Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Panic Over?

“The question remains whether, as the Berliners say, ‘the situation is desperate, but not hopeless,’ or ‘hopeless but not desperate,’ as the Viennese used to put it.”
Walter C. Dowling (US Ambassador to Korea), 1957

Consider three documents. The first is the State of the South West Report 2011, which informs us that human activity first exceeded the planet’s biocapacity some time in the 1980’s, that the situation continues to worsen (para. 7.18.1) and that if everyone consumed resources at the same rate as residents of the ‘South West’, we would need 2.64 planets (7.18.3). We are already living far beyond environmental limits, despite official pronouncements that we are – apparently – working hard to stay within them. The UK’s is one of the highest ecological footprints in the world, lower than those for the USA and Australia but considerably higher than those found in other developed nations with a high quality of life such as Italy and Japan. Worse still, the ‘South West’ zone has a greater eco-footprint than the UK as a whole, despite the perception of Wessex as a ‘green’ and ecologically-aware region.

Why are we so bad? Food (26%), transport (21%) and housing (21%) are the largest contributors to the ‘South West’ footprint. Transport should come as no surprise. We have a highly dispersed settlement pattern that is dependent on the private car, coupled with the long-term rundown of regional rail services compared to the London fringe. Overall, our largest towns and cities perform better than our rural areas and, broadly speaking, the further west the urban area lies, the better its results become. Commuting to London might be dragging down our figures but relative wealth seems a more likely explanation for this, with the greenhouse gas footprint in particular increasing eastwards as higher average household income fuels higher consumption.

The second document, Footprint Results for Local Authorities, draws comparisons between 2001 and 2004. (More recent data is not comparable: the two earlier snapshots allow us to examine trends.) Pages 11 and 12 show the ‘South West’ as the largest area in England to have deteriorated over that period in terms of eco-footprint, and the largest in Britain in terms of carbon footprint. Despite all that greenwash. Nothing can disguise the fact that development which is ‘less bad’ than it used to be is not the same as ‘good’, or that the footprints won’t reduce if we keep adding more feet.

So what of the third document? The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out the Coalition’s thinking on planning – and the ‘limits to localism’ it seeks to impose. It decrees a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Alarm bells should begin ringing at once. You either have sustainability or you have development. To attempt both is to guarantee failure. You may as well stand on your feet and your head at the same time.

But worse is to come. According to the NPPF, ‘sustainable development’ means ‘sustainable economic growth’ because “without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved”. This is not just a misunderstanding. It is a wilful inversion of reality. As a rule, the higher the rate of economic growth, the higher the degree of environmental degradation that results. The only way an economy can appear to grow without harming the environment is if the transactions all involve buying and selling things that don’t actually exist. Think banking. Think toxic assets. A sustainable economy need not be a static economy – our recent policy review committed the Party to support economic change in place of economic growth – but unless the total amount of activity is kept within strict environmental limits there will be no economy.

So who’s listening? None of the London parties. Even the Greens talk about ‘green growth’, without reminding us what therefore needs to contract if the ecological books are to balance. As for the media, no chink of light is ever permitted to penetrate the articles and discussions that pore over economic orthodoxy as if it meant a thing. Orthodox economics has become for our day the Big Lie, which, if it’s big enough, most people will end up believing. So much for education. We seem to be edging towards a scenario like the last decades of the Soviet Union, when ever more desperate remedies are applied to ‘save’ the system. A system that those who can add two and two correctly know is bound to fail. For the rest, evidence is not just ignored: the true believer cannot see it at all. A Blairite conjuring trick will soon reconcile infinite growth with finite resources. Development is environmental protection.

Standing up to a lie is personally threatening. The gut reaction is to protect one’s security and stability, to not rock the boat. After all, how far does the remit of the security services actually extend? Passively, or worse, the deceived defend the lies and the lies go on getting bigger as London politicians push the boundaries just a little bit further.

Fortunately, faced with such nonsense, sane folk are duty-bound to ask the searching questions. Let’s take one example.

Is man-made climate change a hoax? If it is, then we need to ask what is it a cover for? There is good reason to think that it may form a gentle introduction to the much more intractable issue of Peak Oil, though along the way it gives a heck of a boost to demands for a world government with dictatorial powers. The so-called ‘debt crisis’ illustrates how easily global governance, even now, can be manipulated to ‘deliver on austerity’, transferring astronomical amounts of public wealth into private hands with barely a whimper of real protest. More locally, the imperative of ‘green growth’ can recruit hordes of dewy-eyed useful idiots, to campaign, for example, for heavily subsidised wind farms instead of the low impact community wind, hydro and bio power that a decentralised society might actually need.

