Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remaking Politics

“I do not believe in struggling to take power, but to build it.”
Hugo Blanco

Growth is what everyone wants. Apparently. So we can pay the banks the interest on the money they created out of nothing.

We could join in too and become a pro-growth party. Just like the other 'choices' on offer. All hurtling towards the cliff’s edge at breakneck speed.

Or maybe not. A sick consensus may be a consensus but it is none the less sick for that. And it is our job to change it.

That won’t be easy. Our economy is so hard-wired for growth that failure to grow results in unemployment, political repression, war and other harmful consequences. We need to organise ourselves better so that growth isn’t the only road to prosperity and well-being because, ultimately, in a finite world, we cannot go on that way.

We are grateful to the Optimum Population Trust for drawing our attention to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Some radical policy recommendations from that source can be viewed here.

The CASSE don’t yet have anything to say about devolution for Wessex but it certainly looks like the sort of agenda with which we could engage. Politics needs to be remade, comprehensively, to face the challenges of the 21st century in a non-domineering way. Our movement, for being ourselves in our own space, enjoying life within our reasonable means, is part of that building of power in place of fear.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fixing and Faking

“What is happening to Stonehenge does not reflect the increasing accord that is supposed to come from progress and rationality.”Christopher Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 1985

Last month, £10 million of lottery money was awarded for the building of new visitor facilities for Stonehenge, to be sited a mile and half west at Airman’s Corner, with a transit system to a drop-off point near the stones, enabling the current car park to be removed. “We want to get rid of the traffic and modern clutter,” said an English Heritage spokesman. “At the moment we are not doing it justice.” EH still has to find a third of the £27.5 million total cost of the project, which received planning permission in June despite high-level criticism of how it will integrate into the landscape.

Marcus Binney, architecture correspondent of The Times (a London newspaper), produced a thundering response to the EH plan to “turn Stonehenge into a toy-town with visitors approaching in dinky electric vehicles”. “Will the Heritage Lottery never learn?” he wrote. “While Britain’s heritage crumbles it fiddlefaddles with daft and hideously expensive interpretation and exhibition centres, doing increasingly more harm than good with its politically correct schemes which have no place in an era when money should be concentrated on essentials and emergencies”, on “front-line rescue of natural and man-made heritage, and not on frills and embellishments.”
Quite so. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and no amount of replicas and substitutes will make up for that. The Ministry’s management of Stonehenge has never inspired confidence. After the stones were gifted to the nation an archæological dig was carried out in the 1920’s. It was carried out so incompetently that it amounted to the destruction of one half of the site while recovering hardly any useful data. Conservation interests have battled ever since for attention against the insatiable demands of the tourist industry. When the Antrobus family owned the stones, access was eventually controlled for the first time with fencing and a gate, but as much for the site’s protection as for private profit. Under public ownership, ostensibly in the public interest, the locusts must go where they will. Numbers are now so huge – three times what they were 50 years ago – that since 1978 the stones themselves have been roped off and the trippers have to traipse past and gawp from a distance. The average visitor spends just 20 minutes at the site. Official reports have seriously attempted to argue that a loss of real archæology can be offset against new access arrangements to produce a net positive outcome for the nation’s cultural heritage. Or at least for the EH bank balance. This is the organisation, remember, whose past chairman suggested letting out the catering to McDonalds.

Stonehenge is pivotal in more ways than the purely geographical. It marks the point where all the escalating agendas of destructive transformation in Wessex converge. The road lobby is one of the most persistent arguers, demanding the dualling of the A303, its diversion or undergrounding, all so that Londoners are not held up by bottlenecks in their mad dash down to the weekend cottage in Cornwall. It finds a ready ally in EH, incensed by the fact that drivers can get a great view of the stones without paying a penny. That, rather than air pollution, is what the talk of removing the roads on Stonehenge Down is really about. Having been there for generations they are arguably part of the history EH was supposedly set up to defend. To remove them is as unhistorical as the ‘restorations’ of ancient Athens and Rome that erased mediæval structures whose story seemingly got in the way of the official line. Our Ministry of Works did much the same in the 60’s with its heavy-handed stripping back of the friary sites in Gloucester to their bland mediæval skeletons.

That is the problem with interpretation. It tells us far more about ourselves – our own pre-occupations and prejudices – than it ever can about the past. Archæology can only rarely hint at the sounds and the organic colours of prehistoric life. Those of Amerindian cultures often get pressed into service to fill the sensory gap. Handled with care, that can be an imaginative improvisation but otherwise it can subvert the reality that we simply don’t know. Professional interpretation can be very dismissive of the wishful thinking displayed by New Age pagans when it comes to re-creating the past. Rightly so, where devoid of reasonable foundation. But its own efforts are not necessarily categorically different. The ideological pressure to make the Stonehenge experience the multi-media ‘Stonehenge Experience’ becomes overpowering.

EH is a badly designed organisation. Its role as touristic showman inevitably compromises its other role as independent adviser on heritage priorities. The Coalition’s plans to streamline the quangos, throwing still more responsibilities into the mix, will only add to the muddle. EH’s presentation of properties in Cornwall has been condemned for its cultural insensitivity on another nation’s territory. Scotland and Wales have their own heritage bodies and we look forward to Wessex too taking control of its own past. A Wessex equivalent of EH will need to take property management out of the hands of policy makers and fund distributors so that there is a level playing field for all.

It’s tempting to suggest offering the lot to the National Trust, but Mrs Thatcher tried that one early on in the 80’s, a time when several local councils were also having a clear-out in the Trust’s direction. The Trust realised soon enough what was afoot, looked the nation’s gift horse in the mouth, found it didn’t come with an endowment for maintenance in perpetuity and rightly turned it down. EH was Mrs T’s Plan B. The Trust used to be a heritage-conscious organisation but we honestly can’t say it is now, not since earlier this year when it abolished its Wessex region. In favour of a ‘South West’ one, aligned exactly with the Prescott zone of the same name. Independent of the Government? You must be joking. The control freaks have got inside and the Trust is doomed to become a satellite of Whitehall, dutifully rolling out whatever deracinating initiative comes with the money. A complete overhaul of the heritage sector is now needed to place our past back at the heart of the community and prevent it becoming increasingly the plaything of the London-centred chattering classes.

Changing structures will not change the future of Stonehenge without wider changes in our society. The frazzled language we use to describe it is degenerating fast, with must-see exciting world-class iconic heritage separating us further and further from any real understanding of what is before us. It cries out for a little boy to point to the nakedness of it all, that Stonehenge is a clever arrangement of rocks in a field, about which we know next to nothing, and that our attempts at greater knowledge are often counter-productive. If tourists are disappointed, then it was wrong to have promised them a prehistoric Disneyland.

Management of the site is becoming ever more complex because of the ever-increasing demands placed upon it. (Regulatory power always expands in proportion to the ecologically destabilising effects of economic and population growth, especially in high-density situations like cities and tourist hotspots.) When, in the early 1950’s, visitor numbers were one-seventh of what they are today, the grass wore away each summer but recovered in the off-season. Not any more. A sane policy has to put a stop to the philosophy that maximising the number of ‘quality visitor experiences’ is the name of the game and the devil take the hindmost. If EH is serious about wanting to protect Stonehenge, why does it market it so aggressively, while other properties with greater capacity to absorb visitors are neglected? As with growth generally and the pressures it places on all our resources, putting up the ‘Full’ sign would not be a bad move. Living within environmental limits means saying no sometimes. And really meaning it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Six Months

That’s all it took. All it took for the Coalition’s true programme to be made manifest. It talks the talk about decentralisation and localism but does it walk the walk?

We await with interest the so-called Decentralisation & Localism Bill. We shall withhold judgment until we can read it, but recent pronouncements on housing and education suggest that Downing Street’s dictionary differs from our own.

Take the much-vaunted return of planning powers to local councils. Scared of being told off for not concreting over our farmland fast enough, the Coalition wants to bribe councils to allow house-building by paying them a ‘New Homes Bonus’, contrary to the principle that planning permission is not for sale. Across England, the bribes will cost the Treasury almost £1 billion. Now, let’s be clear about this. Decentralisation, in the planning sphere, means they take our money off us, in the form of taxes, and won’t let us have it back unless we dance to their tune. Even the usually dense Western Boring Views, in its editorial of 13 November, could see through this one, doubting there would be many takers and opining that controls on second homes need to be looked at too. What, put people before property? Is that the rumble of the tumbril we hear in Derriford?

Housing is as nothing compared to what is happening in education, where Michael Gove is looking to dictate every last detail of what happens in schools. Can anyone tell us what his department is actually for? Schools are run by professional people. Answerable to governors, who include parents. And supported by the children’s services departments of elected local councils. Gove’s department spends £60 billion a year, apparently on doing other people’s jobs for them. It doesn’t even appear to know, or care, who else does what. A now infamous letter inviting schools to apply for ‘academy’ status went out to head teachers, even though it is the governing body and not the head teacher which is responsible for the status of the school.

