flipped second homes, to the relief of the Wessex taxpayer. Geography dictates that that is something no British or English Parliament can ever achieve: Britain and England alike are impractically big to govern from a single point purportedly convenient to all. So instead of Westminster and Whitehall deciding where the cuts should fall, how about them now placing their own fat necks upon the block?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cornwall Points the Way

Among all the commentary from the London media about the results from the 4 June elections, it is possible that a few facts about Cornwall may have escaped widespread notice.

In the Euro election, Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall took 7% of the vote across the Cornwall counting area. In many parts of mid and west Cornwall its share was reported to have been over 10%. MK came fifth in Cornwall, beating the now despised Labour Party into an ignominious sixth place.

Polling day also saw three MK candidates elected to the new Cornwall Council unitary authority. MK had no representation on the old County Council but did have nine district councillors, all of whom lost their seats through the reorganisation. Dr Loveday Jenkin, previously the portfolio holder for Leisure, Arts & Culture on Kerrier District Council, failed to get onto the new authority after her home parish of Crowan was split in two by the Boundary Committee charged with drawing up the new electoral divisions. The three successful MK candidates include Party Leader Dick Cole, formerly a Cornwall County Council employee, who gave up his job, taking a big cut in income, in order to be allowed to stand. The electors of St Enoder rewarded him with 78% of the vote, the biggest mandate of any of the 123 Cornwall Council members. The Labour Party, after 12 years of contempt for Cornish aspirations to self-government, failed to win a single seat. The last few decent human beings left in that party must now surely be starting to look for a new political home.

The Euro results were also disappointing for the English Democrats, who do not recognise Cornwall as a nation. They came tenth in Cornwall, with only one-sixth of the MK vote. Across the ‘South West’ zone as a whole they did rather better, polling 1.6% of the total, compared with 1.0% for MK, but with ten times the population to which to appeal the margin should have been much greater. In fact the EngDems in the ‘South West’ did poorly in comparison with England generally. After London, this was their worst result in terms of share of the vote. Which suggests that Wessex folk are wary of a party that wants to impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ English Parliament upon us.

The lessons for Wessex run wide and deep.

The first is in minding our own business. Cornish nationalism is now an established fact, the cultural posturing having broken through at last into real political clout. A firm line should now be drawn under those delusional claims that Cornwall ‘will want to come in with us’, that ‘it’s not viable’, ‘it doesn’t fit a rational pattern of English regions’, or that ‘the Cornish thing is purely cultural; if we promise to support the language, they’ll be happy to be part of Wessex’. Cornwall has never been an integral part of Wessex, having always maintained its distinctive character and it’s not just flogging a dead horse to suggest otherwise. The Cornish are our neighbours and can be our friends and our allies. Wessex has enough enemies without adding Cornwall to the list.

The second is a lesson in patience. MK was founded in 1951. It has journeyed over rocky roads to reach its present position. In the 1980’s, its General Secretary defected to the Social Democrats (though came back again, empty-handed) and a hardline Marxist cabal made it unelectable. It isn’t unelectable now. The Wessex Regionalists are relative newcomers, constituted as a party in 1981. But we can be confident that the tide of history will be turning our way too before very long.

The third lesson is that challenging the consensus works. MK is not middle-of-the-road. It describes itself as a modern and progressive political party, a party of principle, campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable world. After 30 years of Thatcherism, ceaseless centralisation of power within England and across Europe, unregulated free markets gone mad and a culture of greed and growth engrained everywhere, it’s time for alternative politics to make its move.

Finally, MK is succeeding because others before it have failed. A wide-ranging cultural movement has rekindled the flame of Cornish identity, yet as confidence in that identity has grown, so real control by the Cornish over Cornwall has continued to diminish. Government initiatives to help its economy are not even run from within Cornwall. Non-party action has failed to dent the Whitehall armour: a 50,000-signature petition in favour of a Cornish assembly was simply dismissed for nonconformity with the New Labour project. It is likely that Wessex will have to go through a similar process of maturation, realising that the cultural groundwork may make us angry about what is happening but it will not on its own enable us to get even. Faith in the goodwill of the London-based parties needs to wear away completely before folk turn to the only conclusion valid in the long-term. That only we, ourselves, can right the wrongs that afflict our region. The Wessex Regionalist Party is here to welcome each and every one as they reach that resolution.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hippies in Denial

This time last month (30 May), there was a gathering at Glastonbury Town Hall to discuss the town’s ‘transition’ to a post-oil world. It began with a talk from a leading light in Transition Town Totnes (TTT), the pioneers of transition thinking in the UK. Sadly, amidst all the joyful envisioning of local self-sufficiency, there did seem to be a few basics missing. It was like the 1960’s all over again, a fantasy world where everything is possible. In truth, in the future, everything will not be possible and hard choices will be needed.