If man-made climate change is NOT a hoax then the actions of politicians, advised by the best science available, are rationally inexplicable. They would by now have abandoned all this pretence about growing the economy to pay off the bankers. They would have slammed on the brakes and radically transformed the financial system to support a rapid transition to a steady-state economy. Instead they insist not only that growth must continue but that environmental protection must be switched off for as long as it takes to accommodate even more growth in population and consumption. All to re-pay debts that were created out of nothing. Imaginary debts, which could be paid off at once with imaginary money and no-one would be any worse off than when they started.

So if man-made climate change is not a hoax, we must conclude either that London politicians are stupid enough to ignore the warnings of the world’s top scientists, or else that they fully realise what they’re doing. That they genuinely love money more than they love their own children and grandchildren, whose future they’re throwing away for the sake of a silly numbers game. Either way, they have to go. Or it will be time to panic after all.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to School

This month, young Eric was at it again. Pickles’ Communities & Local Government Department issued new planning rules for schools, ordering local councils to allow good schools to expand and threatening the cane if they exercise their own democratic judgment.

This is, to put it bluntly, an idiotic policy, created by idiots, for idiots to apply. A sensible person would ask why there are good schools and bad schools. As taxpayers, we fund both kinds so we have an interest in seeing the bad schools turned round as soon as possible. Children are trapped in those bad schools and someone ought to be speaking up for them. Now. Setting up a ‘free market’ in which schools compete to poach each others’ pupils is the kind of harebrained scheme we might expect after 30 years of the Thatcher experiment but it’s simply no way to get results quickly and fairly. Why not just find out what the good schools are doing right and get the bad schools to do the same? Before marketisation, when there was still a sense of the common good, best practice circulated rapidly. Now it’s commercially confidential, a secret you can’t have unless you pay for it. Childish. And it damages children’s prospects for the sake of someone’s big ego and their lucrative career.

It also causes chaos. Parental choice means one lot of children being ferried from A to B, passing another lot being ferried from B to A. Between a twelfth and a fifth of all traffic in the morning peak is accounted for by the school run. What do these folk imagine will happen when oil prices make this kind of nonsense impossible?

Earlier this year, our policy review meeting took a view on education, which is that we see it as part of building better communities, growing out of inclusive schools at their heart. Schools that cherish all and are cherished by all. Schools that won’t let their children down and which won’t be let down by the community that funds and manages them. Recognising the primacy of individual and communal autonomy, fully inclusive schools are a Party aim rather than a requirement, to be achieved where supported locally but not imposed where they aren’t wanted. Parishes should decide whether private schools are to be tolerated on their territory.

Current national policy, seeking to undermine community schools rather than enable them to achieve more, is State-sponsored looting by the most mouthy, selfish scum our society has yet spawned. The promoters of ‘free schools’ deserve to be in jail for diversion of public funds, sharing a cell with a freshly convicted rioter or two. And if there’s room, a few Labour advocates of ‘academies’ sponsored by the likes of creationist car dealers. The whole London party consensus on the education system is that it’s fair game for social vivisection. Do any of those involved want better schools in their area? No. They want a better school in their area, from which they can benefit through dismantling democratic accountability to the whole community.

Our view is that all public funding for private and faith schools should be withdrawn because of their potential to divide communities on class and religious/ethnic lines. Educational apartheid is a real possibility in larger cities but we shouldn’t forget the special problems of rural areas, which are the main concern of a party devoted to the needs of Wessex.

Many of our village primary schools are Church of England schools, largely as a result of our particular class history in the 19th century. In England as a whole, in January 2002, 32.8% of State schools were identifiably faith-based. (The local figures that follow are also from January 2002 but given the direction of Government policy since then they are very likely to have increased: the national figure for January 2008 was 33.2%.) In parts of Wessex the figures were very much higher than the national average: 60.9% in Wiltshire, 56.3% in Dorset, 51.4% in Oxfordshire, 49.6% in Somerset, 48.1% in Bath & North East Somerset. (Cornwall, with its Nonconformist heritage, comes in very much lower, at 17.4%, as do other traditional mining counties like Derbyshire and Durham.) Wiltshire’s 60.9% was exceeded only by Westminster and Wigan, both urban areas where parental choice has the possibility of meaning something. When your village school is run by the CofE and so is every alternative for over 10 miles, ‘choice’ may have rather a hollow ring to it. In fact, it reveals the whole idea of parental choice to be a fantasy dreamed up by folk in posh London suburbs who have no idea of the unavoidable reality in much of the countryside.

