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.