We were told to expect millions of ‘climate refugees’ and make plans to welcome them to our communities. It seemed not to have dawned on anyone that, since a post-oil economy will not support more than a fraction of our current population, we should most certainly not be trying to add to it. Among the key characteristics of the future brainstormed in workshops was the hope that this would be a world of ‘happy, smiling people’. From time to time they might well be that, if instructed to be. Just not while they’re busy killing each other for possession of productive land and its outputs.

TTT’s website carries Buckminster Fuller’s famous words, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s partly true. It’s how successful nationalist groups have dismantled the empires from which they have struggled to free themselves. You defeat the enemy by systematically disregarding its authority. But those who make it sound all that simple are in for a shock.

Transition towns will find that when Tesco want to build in their midst, or there’s a new trunk road coming up the valley, the answer doesn’t lie in digging the allotment. Gandhi won because he was fighting the British. Gandhi versus Hitler or Stalin would have had a very different outcome. The planning system today is owned by the likes of Tesco and the Highways Agency. With every passing day, Labour makes it more so. The Tories’ only cavil is that the supermarkets and the motorways aren’t being built fast enough.

Local action, however twee, is not going to make the difference it needs to make until there is a region-wide reaction against Westminster diktat. A Wessex Parliament will do what local initiatives cannot. It will ensure that the price structures are in place to help local producers compete fairly. It will rebuild the region’s rural railways, renewably-run, to enable communities to exchange goods of the highest quality. It will protect productive land from crazed housebuilders by establishing an optimum population level and sticking to it. It will redefine the housing market to ensure that local people are not squeezed out as a result. It will counter any wider power that fails to place Wessex interests first. In short, it will work for our communities and not against them.

Or… we can go on kidding ourselves that acting locally is enough, that Westminster is full of thoroughly decent chaps and chapesses, that Whitehall too really is on our side, and that if all this isn’t so then there must be some absolutely sound reason for it that we’re just too dense to grasp. More flowers anyone?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Note from Abruzzo

Guest contribution by Colin Bex, Wessex Regionalists' London Bureau

Staying near a village in Casoli, some eighty miles south-west of L'Aquila, I awoke at 3.30am on Monday 6 April, but was unaware of any particular reason other than as part of an irritating cycle of broken sleep to which have become accustomed for some time now.

Neighbours say they did feel a tremor at the time, and some English people a few miles away, said their cat jumped in through the window at the time although they also were not aware of anything unusual. This it appears forms part of the quarter of grade II 'seismic' territory which was not affected – this time anyway........!

Well now we know the extent of the death, injury and deracination, in addition to something of the building fabric damaged - reportedly 205 dead, several thousand homeless, 40,000 evacuated - not only failure and collapse of traditional masonry construction in churches and houses, but also of modern reinforced concrete structures including a school, a hospital, a student hostel and a road-bridge.

Buildings in some 84 Abruzze towns and cities are reported as having suffered damage of some kind - much of it to historic buildings of national importance. This gives some idea of the magnitude of this seismic disaster affecting nearly three-quarters of the region.

It seems that timber rather than masonry construction fares well in such circumstances, however, from what I have understood in the regional papers here (Il Tempo, Il Messaggiero and Il Centro), the Richter force of the 'terramoto' was 5.8 and one estimate of its effect is that L' Aquila has moved 15cm.

Incidentally, geologist and seismic specialist Antonio Moretti has been publicly condemned by establishment politicians here for warning on radio that on the evidence, within the next ten years another likely candidate could be Sulmona - a fine city I visited last year high up in the mountains with a splendid statue of Ovid in one of its squares.