Many parents feel cheated. Many are very upset, because in 2003 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued instructions to his schools that they should see themselves as small churches, holding confirmation and communion services for their captive congregations.

It is arguable that Church dominance of much of the Wessex schools system is a badge of regional difference and as such something that ought to be cherished. Anglicanism has been as much a part of Wessex’s regional culture as Puritanism in East Anglia or Methodism in Cornwall. It should continue to be, if that’s what folk want. The question is, how much power do they really have to change it if it isn’t?

It must be right that local choice and local control should be meaningful and at present they are not. Non-communicants are second-class citizens. Before reform of the House of Lords in 1999 we had in effect an ‘established Party’ (the Tories) with a privileged role in government. The ‘Tory party at prayer’, our established Church, still has that privileged role in education. Its position is deeply embedded and protected by law, so that, for example, when village schools are closed and the sites sold the money goes into national coffers, to be mismanaged by the Church Commissioners. The Church nationally therefore actually benefits financially from the withdrawal of our village schools. Other concessions have been made over the years, such as the State taking on an ever greater share of the cost of maintaining these buildings, which it will never own and whose eventual sale will produce a massive windfall profit for others. Not forgetting, of course, the free transport to school. All that cross-bussing again.

If we were to design a schools system from scratch, to fit within the structure of government we advocate, community should come first. Parishes, or groups of parishes, should run primary schools. Hundreds, or groups of hundreds, should run secondary and further education. Counties should provide specialist services not viable at any narrower level. Everyone involved should work together to provide the best possible education for all, with no axes to grind. Schools funded by all should be for teaching and not for preaching. The availability of the facilities for dual use by the school and, out of hours, the wider community should be obligatory. Common sense? You might very well think that. We couldn’t possibly comment.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dancing To Our Own Tune

In yesterday’s Western Daily Press, Veronica Newman of the Campaign for an English Parliament wrote that “One of the arguments often raised against the establishment of an English parliament is that it would be playing into the hands of the European Union… dividing the UK into bite-sized chunks for the delectation of Brussels.”

It’s delightfully refreshing to see English centralists hoist by their own petard, after all these years of telling us that regionalism is a Brussels conspiracy to cut up England. The ‘Euro-plot’ gets waved about like a demonic scarecrow in a bid to deter any rational debate about much-needed constitutional reforms. Those who do so do not see the irony of their position. If to embrace regionalism is to be positively influenced by the continent, then to shun regionalism is to be negatively influenced just as much. Neither extreme allows an independent assessment of the case on its own merits. The fact is that the case for regionalism in England would hold together even if the continent did not exist. It has been talked about and written about in this country since at least Edwardian times. ‘Home Rule’ agitation generally goes back a further century.

That other European countries have decentralised suggests not a conspiracy but a wide measure of open agreement that taking decisions regionally makes sense. If Germany has 16 regional legislatures and Switzerland has 26, this does not appear to have weakened them. On the contrary, it may be one reason why they are more successful than most.

Wessex Regionalists are not fundamentally anti-EU, nor fundamentally pro-EU: we will not be drawn into a beauty contest between the frying pan and the fire. We are against unnecessary centralisation and committed to genuine subsidiarity. By ‘genuine’ we mean a system in which autonomy is always there to be claimed from ‘below’, as of right and without quibbling, not dispensed, grudgingly, from ‘above’.

Our position is one of principle, not expediency. We are happy to explain it but not to alter it. It is what sets us apart from the London parties, whose whole rationale is about deciding what can or cannot ‘safely’ be left to ordinary folk to decide.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Return of the Region

The leading article today in The Times (a London newspaper) is about the north-south divide. It reports a call – actually made back in March – from Paul Hackett of the Smith Institute for a ‘Council of the North’ to be established, “a body that would bring together politicians, business leaders and academics to speak for the region as a whole. Such a body last existed between 1484 and 1641. It was set up by Richard III to give more power to the north after centuries of depression. Mr Hackett pointed out that London had representation that was becoming increasingly strong, and Scotland and Wales were also able to argue their cause. He suggested that bringing together the North West, Yorkshire and Humber and the North East would strengthen the whole region’s voice.”