So mistrusting are Gove and his chums that at one point they seriously intended to take over the entire schools budget and allocate it centrally from Whitehall, direct to schools, cutting out communities completely. The latest report is that Gove & Co have caved in, but we expect this one to make a comeback. Their current plan is to seek to make directly-funded ‘academies’ the norm and so achieve their aim by stealth. Setting up the quango to run such a system – the Education Funding Agency – remains a White Paper commitment. Local authorities as a group have bargaining power with Whitehall that 24,000 individual head teachers can only dream of. And Wessex, if it had the autonomy now enjoyed by Scotland and Wales, could simply tell Whitehall to shut up and go home.

Freedom from council control – alias the council safety net – may turn out to be a case of from frying pan into fire. Like the rest of the ‘Big Society’, what this is really about is dismantling cost-effective but publicly-provided support services in favour of privately-provided ones that cost more but tick the box of moving resources out into the global financial markets. (Rules are being bent to prevent in-house bids.) The books are then balanced by reducing the range and quality of services. One of the benefits of local control over funding is that councillors have been able to speak up for the social and environmental benefits of village schools, protecting them from the professional bean counters. Under centralism, all that will change, as no provision for local top-ups seems likely to be made. We can look forward to savage cuts, with village schools across Wessex going the way of village shops, pubs and post offices.

Maybe not all just yet. Tory voters in marginal seats will be safe for a while. But in due course, with Labour back in the driving seat, won’t its reptilian desire to punish rural England rise to the surface as always? And what is to stop a future Labour government re-organising schools right across England by cutting off funds to those that won’t bend the knee? Centralists gather in power, then they lie and cheat to hold on to it. The more power they gather in, the more desperate they become to prevent the other side sharing in the spoils. Even when, as now, you really can’t tell the difference between them.

If you voted for the Tories, you shouldn’t complain when they set out down this road. If you voted for their glove puppets, what ever were you thinking? And if you still reckon that Labour are going to become reformed characters and start putting communities in charge, well, we’ve certainly heard that one before.

Non Homo Insula Est

No man is an island. The famous words of John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s in London. Written in English, translated here into Latin.

Why Latin? A cloud of celebrities ranging from Joanna Lumley, a native of Kashmir, to Boris Johnson, former MP for Henley-on Thames, has recently been gathered in support of the proposition that Latin should again be taught in schools. Presumably in those areas that still have grammar schools it still is. For what good would be a grammar school that eschewed Latin grammar?

If Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, complete with its laboured mis-labelling to the locative case, comes to mind most vividly for those who learnt Latin at their alma mater’s knee then a pause for thought is needed. From the traditional date of Rome’s foundation in 753 BC to the end of the western empire in 476 AD is 1,229 years. The post-Roman afterlife of Latin to the present is 1,534 years and it is not an uneventful tale. Textbooks are largely silent about what remained the international language of churchmen, scholars, scientists and diplomats until modern times. We know a 17th century Swedish king as Gustavus Adolphus because news of his actions travelled in Latin. So too did those of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, Columbus and Erasmus, Copernicus and Linnaeus. We know the Chinese sage K’ung-fu-tzu as Confucius and the emperors of India and Russia by the name of a Roman assassinated over two thousand years ago (and who probably spoke Greek when he really wanted to impress). Et tu, Brute? Kai su, teknon!

For a Europe that needed to communicate with itself, Latin long ago became the earliest Esperanto. French eventually displaced it as the language of diplomacy, German as the language of science, and English ultimately as the language of everything, but until nationalism made neutrality a nasty word, Latin reigned supreme. The Kingdom of Hungary, the multi-lingual melting-pot of the Carpathian basin, insisted that Parliamentary debates were conducted in Latin as late as 1847. Some thirty years ago, an attempt was made to use Latin on the floor of the European Parliament but the speaker was ruled out of order. The Parliament has 23 official languages but Latin is not one of them. Those who believe the EU to be more super-state than club of nation-states might reflect on that lack of a language that transcends borders.

No-one knew the value of Latin like King Alfred the Great. His biographer, the Welshman Asser, records that, although Alfred had visited Rome as a child, he did not learn the language until he was nearly 40. His motivation was to partake personally in the revival of learning that he launched after securing the kingdom against further attack. Today, among mainstream English nationalists, it is fashionable to argue the uniqueness of Englishness, to decry any hint of cultural impurity. Not so for Alfred, who looked to Mediterranean civilisation for his model and cultivated links with lands even further afield. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun in Alfred’s reign, is written in English, not in Latin. An early case of ‘up yours, Delors’? Far from it. The choice was imposed on Alfred by a dearth of Latin scholars in Wessex. In the terms of the time it was a sign not of cultural strength but of abject cultural weakness.

Wessex has been subject to many influences down the centuries, Celtic and Nordic, Latin and Greek, African and Asian. All lasting impressions deserve study because they aid understanding of who we are. Can our encounter with Latin provide us with pointers to the future, lessons about how we view our place in time and space and thought?

The first conclusion must be that the past is rarely as dead as current fashions dictate. A glance around Europe will identify nations and regions long suppressed and now firmly back in business, their languages spoken and written again, their flags flying from the citadels of the former dominant power. From Ypres to Warsaw, Berlin to Budapest, monuments and cities blasted to rubble have been painstakingly reconstructed just as they were. Catalans are ruled by their Generalitat, a name dredged up from early in the 18th century. Scotland’s Parliament was re-convened in 1999 with words that connected to its last sitting in 1707. On our own patch, those who feared we might never again hear the phrase ‘Bath, in Somerset’ have been proved wrong. For those who claim that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, it’s worth noting that even Alfred, when he set about his revival of learning, was inspired to re-create the splendours of the later 7th century, when Wessex enjoyed its first Golden Age under the guidance of King Ine and St Aldhelm. Whether the history around us is cherished for the richness it gives to our lives, or wiped out as an affront to ‘progress’, is a matter of will. The belief of progressives, that policy must, like time, be ever advancing, is a belief that can admit neither to ignorance of superior knowledge from another era nor to the mistakes that result. At best the mistakes go uncorrected; at worst, history repeats itself in ways that are unexpected and unwelcome.

The second conclusion is that insularity cuts us off from part of ourselves. Nationalism, conceived of as a fortress, politically, culturally, economically, is not the way to go. In Shakespeare’s day, the moat defensive against the envy of less happier lands made sense. But it came at a cost, both in terms of autonomy denied within and fraternity denied without. Regionalism recognises that everywhere is a region of something else, in a world composed of communities within communities. Like fractal images, one nests within another, from the parish to the planet, and each has its place, its call upon our loyalty, as individuals and collectively, and in their defence we find meaning and solidarity.

The third conclusion is that the informed intellect can be a vital tool in carving out a new politics. Wessex must be vigilant in defence of its folk culture – including aspects of mass popular culture that stem from Wessex roots – but need not therefore reject high culture as foreign to its nature as a region. It must find a proper place too for those whose concerns are more material than cultural. For Alfred, society was composed of praying men, fighting men and working men. As a party, our equivalents are thinkers, activists and donors. All three are needed and we need more of all three.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Pageant of Death

“I have said that we must base our future thinking on the acceptance that nation states, individual, independent nations, can no longer really seriously influence the way in which the world develops. There is nothing that we or, I believe, any other single country can do on its own to affect these great trends of history and of the future… It seems to me that the accepted Clausewitzian doctrine of the military arm as an extension of national political power is dead and ought to be dead, and that we ought to be re-thinking, soldiers and politicians, the whole new interrelation between the political and the military establishment… I hope I may have stimulated the thought in some minds that some of the problems that occupy so much of our time and energy today are in fact false problems… We commit the familiar heresy, the Manichean heresy of creating enemies where none really exist in order to satisfy some irrational psychological need.”
Lord Chalfont, 1969

Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday. Across Wessex, and across the world, it was a time to reflect. To remember bad things that have happened to us in our collective past is meaningful, at least in part, for the opportunity it provides to learn from our experience. Yet learn we do not. The war to end all wars is still being fought and the Nobel Prize has been awarded to the Commander-in-Chief. War is peace.

One of the least forgivable actions of the Blair/Brown regime was to taint remembrance with controversy. The casualties of illegal and irrelevant wars now join those of just ones in thoughts and prayers. All those who take up arms against the Queen’s enemies are equally honoured, as custom dictates. Those who prefer to reject the crimes committed in our name may well ask, who is this bellicose woman, who makes enemies so easily?

Mainstream politicians have been very quick to wipe their bloody hands on the rest of us, in a brazen attempt to make us their accomplices. It began with cross-party talk about the 'military covenant', the supposed duty supposedly owed by society to those who supposedly defend the realm against the supposed forces of darkness. The phrase came from nowhere in 2000 when it was first codified in Army doctrine. It went unchallenged and now looks to be made binding upon members of the public. Under cover of concern that resources are inadequate to the military’s current mission and its aftermath, a sinister agenda is now fast infiltrating the civilian world. The spotlight is turned on military equipment, housing and healthcare. A better deal for those injured or bereaved. Those who dissent from the mission, those who would rather prevent injury and bereavement happening at all, are to be first sidelined and then persecuted for their conscientious opinions.