At the very least it is ironic that this particular seismic event should have struck when the impact of its psychological, emotional and logistical effects were to be most greatly felt – springtime at Easter when religious, atheist and heathen alike expect to be able to sense relief from the rigors of winter and to experience hope from the new cycle of life.

On Good Friday, I attended part of one of the region-wide candle-lit religious processions held in sympathy of which two took place on successive evenings in Lanciano.

The turnout was impressive – probably several thousand people comprising four generations of families from babies to great grand-parents who lined the streets waiting patiently for the pallbearers to pass by. Also, I was deeply saddened to reflect on the passion and immeasurable suffering of the bereaved, so powerfully portrayed at the numerous public funeral gatherings held also in cities, towns and villages throughout Abruzzo on Easter Saturday.

Not surprisingly, at L'Aquila itself it is reported 5,000 people attended the funeral service for the 205 who died.

'Per Sempre Insieme, Dolore in tutto Paese, inno di speranza dalla Via Crucis del Papa' - so ran Il Messaggero's headline: 'For all together, Sadness throughout the country, hymn of hope through the Way of the Cross by the Pope'.

Laid out in seried ranks, flower-bedecked coffins provided copy for the press and the focus for the Requiem in L'Aquila's main square, but it was the substantially pervading silence of this grieving assembly, not the Papa's nor his cardinal's words, which testified more eloquently to the profundity of dismay which bound those present in an exemplary gathering of regional unity.

In my role as co-ordinator for external affairs for the Wessex Regionalists, the incident has been an object-lesson in the emergent power of latent cohesion of a regional people when confronted by the consequences of a natural event within a seismic zone.

Albeit purloined as part of a centralist Republic, how the Abruzzese survivors may be coping with the additional impact from the man-made financial fiasco, requires more research.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Never Ever Land

Thomas Hardy, in 1912, wrote of Wessex as “a partly real, partly dream-country” that “has become more and more popular as a practical provincial definition”; “the dream country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from”. Hardy disapproved, which is just as well, since it shows Wessex to be something bigger and more democratic than one man’s fancy would allow.

The language of tourism marketing speaks often of a 'dream holiday', so where is the 'dream country' in the brochures and on the posters? Nowhere to be seen. The Prescott zones, imposed for reasons of administrative convenience, have been harnessed to the task of pulling in the tourists. And are unfit for purpose.

In 2002 the Wessex Tourism Association stated that “Wessex is a name that is widely known and one that conjures up strong positive images. It is used by companies and organisations in many fields.” The research report underpinning its work, Wessex – building a heritage destination, noted:

“Wessex is widely used within Britain and abroad as a brand name for promoting products and services. As is evident from a glance in phone directories, it is very widely used within Wessex itself. Yet it is little used for promoting travel… to succeed overseas, the area needs an identity, a brand of its own. It needs to make itself a destination that is known widely, as widely, for instance, as the Lake District or Cornwall… Based on the responses, it does seem that the industry agrees that Wessex can be marketed and that this needs to be done to help seasonality and business levels. There is, however, concern that efforts to market Wessex could prove difficult, unless co-operation throughout the region was better.”
Among the key weaknesses to be addressed the report identified the following:
  • The number of overseas visitors is below the UK average and well below what the attractions of Wessex suggest should be achievable.
  • The South West region’s image and promotion is that of a seaside holiday destination for the domestic market.
  • Tourism development is hampered by boundary divisions and under-funding.
None of these should come as a surprise to Wessex Regionalists. The tourism market is becoming more sophisticated. A distinctive brand – such as Wessex – is essential to success in that market.

Last night, ITV’s The West Country at Westminster turned its attention to tourism. It reported that South West Tourism receives much less Government funding than its counterpart in Yorkshire: just £1.5 million a year as against £10 million. Poor old ‘South West’, punished for not voting Labour.

That was the story’s high water mark. After that, it unravelled spectacularly. It turned out that the Government money was money channelled through the Regional Devastation Agencies and that in Yorkshire it went to just one body, in ‘the South West’ to several, South West Tourism being just one beneficiary. So its protests started to seem a trifle peevish.