The history is broad-brush but the political point is well made. The figures reproduced are damning – especially that transport spending per head in London is three times higher than up north.

What does this have to do with Wessex? Plenty. The case for centralism is that it allows resources to be shared out fairly by an impartial elite seated in Whitehall. It is demonstrable nonsense. All it does is thwart regional initiative and favour those closest to the metropolitan power-base. In 1971, John Banks, later our Party’s President, wrote in his book, Federal Britain?: The Case for Regionalism, that centralisation “has meant the concentration in London of the best jobs in government and business, and the corresponding drain of talent from the provinces and smaller national areas. High incomes have been earned in the metropolitan region, which have then been taxed in order to subsidize the regions from which enterprise has been attracted to the high income area, in order to persuade some of it to go back again. It is ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ economics, from which nobody can ultimately gain.”

We advocate a regional solution that can begin to redress unfairness in a dynamic and lasting way. We are regionalists, not separatists, and work with those in the Celtic nations and in other areas of England – even with ordinary Londoners – to dismantle the structures of arrogance that suppress us all. There is no place in our Party for those who wish to whine about Scots or northerners getting their hands on money that could have been spent in Wessex. Much of the money that apparently needs to be spent in Wessex is only needed because of reckless population growth outstripping the capacity of our public services to cope. Centralism has delivered a ‘lose-lose’ scenario where the older industrial regions are gutted and abandoned while Wessex disappears under concrete. Regionalism can hardly do worse than that.

Our Party puts Wessex first, always. But we seek to do it in an intelligent way, one that builds successful alliances that will benefit us at least as much as they benefit others. We have always been the Wessex Regionalist Party: proud of the fact that we view Wessex as a region – a community of communities that joins with others to form still larger communities as the need arises, in every case upon the basis of enlightened self-interest, not empire-building, nor uniformity for its own sake. In this view, we stand shoulder to shoulder with so many good folk throughout the length and breadth of Europe. We follow their progress with interest, as we hope they follow ours. A rising tide lifts all boats and, as we pursue our goal of self-government for Wessex, we trust we shall never be so blind to the world that we miss the signs of the turn, nor so deaf that we cannot listen and learn from the struggles and successes of our friends and neighbours.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Urban Harvesting

Much has already been written about the unrest that has struck Banbury, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Reading, Southampton and other places since the weekend. Over a long, hot summer, many more words will appear, whether or not the events themselves recur. After the political debate, the weighty inquiry will ponder and pontificate. Recommendations will be insubstantial and – where not ignored altogether – will be incompetently implemented. British government, doing what it does best.

At the end of the story, nothing will have altered. When the IRA blew up the Baltic Exchange in the City of London in 1992, and Bishopsgate the following year, that altered everything. The chaps with the cash told Major to get it sorted and attitudes to Irish affairs saw their greatest transformation in 800 years. Money talks. Emptying JD Sports and Foot Locker can’t compete with that.

If the changes likely are all cosmetic, what brands of make-up exactly are we discussing? Two, mainly. The debate that has been sparked will be dominated by the stale shibboleths of Left and Right, united by a fanatical desire to exclude anyone different from having a say.

The Right starts with the advantage of being in office, albeit not necessarily in power. Its short-term focus will be the exemplary punishment of wrongdoing, an exercise that will sadly disappoint its supporters. Offenders will not be roasted alive on spits. Few will even be sent to prison, unless other criminals are released early to make room and keep within budget. Sentences that go beyond the norm will be challenged by the defence as irrational. Looters will laugh, last, longest and loudest.

The long-term focus of the Right will remain exactly the same as now. On more looting of its own. The looters on the streets have learned their callous inhumanity from 30 years of loadsamoney liberalism. Free enterprise? The enterprise has been audacious, certainly, and the goods free, to be sure. That no money changed hands is a detail that will detain only those who fail to hail the dawn of a new business model, the next ratcheting-up of the Hayekian dialectic, more efficient, less altruistic, with 50% fewer parties to the transaction.

