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!