A panel of MPs was convened and quizzed. Andrew George from St Ives, a Liberal Democrat with an eye to the Cornish nationalist vote, took the view that Cornwall had its own strong brand, with ‘the South West’ adding nothing and in fact getting in the way. Mark Harper from the Forest of Dean banged the drum for English nationalism and ignored altogether the competition that exists for the domestic market. It was a brilliant performance, illustrating just what a menace the Tories will be if ever returned to power, determined to ignore regional realities in politics, economics and culture.

Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for ‘the South West’, was left to explain why ‘the South West’ makes sense as a tourism region. He didn’t bother. Yet if ‘the South West’ cannot be defended, why prolong its misery? South West Tourism’s problems are not just financial; in Andrew George’s words, 'If the product isn’t right, no amount of marketing will save it'. Yorkshire is a unique place and readily marketable as such. ‘The South West’ could be anywhere on the planet. We want to see it give way to Wessex, as much for economic reasons as for any other.

Mr Bradshaw was in the news earlier this week too, when he told councillors in ‘the South West’ that they should face down opponents of Labour’s housebuilding plans. That’s right: ignore the people who voted them into office and dance to the thugs’ tune. One reader told the Bristol Evening Post: “Go back to Westminster, Mr Bradshaw, and tell the Government the people of the South West say no.” Quite so, we say, and take your ‘South West’ with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elected Mayors – An Afterword

It’s been an interesting week for local democracy. Last Wednesday, Doncaster’s elected mayor, Martin Winter, was seen doing his best to avoid giving an interview to BBC2’s Newsnight. Then on Friday the elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. Stoke is the city that has already voted to scrap its directly elected mayor and go back to the older, more broadly based form of local governance.

We must, of course, presume Mr Meredith to be innocent, but the thing about justice, famously, is that it must not only be done but be seen to be done. How much easier that would be if all municipal decisions came before open meetings, to be voted upon by all councillors, and not as now, taken secretly by the chosen few or just by Il Duce himself.

The gist of Newsnight’s report was that Doncaster folk are fed up with their mayor. The Council has passed two motions of no confidence in him but he refuses to go. His successes were said to be a number of big urban property deals, his failures the core services, especially to the outlying villages, that are basically the reason residents pay their council tax.

It all provides interesting background to the Tories’ proposals for elected mayors contained in their Green Paper, Control Shift. The benefit of an elected mayor, they say, is the ability to “enhance the prestige” of a city. Code for “smooth the path of property developers”? Is this an aim to be pursued at the expense of getting the basics right? The social workers well-managed, the potholes filled, the schools teaching soundly? It’s these issues that ward councillors deal with in their surgeries and they expect to see action taken. No chance then, if the mayor won’t go when it’s clear he’s outstayed his welcome.

The Tories, instead of respecting local democracy, want to force major cities, including Bristol, to hold a referendum on moving to a mayoral system, with a presumption in favour of change. Who pays for this expense? Do the Tories not know that if enough local folk – just 5% – want an elected mayor they can force a referendum already?

Of course they do. But where Labour leads, the Tories now follow. And that is towards a ‘managed democracy’ where we are asked loaded questions, about a filtered list of issues, within biased voting arrangements. The Swiss wouldn’t take it. They have direct democracy by referendum on issues raised by the public taking the initiative. And so should we.

Labour’s desperation shows in a document out for consultation until the end of this week. It aims to make it easier to get local governance structures changed, and harder to get them changed back again when, sure enough, they don’t work and folk are fed up with that fact. Wessex Regionalists are sick of Whitehall-knows-best, sick of being told what decisions are safe for us to make and which aren’t. And sick of the collusion between the London parties to keep the whole interfering nonsense chugging along.

By the way, happy birthday to the Earl. The Wessex Wyvern is flying over the Town Council offices in Weston-super-Mare to mark his festivities. Let this be the year he starts to earn his title and stops pretending there’s no such place as Wessex.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The People’s Ponzi

We’ve been hearing quite a lot recently about Ponzi schemes, as the financial chickens come home to roost. A Ponzi scheme is an investment scam that promises investors a high rate of return but in fact is paying earlier entrants out of the money collected from later entrants. Eventually, for whatever reason, the scheme will be unable to go on expanding, at which point the game is up.

The United Kingdom has an ageing population, with Wessex, as the centre of the retirement industry, having a particular interest in the matter. Three out of the five ‘most aged’ local authority areas are in Wessex and the statistics reveal something of a ‘retirement belt’ stretching across the south of our region from Exmoor to the Isle of Wight and beyond.