At the time of writing, the riots are confined to England. The Celtic nations, small enough to acknowledge the human scale, where a sense of community endures and the Right has been largely rejected, have escaped. So too has the continent, where the social democratic model survives in still better shape. There has been an Arab Spring, but no sign yet of a European Summer.

The Left comes to the debate with a confession it will not make. That having held power for 13 of the past 14 years, the events it condemns are largely of its own making. It has created a human zoo, an act for which it must not be allowed to avoid responsibility. Four decades of hippy thinking – that time and resources are infinite and that there are no right answers – have fostered a culture of excusing and celebrating what must nowadays always be termed ‘deferred success’. An older, blunter Left would have called a failure a failure and learned its lesson. The newer, parasitical Left dares not solve problems or it would be out of its well-paid job. Institutional empathy has to take the place of solutions, because success would be the new failure. At least the greying student revolutionaries who now run the show are having to think for once before deciding who their heroes are.

Tonight it was reported that Manchester suffered badly yesterday because its police were simply overwhelmed. Their available strength had been diminished by lending officers to keep the peace on the streets of London. It was last night too that unrest spread in Wessex, where previously only Bristol was featured nationally as the scene of disorder. Now we should be concerned. A chief constable’s top priority should be the protection of the force’s own area, lending to others only when that objective has been secured. Every Wessex officer sent to London is one less to defend those at risk in our own towns and villages. It will be instructive to see data on burglaries in the Cotswolds, the Vale of Pewsey or the New Forest while police from the Thames Valley, Wiltshire and Hampshire forces are elsewhere. When trouble flared in Stokes Croft in Bristol earlier this year, in the notorious ‘Tesco’s riot’, foreign police, from south Wales, were brought over to enforce the law. Police from another Wessex force might have been better received but there’s no prospect of that if they’re busy helping Londoners lance their own festering boils.

The possibility of being shot is actually highest in the countryside, not in inner cities. Rural areas are where the guns are, especially the ones held legally. And they’re needed, given the likely police response time if there is any incident. Events in London will lead to the questioning of many longstanding assumptions. Will Cameron’s goal of privatising everything but the police and army survive, or will they in fact be the first victims of the Big Society, as communities decide that if the protection they have paid for is not around then they need to start making their own arrangements? Farmers have already started, following a 17% increase in the cost of agri-crime in just two years. Livestock rustling has doubled in six months. Thefts of quad bikes are a particular plague in Wessex, as are high value tractor thefts in areas close to motorways. Heating oil has also been targeted since the price rose last year and it isn’t even a luxury yet.

Left and Right share the perspective of Jacobin individualism, one which seeks the elimination or subjugation of all institutions intermediate between the central State and the citizen. Neither can tolerate, or even comprehend, the idea of community responsibility, for good or ill. But we do not have to abandon a thousand years of progress in other fields to see that a system the Saxons knew as frankpledge, in which everyone is accountable for their neighbours’ actions, and for any failure on their own part to bring them to justice, creates a self-policing society.

Early in the 19th century, liability for riot damage was imposed on the hundred in which the damage occurred. The hundred was responsible to the king for keeping the peace, so if it failed in its duty, and the troublemakers could not be traced, it was only fair that everyone had to pay the compensation. In 1886 that responsibility was transferred to the police and so rests today ultimately with Council Tax payers in the county or larger area for which a constabulary is constituted. It’s a much fairer idea than insurance, where the future burden of higher premiums falls on the victim and never touches the perpetrator even indirectly.

You would think so. Except that under Labour a consultation paper in 2003 proposed to abolish altogether the last trace of the collective liability for riot damage. Why? Because insurance was seen as a better way, one that did not divert resources from the police, who should not be punished for not doing their job effectively. Top cops, of course, are now wriggling for the review to be revived, claiming that “in a context of cuts the public will see little sense in a shrinking police fund being diverted to pay for criminal damage”.

The public might conceivably disagree. It is no criticism of the frontline copper to say that, for those at the top, payment by results should work both ways. When so much investment has been made in ‘policing by consent’, for apparently so little return where criminals don’t consent to be policed, chief constables and police authority chairmen cannot just shrug off the results as the unpredictable nature of social complexity.

A lot of that complexity has just undergone a rapid simplification. The world will not be same again. When the dust settles, communities will be demanding that the authorities earn their keep, or the communities will keep their taxes. And maybe build for themselves something that history tells us will work.