Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review of 2011

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 2011 Review has recently been forwarded to the Commission and here is what it says:

“With no General Election in 2011, activity was less intense than last year but momentum was maintained in a variety of ways.

More frequent meetings allowed policy development to be put in hand once again. Outcomes included specific responses to Coalition plans for education and health and agreement on more general ideas constituting an alternative vision for society, such as ‘economic change, not economic growth’ and opposition to uninvited intervention in the affairs of other countries. We continue to seek the indictment of UK political leaders for war crimes.

Many of these themes were further articulated on the Party’s blog, with record numbers of posts made and comments received. We responded to the consultation on future Parliamentary constituency boundaries, condemning the numbers-driven approach that will see shire communities dismembered. Representations were made on draft planning policy documents in Somerset (the Mendip Core Strategy) and Wiltshire (the South Wiltshire Core Strategy). However, it is clear from such involvement that local councils are being bullied into accepting suicidally high levels of development and their freedom to choose otherwise is continuing to be restricted. Our response to consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework, instead of trying to improve on it as others did, challenged the need for it. Genuine localism, not the ‘guided localism’ actually being implemented, demands a genuine hands-off approach.

The Party was present at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in July, with a stall in the main marquee selling our publications, the Wessex Wyvern flag draped across the front of the table. We were pleased to learn that the Wessex Region of the RMT union also has a wyvern on its banner.

Our President, Colin Bex, who also manages our London bureau, was active in the Occupy LSX campaign and featured in a YouTube clip wearing the WR party badge. Colin took every opportunity to make the case for local sovereignty and regional co-operation as part of a sane reaction to current crises. In May he secured a meeting with the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman at her offices and passed copies of our publications to her. He also responded critically to a Ministry of Justice consultation on squatting, which proposed to further enhance the rights of property owners while doing nothing to address why it is that property stands empty as human needs go unmet.

Scottish independence, and possible alternatives to it, have continued to rise up the political agenda, posing ever more urgent questions about what form of governance best serves the interests of those who live in Wessex. Such questions remain central to our rationale as a party, though they stand alongside those problems engaging concerned citizens worldwide, including state-initiated violence, the legalised fraud that underpins the financial system, the lack of economic democracy and the degradation of our environment. For us, the solution is clear, to think globally, and act locally, yes, but also to plan regionally so that thought and action come together.”

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ardent for Some Desperate Glory?

George Galloway’s sensational win in the Bradford West by-election ought to be a wake-up call to all who have swallowed the line that there is no alternative to austerity at home and the waste of lives and treasure abroad. A one-off, it may be, but it demonstrates what can be done with sufficient commitment. Galloway is the first independent or smaller party candidate to have won a Parliamentary by-election from another party since Dick Taverne in 1973.

The new MP made it clear in his acceptance speech that he is above all a Labour politician, a Labour politician without the party he once knew, who wants to bring it back to its senses. He aspires to be Labour’s saviour, not its gravedigger. His ‘independence’ is a sham, his sham Respect party characterised by a total lack of respect for any long-term allegiance by its voters. His record as a constituency MP in east London was profoundly disappointing. There’ll be sound and fury enough, but what will be left when it ends?

Galloway’s anti-war rhetoric is commendable. What he has said needs to be said, and not only by him. Could he have won in Wessex? Probably not. We have a deep-rooted, unthinking sense here that the armed forces are a good thing, that their missions must be assumed to be for the best, and that any casualties are a cause for the nation to pull together and push on.

It’s an attitude we struggle to combat. Though almost everything else is cut, and cut hard, defence spending is justified to us on the grounds that it keeps the peace. So, judged against that stated purpose, every war, every shedding of blood, whether of British personnel or of their opponents, is a failed policy, one for which those responsible must be held to account. There is no victory in victory, where the opportunity for victory should never have been allowed to materialise.

Building a Worse World

We didn’t ask for the National Planning Policy Framework. We pointed out that a government actually committed to localism wouldn’t issue detailed instructions on how local powers are to be used; it would get out of the control freakery business altogether.

Nevertheless, the NPPF arrived, on Tuesday, amidst much trepidation. Environmental groups, alarmed by the slash-and-burn pro-growth tone of last year’s draft, were pleasantly surprised by the final version. It was, according to Fiona Reynolds of the National Trust, “a case of a disaster averted”. We’re cynical enough to recognise that the ‘red line’ concessions sought by campaigners were those that could safely be made anyway, while ministers spent summer, autumn and winter playing to their financier chums in the gallery.