It is generally asserted that immigration is needed to sustain a working age population capable of supporting this mass of greybeards. The problem is, of course, that everyone who survives long enough gets old, and immigrants are no exception. The population equivalent of a Ponzi scheme is the belief that you can deal with the economic consequences of ageing simply by having an ever-expanding population. The reality is that this is simply not sustainable in environmental terms. Once ecological capacity is exhausted, the result is collapse. To maintain the ratio of 15-64 year-olds at its current level, the UK population would need to rise from about 61 million today to 136 million by 2050. Pro rata, the figures for Wessex would see a rise from about 8 million to over 18 million. Bristol, for example, would need to become a city of over a million folk.

The available data suggests an almost totally misplaced concern about ageing, and that concern needs to be refocused elsewhere. The UK spends about 6.2% of GDP on State pensions, rising to 8.5% by 2050. But if the retirement age were to be raised proportionately in line with life expectancy, the rise is only to 7.75%. So a third of the problem simply disappears.

Low population growth actually brings massive economic, social and environmental benefits. Productive work can be aimed at improving the quality of life, instead of building ever more infrastructure and housing. Less money spent on rearing children and on education means more to spend on pensions. In the UK 43% of young folk go into higher education and can be dependents well into their twenties. Young folk are also disproportionately reflected in crime and unemployment statistics. Conversely, many retired folk remain active in developing the social capital of their communities, giving time to voluntary organisations, in effect free labour that might otherwise have to be paid for. In 2007/08 the UK spent £76 billion of public money on support costs for young folk, compared to £71.5 billion supporting the over-65s. Financial assistance is given down the generations – not up – on average until the age of 75.

Smaller families can mean that folk inherit more housing capital: two children each inherit half the parental home, three children only inherit a third. The potential importance of housing equity – which can be freed up to part-fund consumption in retirement – is huge. The value of housing assets in the UK, even after mortgage debt, is considerably larger than all pension funds combined. (How much of this money really exists is, of course, another matter!)

Economist Phil Mullan, author of The Imaginary Time Bomb, has suggested that the obsession with a looming pensions deficit has less to do with demographic fact and more to do with a political agenda to cut back the welfare state. Countries with much older age structures have out-performed those with younger ones, while a report for the Institute of Public Policy Research confirmed that “there is little correlation between ageing and increased health care costs”.

In short, the way we relieve the ‘burden’ of an ageing population is that we draw upon the money that would otherwise have been spent on the extra housing, schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure needed to accommodate population growth. Energy infrastructure is one very significant part of that package. So too are the additional costs of growing a population through immigration, such as translation costs, along with those that stem from inter-communal tension and divided loyalties.

The alternative to population restraint is a planet confronting unsustainable trends, where each new child will likely produce more than 20 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year and where civilisation everywhere is in imminent peril as a result.

If we go on building, we are sure to find ourselves living in a house of cards, miserably waiting for the wind to blow.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hands Off Our History!

On Monday a letter appeared in the Bristol Evening Post advocating a radical overhaul of local government in Wessex, linking this with the name of our Party. The proposal was to sweep away both districts and counties in favour of Jacobin-style ‘cantons’:

“the Canton of Oxford would include much of Berkshire, parts of Buckinghamshire and parts of Wiltshire. Kingswood and Long Ashton would come into the Canton of Bristol...”

Needless to say, the truth is that these views are not those of the Wessex Regionalists, a party that values our heritage most highly. We oppose the Prescott zones of ‘The South West’ and ‘The South East’ precisely because they are soulless, a dull denial of the richness that life in an old country offers. Wessex suffers economically, socially and environmentally because its identity lacks institutional, democratic expression. It is not animated by power, nor is power over the region reined-in by a deep sense of civic duty to it. It would be the height of caprice were we to take the very opposite view of local government. Anyone who has examined the evidence will see that where historic shires cease to be the focus of political power they wither away, largely because map-makers and the media then cease to make use of them. If we want our shires to live on, then we must use them.

