Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peak Credulity

Must be conference season for the London parties, no?

Ringing the Changes

A couple of weeks ago – before computer problems kept us from posting to you – Bournemouth found itself in the national news. It’s to become the first part of the UK to require landline users to phone the whole number, including the area code, for local calls, even to next door neighbours.

Why? Not because there are too many folk needing to be connected but because the proliferation of phone companies has led to increased pressure on the supply of numbers.

Changes like these must lead one to question whether competition always makes things better for the customer. Remember when, under a monopoly supplier, directory enquiries were free, because giving out numbers meant more calls would inevitably follow?

How much simpler life would be with just the one phone company to consider. It could even be locally owned and controlled, as the Portsmouth Corporation Telephone Department was until 1913. Hull’s was until 1999 and is still independent of BT. Trunk lines are an unavoidable add-on but the GPO Telephones had a regional structure until privatisation. There was even a South-Western region that extended to Southampton. Wessex Telecom calling?

Knowing Our Place

Alex Salmond, setting out the Scottish Government’s programme at Holyrood earlier this month, poured scorn on Tories who had described plans to promote ‘Scottish Studies’ as ‘indoctrination’. “I cannot imagine any other nation,” he said, “where teaching your own history, arts and literature in an impartial way would be dismissed in such a negative fashion.”

Try south of the border, Alex. We’ve been arguing for decades that Wessex Studies needs to be offered as a university course and elements from it incorporated into day-to-day teaching in Wessex schools. Other regions are faring much better. Norwich has its Centre of East Anglian Studies. Newcastle has its Centre for Northern Studies. Leeds Metropolitan University also has its Institute of Northern Studies and offers a Master of Arts course in the subject. Even little Cornwall has its Institute of Cornish Studies at Penryn.

It’s nothing to do with lack of material. Wessex isn’t just Alfred the Great. It isn’t just Thomas Hardy. It’s Stonehenge and Avebury, ancient chalk figures, Roman baths and villas, Arthurian legend, abbots, barons and wool merchants, Queen Elizabeth’s sea dogs, Monmouth’s Rebellion, Swing rioters, Tolpuddle Martyrs, I.K. Brunel and Westland. It’s our dialect and our writers, from William Barnes to Pam Ayres. Our artists, from Stanley Spencer to Beryl Cook and David Inshaw. Our music, from the Wurzels to the Bristol Sound. Actresses like Liz Hurley, Kate Winslet and Emma Watson. Our cheese and cider, real ale, and good old recipes. And the land itself, its forests, moors, heaths and downs, its richness of wildlife and heritage. THIS is what our tourism and marketing folk should be selling, not some dead-end ‘South West’ that turns its back on anything and everything that’s not superficial and ephemeral. And if they need expert help, our universities should provide it. Let them prove they’re part of Wessex life and not simply living off Wessex.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Cycling At The Edge

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993), founder of evolutionary economics and co-founder of General Systems Theory

One of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s best analogies was ‘the inductivist turkey’. A repeated experiment apparently gives the same answer every time. Has an eternal truth has been discovered? Never. It only takes one fresh, contrary observation to disprove the hypothesis. The turkey receives food every day. For 364 days. Without fail. Until the day it becomes food itself.

Yesterday’s Mail on Sunday included an unexpectedly erudite piece, penned by Bristolian William Rees-Mogg, who used to edit top London tabloid The Times but is much better known in Wessex as head of the landowning family with political ambitions from rural north-east Somerset.

Rees-Mogg’s theme was the business cycle, and more especially the long wave cycles into which individual business cycles fit. These are known as Kondratiev waves, after the Russian economist, shot by Stalin, who analysed them in the 1920s. Others had already grasped the idea of successive technological eras. Patrick Geddes at the beginning of the 20th century contrasted ‘palaeotechnic’ industries, led by coal, iron and textiles, with the emerging ‘neotechnic’ world of oil, electricity and chemicals. Kondratiev, and later Schumpeter, added much more detail. The historical economic data is just about sufficient to trace cycles of boom and bust all the way back to the South Sea Bubble in 1720.

