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.