Gordon Brown commissioned the Davies report of 2008. Note carefully that this report was commissioned by a Labour government, a government determined to make the world a better place. Through ceaseless struggle and the glorification of violence. One of its key recommendations, soon acted upon, was Armed Forces Day, the brand new annual opportunity for the nation to express its gratitude to the services. MoD money was chucked at local councils willing to organise parades, to show off the glamorous hardware of war and permit recruiters to point yet more fools the way to dusty death.

Britain, like all the imperial powers of a past age, struggles to pull itself together. War is the unifying factor its politicians need. The Falklands War flowed from the incompetence of Mrs Thatcher’s government yet it ended up securing her a second term. Many of those Parliamentarians who in 2003 voted to wage aggressive war in the name of the British people have now retained their seats through two general elections. Brown, obsessed with ‘Britishness’, could have asked for no stronger symbol of it than ‘our boys and girls’ doing their bit for Queen and Country. Or at least for U.S. oil. It remains true, in F.D. Roosevelt’s words, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But fear, along with hate and arrogance, are tools that politicians and the media know how to wield. And will if we let them.

Can Wessex transcend its violent past and present? It will not be easy, for we have become to a high degree economically dependent on the manufacture or maintenance of weaponry and the training of service personnel. It all goes back a very long way. Even if scholars doubt that Alfred founded the Navy, it is a matter of record that Portsmouth Dockyard existed in the reign of Richard I, Devonport following in that of William III. The Army’s roots are shallower. It took up residence on Dartmoor in the early 1800s, at Aldershot in 1854, on Salisbury Plain in 1897. The RAF’s roots are necessarily shallower still, though it was here at the outset, and even before, His Majesty’s Balloon Factory at Farnborough dating from 1908. The MoD Procurement Executive came to Abbey Wood at Bristol in 1995.

Wessex has moved on before. The merchants of Bristol fought long and hard to save the centuries-old slave trade and with it the wealth that benefited not only them but indirectly much of Wessex society. Yet Bristol had its abolitionists too. Stroud has the one contemporary monument to abolition, the ‘Anti-Slavery Arch’. Wessex today can make a similar stand for peace. It can reclaim the land from beneath the tank tracks and the soldiers’ boots. For ours is an occupied region, doomed to re-enact the war preparations of Europe's unhappy centuries until saner counsel prevails. The MoD owns, leases or holds on licence over 100,000 acres of Wiltshire (12% of the county), 32,000 acres of Devon (14% of the Dartmoor National Park), 10,000 acres of Hampshire and 8,000 acres of Dorset. That it protects some of our finest landscapes, archæology and biodiversity from the rapacious grasp of agronomic and development interests is beside the point. Less bad is not the same as good and the money it all costs could be doing much more of the latter. Of course, there will be those who argue that Wessex Regionalists should back the cosy status quo in our part of the world but that is a low aspiration for a transformative party.

The recent Strategic Defence and Security Review marks a step towards the necessary rethinking but it remains an excuse for inertia while the assumptions of an ex-empire predominate. The UK continues to support the fourth largest military budget in the world, yet there is no reason to believe that it is any more vulnerable to attack than those countries whose budgets are smaller. Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you wish for peace, prepare for war – has been the universal advice of generals throughout the ages. It would be, wouldn’t it? We flatter ourselves that we are an intelligent species but the Campaign Against The Arms Trade has estimated that every minute the world will spend £1 million on arms while in the same time 15 children will die of poverty, famine or disease. The UK has become the world’s second largest arms exporter while lecturing others on peace and stability.

The real challenge of security is to be tough on violence and tough on the causes of violence. It is not, and must not become, what the London parties seek to make it, a smokescreen for the remilitarisation of society, for renewing the backbone of centralism. It is said that where there’s a will there’s a way. In the case of defence, there’s a way sure enough. For now, the popular and political will, at home and abroad, is what’s sadly lacking.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Playing the Poll Card

"Be you never so high, the Law is above you."
Dr Thomas Fuller, 1733 (and others)

No sooner had Phil Woolas been stripped of his Parliamentary seat than politicians and the media started questioning whether it was right for judges to overturn the people’s choice. Democracy in danger? It is a fair question but one with an easy answer, so long as one respects the idea that power should be dispersed between the various branches of the State, the doctrine known as the separation of powers. New Labour, a totalitarian party, has no time for that sort of nonsense but others should have known better than to jump on the bandwagon.

The courts have a role in ensuring fair play because sometimes they are the only ones who can ensure it. If a candidate spreads lies about a rival’s character, it should not be left entirely to that rival to spend time and money putting out a rebuttal leaflet. That is a waste of resources and whose resources they are is irrelevant. There is a public interest in ensuring simply that seats do not go to cheats. Of course, if voters truly wish to be represented by a liar then their wish must be respected. The issue is whether they voted knowingly. If they did not, then annulling the result is what judges are for, as with any contract obtained by fraud. Banning the liar from standing again may be an intervention too far – there are arguments either way on that point – but it must be right that a result obtained by dubious means should not stand.

Decentralists will be delighted to see New Labour’s come-uppance. It was New Labour who created the Standards Board (now known as ‘Standards for England’), which the Coalition thankfully plans to abolish. This is a quango whose job it is to investigate complaints against local councillors. Councillors who have committed no crime but who are deemed to have offended against certain New Labour ‘standards’, for example by ‘speaking out of turn’, can be suspended from office. What this means is that if they do their job with passion and dedication, their constituents can be denied any representation. Not by the voters. Not by the courts. Just by committee folk, playing at being judge and jury.

Labour has always suffered from a pathological inability to distinguish properly between law and morality. For every case when it considers it acceptable to break the law, there will be hundreds of others where it seeks to impose sanctions for not doing things Labour’s way. In the light of Phil Woolas’ departure, calls for reform are inevitable, to re-assert these twin principles of infallibility and superiority. Election courts will be demonised as archaic and anti-democratic. In due course, the law will be changed to uphold the right to lie, at least if it’s your own team. And after that, honourable members will truthfully be anything but.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Constituencies & Contrasts

In England, there are two kinds of Parliamentary election. We elect MPs to Westminster using First-Past-The-Post and MEPs to Brussels/Strasbourg using the D’Hondt regional list system.

One would think that arguments about fairness would apply equally between the two systems. Not so. The Bill now being railroaded through Parliament will, with very limited exceptions, require all constituencies to be within 5% of the electoral quota, no matter what damage that does to any sense of community.

But what’s this? Last week the Electoral Commission recommended that the ‘West Midlands’ Prescott zone should get the one additional MEP allocated to the UK under the Lisbon treaty. The electoral regions are defined in statute and their boundaries cannot be changed by the Commission. All it can recommend is to move the number of MEPs up or down as the distribution of population alters.

What if the same principle of ‘fairness’ advocated for Westminster elections were to apply instead? Well, if the population of the ‘South West’ were to fall relative to the UK as a whole, then the electoral region could perhaps be expanded into Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire. But as the law stands that is not allowed, because the electoral regions have to match the boundaries of the Prescott zones. And that is because Whitehall wants to claim the copyright on regionalism. The match is also one half of a mismatch: the new legislation seeks to destroy genuine communities defined from below on the basis of a thousand years of history, while legislation already in place protects fake communities imposed from above on the basis of boundaries first defined for civil defence purposes before World War II.

At this point, the forces of clunking bluster tend to wind up the gramophone and denounce European co-operation as The Revenge of The Hun, complete with top secret orders to regionalise on the basis of ‘a map I saw in Brussels’. Even collectively, the poor dears haven’t the brain power to work out that the map depicts the status quo, it doesn’t specify it.

Most large western European states have responded positively to the trend towards regionalism. For Germany, Italy and Spain it has been a vital part of restoring democracy after the years of dictatorship. Spain in particular took great care NOT to impose the boundaries its civil service might have preferred but to make a clean break with centralism.

Too good for the victors? Not at all. Even the French have their weak regional councils and in some areas they even managed to get the boundaries right (more by accident than design). The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have devolution. The Prescott zones were offered a dog’s breakfast instead. No EU directive requires regional assemblies, let alone specifies how regions are to be defined. The stupidity required to get wrong something as simple as returning power to the provinces you stole it from nine centuries earlier is the unique characteristic of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government.

Remember, Remember

Certain MPs – and former MPs – who voted for the conquest of Iraq are likely to seek extra security after their names were again publicised on the Internet yesterday.

We do not condone illegal and arbitrary attacks on the innocent. Nor on the guilty. The mass killing of MPs who voted for mass killing is a rough kind of justice that some would impose but we would rather see justice meted out by a court qualified to try the very real accusations of war crimes that Westminster parliamentarians must face. It cannot come soon enough.

Let today’s unseating of Phil Woolas - for his exercise of the self-assumed ‘right to lie’ - be just the beginning of the retribution they have all so assiduously earned. The fireworks have started. It's time to enjoy the show!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good Works, Bad Shouldn't

"Þæt is nu hraðost to secganne, þæt ic wilnode weorðfullice to libbanne þa hwile þe ic lifede, and æfter minum life þæm monnum to læfanne þe æfter me wæren min gemyndig on godum weorcum."
"I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works."
King Alfred the Great, in his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy

The politicians who today are Alfred’s successors in power may be remembered for many things but good works are unlikely to feature in the list. Yesterday it was reported that Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, had been cautioned for breaking electoral law. Despite having qualified as a solicitor, Ms McCarthy chose to reveal on Twitter the number of postal votes cast per party in the 2010 election, contrary to the Representation of the People Act 1983.