The theory suggests that the boom is kick-started by capital investment to replace worn-out plant such as machinery, blast furnaces or vehicles. What synchronises this investment across competing economies is technological development. New products, or new ways of making old ones, give competitive advantage, so everyone is busy investing in plant in rapid succession to stay in the game. The bust comes when all that costly plant is starting to wear out and the market is too saturated for anyone to take the risk of replacing it. Especially, of course, when the financial sector has become top heavy in relation to the real economy.

According to Rees-Mogg, we’re now in one of the big dips in the Kondratiev long wave, a dip not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. History should warn us that wars are usually a sure way to perk up production. Rees-Mogg’s prognosis is not that bad. His educated guess is that the depression won’t end until 2020. It’s only a guess, as the dead turkey would testify, but is it a credible guess? In fact, it’s more than likely that 2020 comes and goes and still there’s no growth, but we can certainly agree that no spectacular upswing will happen before then.

Which should make us protest all the more forcefully against the antics of Osborne and Pickles in the press this weekend, both adamant that they will deregulate the planning system to, in their fevered imaginations, stimulate growth. OK, let’s take this slowly then boys. If there’s no underlying push for growth in the economy then deregulation will not stimulate it. Businesses without markets will not get loans and will not want to build. Housebuilders will not be moved by those who want to buy but cannot get mortgages. The quantity of development that takes place will be the same, regulation or no regulation. All that will happen is that the quality of development will plummet. Development will happen in the wrong locations, judged over the long term, cherry-picked according to the random nature of landownership. It will be cheaply built, to poor environmental standards. Developers will be let off making a contribution to funding the new schools, parks, etc. that their development makes necessary. Cash-strapped local folk, who may have fought the development tooth-and-nail, will pick up the bill instead. Wessex towns and Wessex countryside alike face ruin, for nothing. The Coalition’s planning reforms are a cowboys’ charter that promises an El Dorado it can never deliver. Growth is over. Fact. With Peak Oil looming, that’s even more certain than Christmas.

It’s also pretty certain that the cycles of economic change will continue. Just not in a context of growth. A world that at last realises that resources are finite will start to divert them from sunset industries into sunrise ones as quickly as possible. We will, for example, see a big shift towards resource efficiency and clean technology. Expect too a big revival in railway engineering as demand picks up for rails, signalling, power supply and rolling stock. Most items will be imported to start with, mainly from France, Germany or China, but there are advantages in being the last and therefore newest entrant to the market. Wessex will be starting out with some of the most modern engineering facilities in the world. Optimum sites for them need to be in the planning stages now. (Money to invest? You could do worse than buy former railway land at Bristol and Yeovil, two places with existing reputations for engineering excellence and poised to move from aerospace into rail.) All these sites need to be safeguarded against short-term fantasists who’d cover them with shopping malls and tiny little boxes for locals temporarily priced out of buying real homes by Londoners fleeing the mess they’ve made of their own world.

Wessex Regionalists have been articulating our vision of the future since 1974. Futurology is our specialist subject and it’s painful to watch the rest of Wessex take so long to catch up. Even seemingly good ideas like Transition Towns have been hijacked by hippies who think old railway lines are for country walks and not the backbone of our future regional transport system. Small is beautiful but thinking big has its place. Especially when dealing with ideas about the long term, a space and time almost defined by difference from the here and now. Along the way there are many things to learn, and re-learn. Skills. Attitudes. Values. Some things will be new. Others will certainly be coming round again. Wessex itself is a bit of both. The best overall metaphor for the future we’re preparing today is not a circle or a wave but a spiral, taking the best of the past onward to a new level.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Magic Roundabout

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (1888)

We don’t mean the roundabout in Swindon. We mean the political one we’re trapped upon, watching riders from the other parties switching horses. Hey presto! Red Tories. Blue Labour. How do the yellow party beat that? Should they bother? At all?