And live on they must. We need to nail the lie that county government is an invention of the Victorians. Their achievement was to democratise what was already over a thousand years old. When the new unitary ‘Wiltshire Council’ comes into being it will be as the successor to Wiltshire County Council, which in 1889 took over the administrative powers of the county justices sitting in quarter sessions, themselves the successors to the mediaeval sheriff’s court. And so on back to Alfred and Ine. It was in Wessex that the first shires were created, around 1,300 years ago. Nowhere in the world can claim such a pattern of continuity. English county government is part of humanity’s common heritage, no less precious in its own way than the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China.

To attack this heritage as so many ‘relics’ or ‘fossils’ is empty cant. The antiquity of the counties is actually neutral as a fact. It is the interpretation placed on their survival that is crucial. To the ideological moderniser, it is self-evidently time to sweep them away. To other minds, their very resilience points to something worth a closer look. If the counties have already survived a millennium of social upheaval and technological change it is important to understand their strengths and at least to demand the proof that radical change is now, suddenly, justified. The ‘experts’ have their own agenda and their claims should never be taken at face value.

The metaphor of ‘sweeping away’ is always revealing, because it suggests something unhygienic about the status quo, something untidy, something that gets in the way of doing some other, unstated thing. It is no accident that demands for the reorganisation of local government on the lines of ‘city-regions’ or ‘metropolitan areas’ emerge at times of development stress. One such period was the late Sixties, when so much of our heritage was ‘swept away’ unthinkingly, leaving us to regret its loss at our leisure, bewailing the short-lived bag of beans we received in return. ‘City-regions’ are always a developer’s charter because they place the land around cities under the political control of city-based authorities, allowing the destruction of the countryside to accelerate. They are singularly inappropriate in Wessex. We are a rural region where cities know their place. And it is not lording it over the rest of us.

Like counties, cities, as we have known them, are under attack. Both major parties are enthusiastic about elected mayors. We are not. Our aim is a widening of local democracy, not its contraction, and Mafia-style ‘boss’ politics is no part of our vision. Democratic debate and voting in open meetings should not give way to dodgy deals in the privacy of the mayor’s parlour. The eclipse of our once-vigorous civic life by new, secretive models borrowed from business is one of the great tragedies of our time and must be reversed if local democracy is to be renewed. Advocates of these ‘Mafia mayors’ tell us that the powers of local councils need to be concentrated if they are to be effective. That, it must be pointed out, is because there are now so few powers. The job of a local politician is no longer to help make decisions but to talk to other people, elsewhere, who wield the real power. That is why the ‘new Caesarism’ is rampant and folk have stupidly let it happen by voting for one or other of the London parties.

Hand-in-glove with the structural turmoil has gone a new vocabulary. Emblematic of this was the creation of ‘De-clog’, the Department for Communities and Local Government, currently headed up by Bleary Hazel. Its remit is to promote ‘community cohesion’. Since real communities cohere naturally – by definition – it is clear that the control freaks have been exceedingly busy on this one. First, destroy real, stable communities. Then create new, unstable ones by decree, like the Prescott zones or local city-regions. Then help yourself to a job for life using State coercion to hold them together.

Our solution is simply to put right the damage. Our Party’s policy is to restore traditional local government areas and status, including Berkshire County Council (abolished by the so-called Conservatives), the traditional county boundaries, and borough status to charter towns. Structures should be accountable for the use of their powers at the smallest practical level, with nothing done by a wider area that a more local area feels it can do for itself. We demand committees, not cabinets. We seek the formation of new, smaller districts, based on the old, ecologically-sound hundreds and run by parish delegates. We oppose area boards that deny voting rights for the communities being ‘done to’. We have a wonderful tradition of local self-government that is slipping through our fingers. It is time to seize it back, to make it truly local – and to ensure that it really is all about government and not the costly smoke-and-mirrors act we endure today.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Smaller World, Please

Think globally, act locally. The sentiment is sound but the first instruction requires a lot less effort than the second. A lot less effort, because successive centralist governments at Westminster have made the second instruction well nigh impossible to carry out.

Take the example of planning, where local discretion has now been all but abolished. When the 2004 ‘reforms’ were pushed through at the behest of the power of money, community groups naively fell in behind them. The package included a requirement that councils bind themselves to a ‘Statement of Community Involvement’. Community groups thought that Christmas had come early. At last, councils would be forced to do as they told them, and not as elected local politicians wished. The reality is – and always was – that this was a smokescreen behind which decisions were taken away from the locality altogether. Now unelected civil servants decide everything of any importance in the planning world and matters are getting progressively worse. The Campaign to Protect Rural England had the true measure of ‘community involvement’ all along. As their poster proclaimed, “Your new airport goes here. What colour would you like the fence?”