A caution is a paltry punishment for breaking the secrecy of the poll ahead of its close. The crime is less of a surprise. Lying and cheating are tools that come with the red rosette, tools embraced with glee by those so keen to win that they long ago lost any idea of why they should want to. They are what we expect of a party that lacks moral conviction, that doubts its ability to win by fair means, that secretly recognises the emptiness of its rhetoric, the contradictions of its message, the pointlessness of its existence when, win or lose, the consequences are the same.

We are a radical party, the natural heirs to the Common Wealth tradition, of co-operation as the basis of economics, democracy as the basis of society and morality as the basis of politics. We share a long-standing disappointment that the Labour Party rejects all of these things in favour of money markets, control freakery and ends-justify-the-means. Some seemed seduced by Blair’s bleating about the forces of conservatism, before the fleece fell off to reveal a lupine arch-privatiser and curtailer of civil liberties. Not us. This is Labour’s heritage, back to the first Fabian imperialists and later apologists for Stalin. The real sheep are those who think they can only vote for one of the three identikit parties of the establishment. Ed Miliband for PM? ? Why?

The Rotten Parliament

The campaign to allow MPs to continue to represent real communities, shaped by geography, history and culture, has a growing following. It even has its own Facebook page.

The so-called ‘Conservative’ Party and its glove-puppet partners remain steadfastly committed to ripping up our history in the name of ‘fairness’. It really is no defence to say that ‘fairness’ must outweigh sentiment, as the boundaries of Scotland and Wales are to be protected while others of much greater antiquity are not. It is claimed that the constitutional history of the Union and of its constituent parts has to be respected. We do not disagree. But what of England’s internal history?

In Wessex, our shires have shaped the lives of 40 generations and more. For our politicians, such community ties seemingly count for nothing. For them, England is one vast canvas dotted with millions of interchangeable voting units. The localities and regions that came together – under Wessex leadership – to form the nation are there to be scrubbed out.

There is no doubting that there is a mandate for change, though by no means all areas will have voted for it. The Conservative manifesto pledged to "ensure every vote will have equal value by introducing ‘fair vote’ reforms to equalise the size of constituency electorates, and conduct a boundary review to implement these changes within five years". (Always read the small print before casting your vote!) Yet concessions have already been made. A few glove puppets in the north of Scotland representing large territories with sparse populations are cosily protected from the proposals. Special geographical circumstances elsewhere – such as the Isle of Wight – are not recognised and ought to be. ‘Equalisation’ has been defined as within 5%. Why not 10% and allow even more of those special geographical circumstances the room to breathe?

Last week MPs debated the clause that all this fuss is about. Amendments were tabled. And never discussed. So much time was spent talking about the reduction in the number of MPs – from 650 to 600 – that they never got around to the territorial issue. The amendments went in the bin.

So much for the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. If this is the standard of procedure we hold up as a model to the rest of the world you can stuff it. Mount it in a glass case. And give us back the power to make our own decisions in Wessex before common sense is affronted any further.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Killing Community, Killing Democracy

Cornish patriots are gathering today beneath the Tamar Bridge at Saltash to protest against the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There is even serious talk of hunger strikes. What is it that has brought this on?

The Bill paves the way for a referendum next May on replacing First-Past-The-Post with the Alternative Vote system. So far so good; Single Transferable Vote is a better system still but at least things are moving in the right direction.

The same cannot be said for the Bill’s other components. One implements David Cameron’s pledge to cut the number of MPs. Nearly one in ten seats will go. In light of the snouts-in-trough expenses scandal the public will not mourn their passing, even though a Parliament with fewer MPs will undoubtedly require more staff if they are to do the same job. The truth is that this move does not so much respond to the public mood as exploit it. The real reason for cutting the number of MPs is to cut the chances of a successful backbench rebellion. There are no plans to devolve decision-making to powerful regional Parliaments, such as the one we demand for Wessex. Ministers’ in-trays will remain as full as ever and so the number of Ministers will not be cut. Thus a larger proportion of the reformed House than currently will be on the Government payroll, their loyalty bought and the ability of the legislature to hold the executive to account correspondingly curtailed.

Hand-in-hand with fewer MPs comes a comprehensive re-drawing of constituency boundaries, with the margins for flexibility severely reduced. Stubborn geography gives way to even more stubborn statistics. Already we have seen some very silly constituencies that add one town to part of another and join them up with a slab of countryside in between. An obsession with numerical equality will deliver much more of this. It is the kind of obsession that in 1969 had the Royal Commission on Local Government recommend merging the Isle of Wight with Portsmouth. It is the kind of obsession that has the Cornish deeply worried. After 700 years as a Parliamentary county, Cornwall could be sharing some of its MPs with areas in Wessex. Which makes life very difficult for a nationalist party like Mebyon Kernow. It makes life very difficult for us too. And we face the prospect not only of a Devonwall constituency but of others like it right around our borders. Get set for Herecestershire, Oxhamptonshire, Berkrey and Hampsex.

At one level, this disregard for counties is just part of a sloppy modern trend, recently marked by Royal Mail’s moves to phase-out their use for postal purposes. At another, it is deeply ideological, the playing-out of a long-standing Jacobin desire to eradicate all intermediate identities that come between the State and the individual. Consider how Cameron’s new-style MPs will actually set about their work. Representing a meaningless area, a block of voters randomly generated, they can no longer act as advocates of the local and particular but must confine themselves to being the conduit between national politics and the atomised constituent.

The Cameron/Clegg axis of evil talks about promoting ‘community’ in the abstract while destroying it in the concrete, rounding on the very people who elected them. It may seem ‘fairer’ to insist that every constituency is exactly the same size, even where that means over-riding the views of local people on how they wish to be represented in their Parliament. Indeed, it is one of the demands made by the Chartist reformers in the 1830’s and one of only two that has yet to be enacted. But to think in these terms is to give Parliament an exalted status it has never deserved. Parliament should not be an assembly of directly-elected individuals representing blocks of 100,000 people each. It should be, in the ancient tradition, a gathering of the self-governing estates of the realm, to co-ordinate, not to rule. Localities should govern themselves, and regions should be the means to co-ordinate activities over a wider area. In a world turned the right way up, the very idea of ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’ over a subject people will be laughable. It will not matter how many people an MP represents because every single representative – or, rather, delegate – will have an unlimited right of veto so far as his or her own territory is concerned. Out-voting will be out-moded.

One of the ancient traditions still preserved in elections to Parliament is the issue and return of the writs. The instruction to hold an election in each constituency is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to the High Sheriff (in county constituencies) and the Mayor or Lord Mayor (in borough constituencies), as it has been since the first Parliaments were summoned. The writ is returned with the name of the successful candidate endorsed. That is why the sheriff or mayor formally returning the writ is known as the Returning Officer, and why the local authority chief executive who oversees the day-to-day administration is known as the Acting Returning Officer. For some, including the Electoral Commission, this tradition is written off dismissively as ‘plainly redundant’ and ‘confusing’ to the general public but in truth is a harmless part of our heritage.

How this tradition will fare in a system where constituencies no longer match the geography of counties and boroughs has yet to be seen. A foretaste appears in a recent report from the Electoral Commission, who were tasked with finding out why long queues developed at certain polling stations back in May, with the result that many voters were unable to cast their votes before the polls closed. The brief seems straightforward. Find out what the Acting Returning Officer had done or had failed to do. Organisation of the poll was the responsibility of the local authority and no-one else. Yet the Commission could not resist slipping in to their report a call for radical reform, including the abolition of the ceremonial role of sheriffs and mayors, a role that has no bearing whatsoever on the issue under investigation.

We wrote to the Commission’s Chair, Jenny Watson, protesting at this deep lapse from professionalism. Ms Watson replied at length, singing the praises of her organisation but failing utterly to address the point. Such is the New Labour bureaucracy, hiding its ignorance of history and its lack of intellectual rigour behind a figleaf of patronising insouciance. For Watson, the electoral system is a creaking Victorian structure on its last legs. To anyone with brains it is obvious that the system worked well enough for the Victorians and any shortcomings today must therefore be laid at the door of the current generation of know-nothings. Well-crafted legislation is being picked apart by people whose blindspots appear deliberate and equally well-crafted. The expansion of postal voting has been accompanied by an explosion in electoral fraud. The Victorians could have told you it would.

We have been involved in elections for over 35 years and have seen the downward spiral as costs are cut and corners with them. Ballot box security will be the next area to go as plastic and cardboard replace steel and as stock-market pressure for early declarations means seals that can be applied and removed more swiftly. And all the time, the Electoral Commission fiddles while Rome burns, childishly proposing new laws because it cannot grasp how it is that the current ones are those that work best in current circumstances. The defence of democracy will be no thanks to that bunch of third-rate sociologists but rather to those who understand how we got where we are and how easy it can be to slide back again.

The pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place. First came the Electoral Commission, its role ostensibly to police political parties, in fact to agitate aggressively for the aggrandisement of its own powers. Now comes the breaking of the centuries-old link between the counties and their ‘knights of the shire’. Next will come the clamour to tidy-up the resulting anomalies. Why should local authorities be involved in running elections when their boundaries diverge so radically from those of the constituencies assigned to them to administer? The Electoral Commission’s final triumph will be when it is placed in charge of the entire process, directed by a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men and women from an office in central London. Everything from the registration of parties and voters to the casting and counting of votes. And then the stage will be set for State-sponsored electoral fraud on a scale to make even Robert Mugabe appear whiter than white.

England. A.K.A. London?

We do not argue that Wessex is not English but we do argue that there is a debate to be had about the governance of England. A unified England is a centralised England – in many ways still a Norman England – and one that in practice is run largely for London's benefit, not ours.

Take the Olympic Games, to be held in London in 2012, for the third time. No other UK city has ever hosted the games, yet provincial cities elsewhere have (Barcelona being the prime example that is still looked up to).

According to a recent report in the Financial Times (a London newspaper), preparations for the games have delivered a publicly funded bonanza for companies in London and the South East but other areas are deriving meagre benefits. Companies based in London have won more than £2.7 billion of contracts, more than half the total £5.1 billion so far spent by the Olympic Delivery Authority. Looking at the other Prescott zones, we find that South East companies won contracts worth £805 million and those in eastern England £719 million. Companies in the North East and South West won just £9 million each. Distance is not the deciding factor: the North West won £97 million and Scotland £23 million.

The ODA claimed contracts had filtered down to companies outside London through sub-contracts: "Direct ODA contracts are the tip of the iceberg and there are hundreds of sub-contracts going to businesses through the UK-wide supply chains." However, it could not provide any evidence to support this claim, citing confidentiality.

Sure, London council tax payers are footing a slice of the bill. But so are we all. In 2005, when London won the Olympic bid, Seb Coe pledged that the games would "provide a unique opportunity for businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK, providing essential goods and services for this historic event." Reality seems to differ.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

No State To Be In?

Lord Deben – the former Tory MP John Selwyn Gummer – wrote approvingly this week of the Coalition’s decentralist agenda:

“People who feel that they cannot influence big decisions in a globalised world are adamant that they should control the space around them. It doesn’t help to call it nimby. It is more ‘ideah’ – I Decide the Environment Around Here.”

Gummer’s analysis is incisive and perhaps over-revealing about the cards in his hand. For it confirms the moral poverty of the political consensus. Let local people fight each other over the crumbs. While the loaf disappears over the horizon.

Cameron’s Big (Global) Society takes up where Thatcher’s Big (Global) Economy left off. She was swept to power by an anti-statist backlash after Labour had, as always, abused the trust placed in it and swerved off in the direction of totalitarianism. For her, devolution was not about re-arranging tiers of government but about returning power to individuals to look after themselves. Cameron is not so crude, because his task is to transcend the limits Thatcher imposed on her own project. His attack is not on the principle of collective provision but on the inability of finance capital to benefit sufficiently from it. ‘Public service reform’ is about siphoning-off money that could have been spent on services and tying those services up in long-term contracts that prevent dynamic democratic accountability. Outsourcing deprives democracy of its lifeblood - information - because private contractors are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Armchair slashers of public services have asked – and it is a fair question – why the Coalition has chosen to ring-fence spending on health and overseas aid and not other areas. Most commentators – Thatcher’s children as so many now are – have failed completely to question the ideological ring-fencing that is also going on. Cameron and Clegg may want a smaller State but that does not mean they want a weaker State. The Big Society is their means to make the strings less obvious but in reality they will be micro-managing with the same fanaticism as Blair and Brown. Targets and controls are giving way to incentives and call-ins. Power ring-fenced in this way is power undevolved. Ring-fenced too is the whole issue of stratospheric levels of private wealth. Looking at a Cabinet with 18 millionaires among its 23 full-time members, Karl Marx’s judgement, that the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, acquires a remarkably contemporary resonance. (That figure of 18, by the way, is only 8 higher than Labour’s last Cabinet.)

State finances are in a mess. It’s the recession, stupid. So, allow us to sell off at rock-bottom prices what generations of taxpayers have accumulated. But sell to whom? If there are people with the money to buy public assets then these are people for whom there is no economic crisis but only economic opportunity. It’s about time it was pointed out, every time we’re told that ‘we’re all in this together’, that this is a feeding frenzy for financiers and nothing more.

When the Wessex Regionalist Party began work, three decades ago, there were many fruitful discussions about the characteristics of different public services, and whether each was more appropriately run at local, regional, national or international level. There was a feeling that really worthwhile change would come about if the maze of different regional bodies – with overlapping boundaries – that provided electricity, gas, health, transport, water and other vital requirements could be rationalised and for the first time made democratically accountable to an elected regional authority for Wessex. For an older generation of radicals, this was gas-and-water socialism with a vengeance. It made perfect sense. Regional rationalisation would reduce costs directly, while introducing joined-up thinking about the region’s needs and how best to meet them. Regional democratisation would free-up the choked corridors of power in London, reducing the more hidden costs of an over-centralised structure. Moreover, it would re-instate that accountability to people on the spot that was lost when nationalisation swept up the fruits of municipal enterprise and threw them to arms-length boards with managements accountable to no-one but themselves.

Today, post-Thatcher, such a view may seem hopelessly nostalgic. Among parties with elected representatives, it is perhaps only the British National Party that still clings to it. Its 2007 local government manifesto called for the creation of a new tier “for the region, representing historic regions such as Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia”, which “would have symbolic importance, but only a small set of responsibilities which are most sensibly done at this level. These organic/historic regions would have nothing in common with the Euro Regions which are based on uniform population areas, not areas with a natural cohesive affinity. Typical regional responsibilities would be: tourism; utility provision (water, gas and electricity – even if these are privatised they would have to operate regional structures and be accountable to the regional assembly); certain transport responsibilities – trunk roads, railways, canals.”

The purpose of including this quote is not to endorse the BNP, or the far Right generally. The fact that such regional councils would function within a State capable of taking centralist diktat to new heights is revolting enough, before even venturing into the realms of BNP social policy. The purpose of including this quote is to pose the question: where is the Left’s response?

New Labour sold out, literally in many cases as it drove onwards the Thatcherite agenda of choice for the rich and powerlessness for the poor. Hopes that regionalisation might herald the rebirth of the public sector were dashed. A catastrophic failure of imagination saw meaningless names and boundaries imposed with a ministerial arrogance that provoked a ferocious reaction. The centralist machine hoarded its treasure, leaving regions nothing to do but steal the powers of local government. It was all so predictable. Nothing had been learnt beforehand and nothing will be learnt now.

In the 1990s, Wessex Regionalism acquired a strong strand of radical decentralism. Our philosophy is no longer content to file services at the appropriate level but is rather to insist that sovereignty rests with the parish. Anything more is voluntary and subject to the inalienable right of veto. Wider tiers are there to act as servants, not masters, of the parish community, with the pyramid of power finally turned the right way up. If, in consequence of this emphasis, Wessex and regionalism have seemed to some to have receded into the background then this was not intentional. It has been necessary to distance ourselves from the mis-application of our ideals by others. Regionalisation is not regionalism if conducted for the centre’s benefit. Coalition criticisms of the Prescott project now being so thoroughly erased from the administrative landscape are overwhelmingly justified. Our criticism is that there ought to be more to the debate than whether it is local or regional institutions that provide the better means for the centre to control events.

Coupled with this there has to be a re-appraisal of economic as well as political devolution. As taxpayers, we surely expect our representatives to be more than over-paid doormats for global financiers and industrialists. We surely expect them to do something for us, without the sharp-suited middlemen taking their cut. Wessex has to stand up for itself, rejecting equally Whitehall-knows-best and the zombie economics of ‘what the capital markets demand’. As our economy has grown in absolute terms, so it has also grown relative to so much else in life, so that what was once beyond economics is now given over to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The end of cheap oil will force us to think again soon enough, requiring the re-localisation of our political, economic, social and cultural life in ways that challenge the unthinking belief that money is all. That will mean too a genuine role for genuine regions in protecting a quality of life so painfully re-assembled. Not gas-and-water socialism perhaps, but maybe its grandchild, community control over the sustainable infrastructure – energy, transport, communications, ecology – that we need to start planning for right here and now.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Uncommon Sense

The electorate in the Witney constituency numbers 78,766, of whom 62 were far-sighted enough to cast their vote yesterday for Colin Bex. For the rest, as our society plunges from bad to worse, it will be a case of ‘we told you so’, and sooner rather than later.

Colin reported a busy day’s campaigning in Burford but clear signs that the turnout for David Cameron was already looking decisive. The Leader of the Opposition, with Sam Cam in tow, wafted around the count, exuding the arrogance of those for whom power is a birthright. The Cameron the media presents is scripted; from the actual man what you get is the sneer of cold command. Colin tackled him on his voting record over Iraq. He dismissed the question. All that was over and done with. History now. Justice could go hang.