Politics is a dynamic artform so consistency is a rare thing. Perhaps the extreme case is to be found in Hungary, where the Socialist Party now champions privatisation and means testing. In the words of one of its leaders, “The historic task of the Socialist government is to roll back the frontiers of the welfare state.” To understand how this came about, it is necessary to appreciate that Hungarian socialism was defined by its struggle against conservative nationalism (and ultimately fascism). What started off as a battle against capitalism by socialists has become a battle against nationalism by internationalists. So it is the Socialist Party that now wants more EU integration, sells off State assets to non-Hungarians, does the least to help Hungarian minorities in surrounding countries and generally welcomes the triumph of the global free market. Red flag anyone? No fair offer refused.

We have our own, less blatant experience of the same, from Thatcher’s wooing of the working class to Mandelson’s New Labour, "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". When Revenue & Customs figures show that the bottom half of the population now own only 1% of the wealth, compared to 12% in 1976, a little yearning for simpler times is understandable.

Nietzsche wrote about the genealogy of morals but political ideas too have their roots, however tangled they are now becoming. Concepts of Left and Right that go back to the French Revolution may be reaching the end of their usefulness, along with the fossil fuel bonanza that enabled their sparring, but nothing has yet emerged to supplant them. In English politics, the two-tone divide stretches even further back, back to the Civil War.

Yet the largest pitched battle of that war to occur in Dorset was not fought between Cavaliers and Roundheads. It occurred in August 1645 when a force led by Oliver Cromwell, outnumbered at least 2 to 1, defeated the Clubmen on Hambledon Hill. The Clubmen, armed neutrals, were fed up with both sides. While others argued over who should run the country, they actually were the country, the ‘Country party’, as a contemporary source described them. Clubmen of all areas, royalist or parliamentarian, had much in common: a firm attachment to ancient rights and customs against a greedy, arbitrary and centralising State, a vague nostalgia for the good old days of Queen Elizabeth, and an enduring belief in the traditional social order, even if it did need some prodding to do its duty.

Unlike the Levellers, the Clubmen had no plans to plot a revolution. Their aims were more modest but also more down-to-earth. Above all they sought peace and prosperity, to preserve their local situation, regardless of political happenings elsewhere. Historians who dismiss the Clubmen because they had no ambitions for political change at national level are rather missing the point. They rose up, with no greater motive than the desire to protect their own hearths and homes, because national politics as a whole had failed them.

Clubmen were not unique to Wessex but Wessex is where they were concentrated and at their most sophisticated in the demands they formulated. We can rightly view them as Wessex heroes not because they had any notion of Home Rule but because they believed that national politics should serve them and not that they should serve national politics. Of all the parties for which they might have voted today, the Wessex Regionalists come closest to their ‘live and let live’ localism.

So what are the barriers to applying such a philosophy? Predominantly they are formed, still, by the national character of party politics, dented only by nationalist and unionist minorities on the fringes. That politics remains remarkably 17th century in outlook. The traditional Right is less liberal on social issues and more so on economic ones. It may have abandoned the Divine Right of Kings but its political inheritance is still a theological one: sin is to be suppressed, while wealth as proof of virtue is to be sought. The traditional Left has the opposite stance because it is more secular and scientific, more concerned with the material world than with the afterlife. Those attitudes are the ultimate fruits of an empiricism that began with the direct study of scripture in place of submission to hierarchy. Hence, the sins the Left condemns are those against equality of opportunity, not of personal behaviour. The quasi-religious language and imagery of Marxism have been exhaustively analysed. In so far as the Left are heirs to the Puritans, it should come as no surprise that their following in Wessex has never been great, except when the basics are mixed with a dash of visionary indignation that appeals across classes.

The main political traditions agree that there is only one answer. Their own. Neither is comfortable with the idea that answers can vary according to time, place and circumstance. That one side of a hedge a different policy can apply than applies on the other side. Changing that stubborn refusal to live and let live is what any regionalism worthy of the name needs to be about. If throwing off the yoke of uniformity is the negative side of the piece, then the positive may well be the vague general groundswell at present in favour of co-operation and mutuality. Whatever they may claim, these objectives are all alien to the core instincts and survival chances of the London parties. Which is why they’d much rather have us all going round in circles, getting nowhere fast.