When Labour politicians – and the Tory ones are no better – speak of empowering communities, the rhetoric translates into reality with so many caveats as to be deeply deceitful. A new generation of environmental protestors is now coming to the fore, one that will not be content with sit-ins and stunts that simply delay the bulldozers by days. Westminster diktat may find itself met with a more resolute denial of authority and legitimacy. We should not be surprised to see big developers and their pocket decision-makers vilified very personally as the public enemies they clearly are. No moral individual could defend those who are busily wrecking Wessex in the name of a despotic Parliament whose right to rule is nothing but self-proclamation backed up with tanks. When road protestors set fire to the contractors’ plant, can we say that that was a crime? And that what that machinery was doing to our land was a lawful act, advancing truth, beauty and goodness? We shall have to think again very thoroughly about what we mean by the law. The only certainty is that Westminster has no claim to be making it.

One pressing reason why power needs to be radically decentralised is that the planet needs this. World government is not the answer to the world’s problems. Small is beautiful not because it allows good things to happen, although it does, but because it prevents big, bad things being allowed to happen. Those who have to live with the consequences don’t willingly foul their own nest.

So a philosophy that puts Wessex first is not one that denies our interdependence with the rest of the world. Quite the reverse. We seek to contribute to a sustainable, equitable world where the health, security and liberty of all is paramount, regardless of race or creed. But we do that from our own land, by showing solidarity, morally and economically, not by gung-ho intervention where we’re not wanted. Humanitarian aid – well-organised by charities – is best kept quite distinct from political meddling. ‘Foreign policy’ is a fancy term for not minding our own business. It could be a very attractive as well as unique selling point for the Wessex Regionalists to be the only party whose foreign policy is not to have one. Globalisation is on the defensive – protectionism is making a comeback – and internationalism is up for redefinition.

Watching the television news it is hard to resist the feeling that anywhere and everywhere matters except home. Recent events in Gaza were tragic. But did they justify top billing night after night after night after night after night after night after night? Let us examine why foreign news has such a fascination for broadcasters.

There are the superficial reasons. One is that foreign correspondents cost money. If you have them, you use them. Not using them would only get you into trouble with the accountants. Another is that editorial control is in the hands of a generation whose background leads them to embrace the foreign and despise the domestic. Hippies who spent the 60’s out east don’t care much what happens in Easton or Eastleigh. The Middle East is ‘cool’, whichever side you take. And so it’s assumed that everyone else would want to give it the same gravity.

But there is a deeper agenda. George Orwell’s proles and his ‘outer party’ won’t have spotted it but the ‘inner party’ will have thought it through carefully.

Firstly, for every foreign story that dominates the headlines there is a domestic story that has been spiked. So what is the bad news that this is a good day to bury? Corruption in high places? Another piece of repressive legislation waved through Westminster without the public’s knowledge? Revelations about a failed Government policy? The squandering of public money? Your guess is as good as mine.

Secondly, foreign news fosters a sense of powerlessness. Domestic news makes folk angry and there is plenty they can do about it. They can change the government. Even change the system. But foreign affairs are by definition immune to the outcome of a British general election. Whether Brown, Cameron or Clegg sits in Number 10 makes no real difference to the sufferings of others thousands of miles away (unless British troops are involved). So when foreign news makes people angry, that is all it does. And belief in politicians drains away all the faster. And if politicians can’t change anything, why have them? When pundits now talk about a ‘post-democratic Europe’, its handmaidens are easily identified. They are the sirens wailing their song nightly upon our screens.

When cuts fall on the broadcast media, it is not the foreign correspondents who suffer. The first casualty is always regional news. Understandably so, since it often amounts to little more than ‘cat stuck in tree in Chippenham’. One of our key tasks in the years ahead will be to change the media organisations, so that they speak to us primarily about ourselves. Together we can then make that story interesting as local action increasingly challenges our oppressors. Yes, folks. The revolution WILL be televised.