The declaration of the result was a chilling reminder of the charade that is now British democracy. Cameron gave his acceptance speech, then he and his minders, along with the other major party candidates, were gone. No handshakes offered to the defeated (Colin would have so relished the opportunity to decline). No waiting to hear what others might have to say in the way of gracious congratulations. In fact, all the manners of a mobster.

It used to be traditional – and in some areas still is – for losing candidates to add their own thoughts about the election, especially to thank the Acting Returning Officer and all those members of staff involved in administering the poll and the count. As Independent candidate Paul Wesson stepped up to the mike, the power was cut off. West Oxfordshire District Council’s patience with democracy had abruptly run out.

Undeterred by discourtesy, he made his statement, condemning the media focus on Cameron that had denied the voters of Witney any chance to come to a balanced judgment on the merits of each candidate. As a long-term observer at elections in other countries struggling to understand democracy, he was now determined to seek international censure for the way British elections are run.

Colin followed, warning of the bleak future ahead, with taxes rising and services vanishing. He ended with the reminder that Cameron is a war conspirator, sharing equal responsibility with Blair and Brown for the vast numbers killed, maimed or displaced in Iraq and Afghanistan. A small band of a dozen or so gathered before the rostrum and applauded both speakers, one of the audience shouting that no-one in politics now represented the working class of the country. A man from Southampton reminded everyone that Winchester had been our capital. It was a more benign thought than anything now likely to come from London.

We posed with the Wyvern standard for press photos and Colin gave yet another interview to BBC Oxford. As we left, Nick Xylas was asked to give an interview to a Japanese radio station. You just couldn’t make it up.

The national results, denying the power of diktat to any one party, are the best any democrat could reasonably have hoped for. All small parties will take comfort from the victory of Caroline Lucas – a one-time resident of the Witney constituency – as Britain’s only Green MP. Her success – coming from far beyond the bounds of possibility not so long ago – was the well-earned result of sustained targeting in her Brighton seat. We shall be studying carefully how it was done.

Judged by our standards, the Greens are a centralist party. We take rather more comfort from the progress of Celtic nationalists, with Alex Salmond hailing the SNP’s results as the best in over 30 years and Dick Cole polling Mebyon Kernow’s highest result, 2,007 votes at St Austell & Newquay, on a swing of 4%.

The lesson is clear. Don’t moan. Organise!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Voting for a Change?

Polling day ought to be a day of celebration. Complete with flags and bunting, brass bands and beer. 'Party' politics should mean just that. Tomorrow therefore ought to be an occasion when voters proudly step out to exercise the right of self-determination which past generations died to secure. Not the apologetic, furtive act that so many will be performing, if they can persuade themselves to do something so uncool, so unmarketised, so egalitarian as vote. So of what crime is it that they feel so ashamed?

Throughout the length and breadth of this septic isle, voters will be handing over their quality of life to be ripped to shreds by the London parties. The lie that there is no alternative to cuts has been repeated over and over by all three of the leading charlatans who have strutted their hour upon the screen. Though millions believe the lie, Britain is not ‘broke’; it is fact one of the richest societies in the world and its rich are getting richer by the day.

Lord Turner, Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, stated last year that much of what the banking sector does is “socially useless activity”. The voters, of course, will be the judge of that. And they will disagree. They will be telling the parties to cut – cut hospitals, cut schools, cut care for the elderly, just don’t cut bankers’ bonuses – because those are the priorities they truly want the parties to enact. Meanwhile, all three identikit leaders continue to support the waste of young lives in an unwinnable war of choice.

Voters in the Witney constituency have another option tomorrow. By voting Wessex Regionalist they can signal their dissent from the madness engulfing our world. In the coming months, when social unrest boils onto the streets, when perhaps the City of London itself is burning, when Brown, Cameron or Clegg goes down in history as the most hated prime minister ever, those who do will have the satisfaction of knowing that they did what they could to prevent it.

And having placed your ‘X for BEX’, why not then make your very own lapel badge to tell the world, ‘Don’t blame me – I voted Wessex’?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Busy, Busy, Busy

All three Party officers – President, Secretary-General and Treasurer – were in Witney today canvassing in the run-up to polling day. With good weather for once, residents were willing to stop and talk and their reactions were very positive, especially among the young. Some of the latter proved to be just a fraction too young to vote this time – but next time maybe? Maybe next time indeed they could even be standing for the Party as well as voting for it. If the banker-owned parties have their way, these are people who will be paying for their parents’ mistakes for the rest of their lives and more.

The day got off to a flying start with a full-page article in the London Guardian (formerly of Manchester and not to be confused with the real thing). It could have been better – journalists always want to assess our policies for attractiveness before they’ve studied the threads that make them cohere – but attempts by other London papers have turned out worse. They know by now that all their tired favourites to ruin the country have lost the public’s trust but can’t quite bring themselves yet to look for real alternatives.

That was the start of a media frenzy, Colin giving interviews today to BBC Oxford (first television and later radio), CNN and even a radio station from the Netherlands. Administrative matters relating to the count needed to be sorted, then in the evening we dropped in on a talk organised by the Green Party and given by Danny Dorling, author of Injustice – Why Social Inequality Persists. The Greens have been model opponents throughout the campaign, recognising that different candidates appeal to different targets and displaying none of that back-stabbing doing-down that we have come to expect from the slashers, burners and grubbers. Nick Camerown is all the same and from the point of view of defeating it, the bigger the fourth parties’ vote the better.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Read All About It?

Candidates' leaflets for the Witney constituency are now viewable here. As of today, two candidates - Aaron Barschak (Independent) and Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony) - seem not to have distributed any so how they plan to get votes is a mystery.

These two, along with Joe Goldberg (Labour) and Nikolai Tolstoy (UKIP), are also shy of telling us their addresses, hiding behind new rules that allow actual and prospective elected representatives to lock themselves away from the public gaze. Are they afraid of terrorists? Then why any of these four gentlemen should flatter themselves that they might be a target is another mystery. If the other six candidates have nothing to hide, why do they? At least a party candidate can be contacted via the party to seek information on his or her views. An Independent who won't declare his address might as well be on the moon.

We might ask what our society is coming to when those running for public office even have the right not to tell us any longer where they live, let alone exercise it. Transparency is a fundamental part of our democratic inheritance from the Victorians, an inheritance that is poorly understood and appreciated, with the result that electoral reforms since 1997 have arguably created more problems than they have solved. The failure to recognise that extending postal voting would magnify opportunities for fraud is one such example.

We understand New Labour's motivation for secrecy but we do not therefore respect it: politicians should be protected by the normal civil and criminal law and deserve no special protection simply because they are politicians. Those who are determined to find out where someone lives will do so anyway and such knowledge is not in itself objectionable. Rather than accepting the growth of a culture of intimidation and adapting to it, efforts should focus on deterring crime of all kinds, but especially that directed against the democratic process of free debate and decision.

If some of our politicians live in fear, they should examine their consciences. Thomas Jefferson observed that when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty. When it comes to striking a balance, things are a whole lot safer under the second scenario than under the first.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Put Up - And Then Shut Up?

In days of yore, when fair play ruled, candidates for elected office were judged by the voters on polling day. Now they are judged by the managers of our 'democracy' well ahead of that event. The media and others select those whom they think we should listen to and discard those whom we simply shall not hear.

A disgraceful example of this took place last night at Witney, where the local Churches Together group held a hustings. The equivalent event in Woodstock was well-run, with no assumption that the parties who did best last time should hog the limelight.

Scandalously, the Witney event was something else. The Rev. Richard Donoghue, the Methodist minister who organised it, had decided that only parties with recent or actual representation at UK or EU level should be on the platform, thereby excluding 50% of the candidates from the democratic process. Colin Bex stated in an open letter:

“It is shameful that not one of the candidates accepting a place on the platform raised an objection against Donoghue's imperious decision to order none of us to speak, just one example of what in my own election address I rightly describe as the 'farce' of the British electoral system.

I did not accede to being gagged by Donoghue's incredible exhortation that, not only being banned from speaking, those of us candidates in the body of the hall were only allowed to clap - not to express their disapproval - when deemed appropriate (similar to the prompters of a captive audience in a live-broadcast studio or pupils in a kindergarten school).

I refused to clap the dinosaur party candidates, I stood up and told the assembled company to vote Wessex, and shouted 'shame' and 'disgraceful' on numerous occasions against the lies and worse being pedalled by the dinosaurs' representatives throughout the proceedings.”

Independent candidate Paul Wesson played a divisive and doomed game of sycophancy, arguing that his record as a local councillor and quangocrat should entitle him to a place on the platform, whereas validly nominated candidates from minor parties could be safely sidelined as ‘jokes’. Reportedly he made no effort to challenge the ruling on the night. Colin commented:

“Had the ambient atmosphere in the hall been less like the consistency of a blancmange, and had I for example had your support, I would have been willing to help bring the proceedings to a premature adjournment including having been carried out by the police if necessary, which on several occasions I have done in order to win campaigns on other matters elsewhere in the past.

At least this would have got the press into gear and to report some active expression of the simmering anger likely to burst into social unrest in the coming months on account of the incredible arrogance and presumption of whatever of the dinosaur parties seizes power.”

More Truth In Black & White (& Blue)


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nothing Left Out

Colin Bex has defied the sceptics by conducting his campaign almost wholly by public transport. Today he did need a lift, to fit in three towns in as many hours after an emergency change of plan.

Colin arrived by bus in Banbury this afternoon to be interviewed by Banbury Sound, the local radio station covering north Oxfordshire, including the northern part of the Witney constituency. The presenter was pleased with the recording, and disappointed that few other candidates had taken up the offer to air their views. The interview is planned to be broadcast on Tuesday, 4 May.

From Banbury it was on to Witney, to collect more election leaflets from the printers, then to Woodstock for a public meeting at the Town Hall. Organised by Woodstock Churches Together, this was an opportunity for voters to meet the candidates and ask questions of them. Candidates for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats were there in person, as was one of the Independents standing; the Conservative and Labour candidates were represented by local party spokesmen. Two Independents and the Loony and UKIP candidates did not attend.

Issues raised ranged from early-years education to the West Lothian question. Colin skillfully steered his answers to the case for parish power and regional self-government. A gasp of realisation ran through the audience when he proposed punitive taxation of the 5-10% of people who own 90% of the wealth, the money to be allocated to parish councils in proportion to their population to spend as they see fit. It had clearly dawned on many that here was a serious political party with truly radical plans for revitalising our local communities. In a week when the annual Sunday Times Rich List showed the richest 1,000 getting richer by £77 billion over a year that has been made so difficult for ordinary saps now facing service cuts of a similar magnitude, it was a message well-received.

Given the circumstances of the constituency, it was perhaps to be expected that the debate would line up as Tories versus the rest. David Cameron’s party came under sustained attack for its attitude to a hung parliament. Listening to the Tories, one would think such an outcome must lead at once to general economic collapse, perpetual barrenness of cattle, crops and women and the imminent arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. If an anti-Tory coalition succeeded, not merely in dashing Wisteria Man’s hopes for five years of elective dictatorship but in finally banishing our mediaeval electoral system (last fit for purpose circa 1832), one can see why they might very well think that. ‘Hung parliament’ is a loaded term; Alex Salmond is right to prefer the term ‘balanced parliament’, though that does not go nearly far enough. What is actually needed is a ‘rainbow parliament’ representing the true diversity of public opinion in these islands. Just make sure that any coalition isn’t a government of ALL the talents or there’ll be no-one left to speak the truth.

At the end of the evening various candidates and spokesmen shook hands amidst the usual bonhomie. The Tory spokesman offered his hand to Colin, who pointedly refused it. A lack of due civility? Not at all. The major parties, dealing death and devastation in the name of money, are no better than criminal conspiracies. We live in hope that their leaders will one day – soon – be brought to justice.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Interesting Times

After a busy day today touring the constituency, taking in Witney, Minster Lovell and Carterton, our candidate Colin Bex was snapped (left) at Woodstock, with Nick Xylas as standard-bearer.

Some 50,000 of our leaflets – headed ‘The Truth in Black & White’ – have gone off to the Royal Mail for delivery to constituents and should be hitting their doormats early next week.

Here are some extracts:

"Illegal wars; white-collar theft; ermine-flecked crime; ministerial bribery for personal gain, and now a national debt of thousands of millions of £s. This is but the tip of an iceberg pointing to further punishment and social unrest and it is why now as never before we all must ensure government changes from 'top-down' diktat to representative or 'bottom-up' democracy. We - as voters - are some of the only people who can ensure it happens.

Should you decide to vote, your vote for Wessex will count as a vote for the necessary changes - it will be neither a 'wasted vote' nor a 'suicide vote' as it would be were you to vote for any of the London party candidates - the more plausible they sound the less credible they are..."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Into Battle

The following press release was issued today by Colin Bex, Wessex Regionalist Party candidate for Witney:

"Colin Bex (pictured left) has been nominated to stand in the General Election in the parliamentary constituency of Witney as candidate for the Wessex Regionalists, the party for Wessex. This is the sixth time he has contested a seat within the Wessex region since 1979.

Colin is co-founder and President of the Wessex Regionalist Party which, formally constituted in 1980, was formed to provide an opportunity for Wessex constituents to be able to vote for the advantages of a system of grass-roots democratic regional-local government as an alternative to centralised diktat handed down by the minority Westminster governments which, since the Second World War majority coalition, have been run serially in turns by one or other of the two larger now virtually indistinguishable London parties.

An architect planner with experience in the public and private sectors during 50 years both in Britain and abroad, Colin became directly aware of the unequal contest between the presumption in favour of development and the need to protect both the built and natural environment from mindless and unnecessary damage and destruction in the service of Mammon.

As a result, he has spent as much of his time campaigning against such aberrations including some to which as a young architect he found he had been contributing.

For full details of the policies and manifesto of the party, visit"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Nonsense. Nonsense. Nonsense.

So there we have it. Three practically identical guided tours of Fantasy Island, courtesy of the main London parties.

Now that the manifestos are out we can see that the all-pervading theme of this election is that the sins of the bankers are to be visited upon the users of public services, even unto the tenth generation. The current budget deficit is £167 billion; the cost of bailing-out failed banks and building societies comes to exactly £167.5 billion. Neat.

To do something about the deficit, the London parties agree, it is necessary to cut everything that matters to us (definitely not what matters to them). We will have “deeper cuts than Thatcher” (Darling), “painful and extensive cuts” (Osborne) or “savage” cuts (Clegg). It’s refreshing to know all three are in favour of more choice in politics. And while we’re busy making our minds up, we'll not notice the stench of corruption rising from the waters of the Thames.

Things that won’t be cut include the £5 billion annual cost of fighting a war of choice in Afghanistan on behalf of the oil companies. The £9 billion annual budget for building schools, hospitals, etc. in ever-richer competitor economies – such as India and China – will actually be increased by all three parties, while schools and hospitals here are being closed. Not only is this money we borrow to give away but the countries that save most and therefore have the most to lend include China. We borrow their money and then we give it back. And then, we give it back again, with interest.

Labour suggest that the way to improve public services is through yet more centralisation, with successful schools, hospitals and even police forces taking over failing ones. You don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that merging a small weak organisation with a small strong one is as likely to produce a big weak one as a big strong one. The Lloyds/HBOS merger is not so long ago that policy-makers can have forgotten that.

The police proposals are particularly worrying, a revival of Charles Clarke’s plans for forced mergers, creating regional constabularies to match the meaningless ‘South West’ and ‘South East’ zones. These in turn would be merely one step on the road to a single national police force under the political direction of a Labour Home Secretary.

We’re told the public sector hasn’t enough management talent to go round and so mergers are the only way forward. How about creating more talent by empowering all those junior managers crushed by a top-down bureaucracy? And making schools, hospitals and police properly accountable to local people through their locally elected representatives?

That’s a thought that ought to appeal to the Tories, who talk up the idea of empowering local communities. Yet nothing that is said by the Tories on this issue is to be believed, especially when it seems believable. The strings are as obvious as Pinocchio’s. To take one example, planning. Local communities are to get back the planning powers stolen from them by Labour. Hurrah! But in the same breath all their current planning powers over the siting of new schools are to be taken away, lest they be used to thwart Tory education policy. The Tory manifesto talks about developers having “to pay a tariff to the local authority to compensate the community for loss of amenity”. Wouldn’t we rather not lose the amenity in the first place?

The Liberal Democrats are no more believable. Didn’t Lib Dems collude with Labour and the Tories in blatantly trying to increase the disparity between the London parties and the rest by televised leaders’ personality contests? If we followed their advice to never vote for what we believe in but always ‘tactically’ then there’d never be choice, ‘real’ or otherwise. The Liberals would never have recovered from those days in the 1960’s when all six of their MPs could fit into a Mini. The Labour Party wouldn’t even have got started.

Nil out of three. And mention UKIP at your peril. That party of twisted paranoiacs have such an acute grasp of financial detail that they’re calling for a 25% cut in public spending while at the same time proposing to spend an extra £12.5 billion a year, double what they reckon they’d save by pulling out of the EU. Their plans include a 40% increase in defence spending with 25,000 extra troops, presumably to shoot those demonstrating against the loss of up to 2 million public sector jobs which have "no useful purpose whatsoever". Since a quarter of UKIP’s MEPs in the last Euro-Parliament either left or were convicted of benefit fraud, expenses fraud or false accounting it seems they are pretty indistinguishable from the rest that London has to offer.

In fact what we are seeing is the unedifying spectacle of a political class who, for all their sound and fury, signify nothing, having long ago stopped communicating with their voters. Not one of these manifestos has anything to offer Wessex. Not one will end Westminster diktat, returning power where it belongs – rooted deep in Wessex and its local communities. Only the Wessex Regionalists are now left to fight for that.

A vote for the Wessex Regionalists sends a signal to the London parties that alternatives do exist. Support for ‘others’ in the polls is running at a consistent 12%. This is 4% higher than it was at the equivalent stage in 2005, when in the event ‘others’ did better then than the polls predicted.

In seats without a WR candidate this time, our advice is clear-cut. Take a thick felt pen to the polling station. Spoil your ballot paper by writing ‘WESSEX REGIONALIST’ right across it, then underline this thrice. When the boxes are emptied, such papers are shown to all the candidates. Give them a message they won’t forget!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fomenting Ferment

Mess wi' we, would thee?

Alistair Darling has created quite a stir by upping the tax on our cider. Facebook's 'Leave Our Cider Alone!' group, created only yesterday, now has approaching 30,000 members. The Wurzels have pledged their support and the race is on to get 'I am a Cider Drinker' to No. 1 in the charts.

David Cameron has got in on the act, claiming that the Government "doesn't understand the West Country". In fact, media analysis shows that the Government understands only too well. With Labour support in the South West the lowest for any of the Prescott zones, the Government knows it has nothing to lose by hammering cider. You wouldn't expect it to go after whisky now, would you? But with House of Commons catering subsidised by the taxpayer, do any of them, whatever their party, understand anything?

A vote for Cameron is not a vote for change. The Tories stubbornly oppose the kind of constitutional reform that would place Wessex beyond Labour's grasp by returning to us - permanently - the power to shape our own lives. No matter how long they hold office, the Tories must lose again one day and Labour's votes, piled up in the nations and regions beyond Wessex, will again determine our fate. Until we vote for the one party truly committed to ending the see-saw for good - the Wessex Regionalists, the party for Wessex.

First Impressions

Colin Bex, WR Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, was out in Witney today testing the ground for a possible challenge to David Cameron. No final decision has been made on the choice of constituency to be fought but the Leader of the Opposition does make a very good target. Voters who've had enough of the Government's voodoo economics will be thinking twice about an alternative out to outdo it in nastiness.

We met at the Angel, a pleasant pub in the Market Square, chatting to locals about their discontents before we got down to the main business of the day. Down on the High Street, with myself waving the Wyvern flag to attract interest, Colin handed leaflets to passers-by and engaged with their reactions.

The idea of Wessex was clearly attractive, especially to older folk who feel robbed of history itself by the Blairite project of 'modern' Britain. Being lumped in for regional purposes with Kent - on the other side of London - was unpopular too. There was some puzzlement over boundaries from those whose idea of Wessex is shaped too sharply by Thomas Hardy but once the local background was explained all doubts were dispelled. Oxfordshire was where Wessex started, where its first capital is recorded and where the Wyvern itself first flew as the battle standard of our kings. The town of Witney owes its existence to the Bishops of Winchester, who built one of their 24 palaces there in the Middle Ages.

Older voters and first-timers alike welcomed the possibility of a WR candidate, whose presence would at the very least widen their choice and at best provide real colour to what was expected to be a generally drab election campaign. David Cameron was seen as pre-occupied with posturing at Prime Minister's Questions and far too busy to be an effective local representative with time for his constituents, their problems or their views. Life-long Labour voters promised 'never again' and grasped at the opportunity to back a fresh alternative. With its Leveller, Chartist and William Morris connections, the Witney constituency has a radical heritage second to none. The WR message of local self-determination and freedom from London diktat met with particularly strong approval from all sides.

Heavy rain after lunch forced a change of plan. The afternoon was spent in Chipping Norton and Burford collecting local information, such as town maps and bus timetables. If Witney is the chosen seat, Colin intends to campaign by public transport, speaking to voters on the move. And in stark contrast to David Cameron's token greenism, there won't be a chauffeur-driven car coming along behind.

Review of 2009

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

The 2009 Review has recently been forwarded to the Commission and here is what it says:

During 2009, thoughts again turned towards preparations for the forthcoming General Election. The Wessex Regionalists did not contest the European election in June – for which Wessex is sawn in two by regional constituency boundaries and then the pieces lumped in with other areas – but were pleased to see from the results that the unquestioned dominance of the three larger parties is on the wane. In Cornwall, Mebyon Kernow polled very well and in November two WR members attended the MK AGM and picked up tips on how they did it.

A general disillusionment with politics arising from the abuse of Parliamentary expenses has created a rare opportunity for smaller parties to gain a sympathetic ear. Nevertheless, we remain concerned that the media - particularly the broadcast media - fail to provide the balanced information about the contesting parties that legal equality on the ballot paper ought to suggest.

We continued to monitor dissatisfaction with Labour’s plans to impose over half a million new homes on Wessex, principally to accommodate London overspill. These homes are not wanted in Wessex and do not address our region’s housing needs. Our executive meeting in February was addressed by the Chair of the Shortwood Green Belt Campaign, one of a network of local residents’ groups opposing tens of thousands of homes planned for Green Belt land around Bristol. We are pleased to see that all these plans are now mired in doubt following a successful legal challenge to the Government’s approach.

Letters to the press continued, including an attack on the South West RDA for its abuse of the former Morlands factory at Glastonbury, occupied in January by local people opposed to unimaginative plans that treated their views with contempt. However, a bigger effort this year went into upgrading our presence in cyberspace, where we are able to present our case unfiltered. In the course of the year we launched our new web domain – – and a WR page on Facebook. By the end of the year the website had attracted over 1,000 hits. Additions to the WR blog – – have continued to be made (a 50% increase this year over last), as well as an opening contribution to a new blog,, which promotes the regionalist political philosophy.

The Party returned to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in July 2009, providing a busy stall on both
Saturday and Sunday. The Festival was the first outing for our new recruitment leaflet, 'Who Cares About You?' We also took the opportunity while there to publicise other causes that we back, such as the campaign to re-open the Somerset & Dorset Railway, and to raise awareness of Wessex history and culture. The Government’s supporters at the Festival begged the electorate to vote negatively against the Conservatives, however disappointed with Labour. It was a poor defence of a dozen wasted years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Keep Off the Cider!

Alistair Darling’s last budget before the election took a widely predicted swipe at cider drinkers. This afternoon he announced plans to raise the excise duty on cider by 10% over inflation, singling out our region’s choice for special mistreatment. Taxes on beer, wine and spirits will rise by just 2% over inflation, so Labour’s champagne socialists will be raising their glasses to the Chancellor tonight.

We already have some of the highest rates of duty in the world and the latest increase is bound to cost Wessex jobs. A 47% increase in cider duty in 1984 resulted in the loss of more than 500 jobs industry-wide and duty increases remain a threat to the success of cider sales today. The cider industry, as one of the few to have achieved growth through the recent recession, is a true success story. Today’s duty increase will undo much of this good work and the impact of a significant price increase to the consumer will probably also be counterproductive in raising revenue for the Government. Currently cider and perry contributes around £370 million annually, or more than £1 million a day, in excise duty and VAT to the UK Exchequer.

Duty on a pint of cider has been traditionally low - around 18p on average compared to 46p for a pint of beer - despite cider's popularity with problem drinkers and the young. There has been intense lobbying to raise its price. Yet alcohol consumption is falling at the fastest rate for six decades, with pub closures the most visible sign – running at 52 a week. In truth, there are no problem drinks, only problem drinkers, and making everyone else drink less is not the solution.

Cider is much more expensive to produce than other drinks and it helps underpin the economy in many rural areas. Raising the tax on cider will make beer more competitive, to the advantage of the big foreign breweries. David Sheppy, of Sheppy’s Cider, from Bradford-on-Tone, near Taunton, said: “We are not pleased. A 10% increase is quite devastating news. A lot of money has been put into investment in the cider industry, and we don’t now want to see that investment wasted.”

John Sheaves, Chief Executive of the food and drink association Taste of the West, described the proposal as "a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut. Because of the nature of the industry, we're not talking about big companies, we're talking about small producers who often employ very few people and have fixed overheads and small avenues by which they can increase prices.

"To slap a tax on sales would impact on those businesses' profitability and ability to thrive. The Government is meant to be trying to encourage home-grown production and sustainable food and drink production as well as trying to encourage rural economic development. That doesn't square with this proposal."

Simon Russell, spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers, said: "This is entirely the wrong message. It puts at risk the very businesses that are doing so much to bring investment to the rural economy and to use the countryside in a positive, agricultural way including helping with carbon emissions."

It has to be said that not all ‘cider’ sold in the UK is truly worthy of the name. Some of it is just cheap strong alcohol which is called ‘cider’ for tax purposes. It could be made out of corn syrup or anything, with flavouring and saccharin added. A more discriminating approach to definitions could help Wessex a lot.

Tackling ‘alcopops’ by taxing cider will not deter those with disposable income who are determined to drink. They will find substitutes or else pay more. Or steal more, in some cases. Chris Coles, managing director of Topsham-based Green Valley Cyder, stated: "The supermarkets are frequently discounting lagers which you can buy for 25p a can – that's almost criminal, it's encouraging people to drink without encouraging them to make a sensible choice."

Instead of punishing the responsible and irresponsible alike, the Government should enforce more firmly the existing laws on sales and on-street behaviour, adopting a policy of zero tolerance towards those who go beyond their limits.