Does the final version deserve a clean bill of health? No, it does not. It still confuses prosperity with growth, despite the best efforts of the late Sustainable Development Commission to explain that breaking the link is desirable today and inevitable tomorrow. (Of course, the greatest gains from doing so may well accrue to those who act first and, sadly, that will not be us.) Growth – the exploitation of even the very last of our natural resources – is needed to pay the interest on imaginary debts to the banks. The damage will continue until we realise how daft this all is – and how fast the London regime is selling us all into an inward slavery where money alone is allowed to have value.

What else is it up to in the NPPF then? Well, local councils aren’t allowed to decide planning applications on their merits. If they don’t have a formal policy in place that covers what’s applied for, then they are required under something called, bizarrely, ‘the presumption in favour of sustainable development’ to grant permission, unless the harm that would result would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. Not just outweigh, but ‘significantly’ outweigh. So here’s a built-in bias in favour of development that makes the community demonstrably worse off. Hardly very sustainable, especially as the harm is likely to be cumulative over time as more and more of this stuff gets passed. As for transport policy, development has to be approved unless the traffic impacts are ‘severe’. Congestion is allowed, encouraged even, to get worse, before (with the end of cheap oil) things inevitably start to get better.

The NPPF is the handbook on how to present a worsening situation as improvement. We are running out of space to accommodate growth without wrecking treasured environments. (For some it is already too late.) We are running out of oil and water as demand for both continues to expand. It’s alright though. There’s nothing to worry about, honestly. It seems the one thing Wessex voters never run out of is patience with London party liars.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

When Fair’s Unfair

Nick Clegg yesterday, in his capacity as Minister for Things That Don’t Count For Very Much In The Real World, announced that Chelmsford, Perth and St Asaph have been awarded city status to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, while Armagh will be getting a Lord Mayor.

The first reaction may well be to ask why one arm of government seems so ignorant of what another is doing. While the ceremonial arm is creating a new lord mayoralty, rooted in tradition, the political arm is doing its best to spread confusion over those that already exist, pushing an ill-considered agenda for change. Many of England’s largest cities, Bristol included, have Lord Mayors but David Cameron wants the voters on 3rd May to back an additional, directly elected, semi-executive Mayor. Before Bristol was awarded its lord mayoralty by Queen Victoria in 1899, its civic chief was called simply the Mayor, all the way back to the first recorded, Roger Cordewaner in 1216. How many mayors does a city need? Which one is reckoned as Roger’s successor? And might Bristol be heading for an unedifying spat between Mayor and anti-Mayor over precedence? No-one seems to have thought through what the answers to these questions might be. In Torbay, the only local authority in Wessex currently with a directly elected Mayor, the Mayor is first citizen but the Council also has a Chairman to run its meetings. So the Chairman is inferior to the Mayor but gets to wear the chain of office, on his behalf. But a Chairman styled as the Lord Mayor cannot be inferior to a Mayor without seeming to throw the Queen’s honour back in her face.

The second reaction, after checking the map to see where Chelmsford is, might be to ask why so many worthy Wessex candidates for city status have been passed over in favour of a small Essex town with a cathedral. Bournemouth, Dorchester and Reading all applied but there could only be one winner. In England. And there’s the problem. To be fair to all home nations, city status has to be awarded to smaller and smaller places in the less densely populated Celtic countries, while England’s burgeoning urban areas join a lengthening queue. (Cornwall might even be relieved not to be recognised as a nation if the alternative in the long-term were city status for everywhere from Penzance to Torpoint.) We see here the grotesque folly of treating all nations equally, regardless of size, as if greater size does not raise additional issues that deserve to be addressed. The result is to devalue the very meaning of words like ‘city’.

So the third reaction may be to ask why, in the world of today, the grant of city status has to be so jealously guarded as an expression of the Royal Prerogative. Any village can declare itself a town. All it takes is a resolution of the parish council. The council then becomes a town council and the Chairman is automatically upgraded to Town Mayor. It’s not a power that’s ever abused, because local folk apply their own innate sense of rural or urban in coming to a decision. So why should our cities-in-all-but-name not be entitled to assert themselves too?

Keeping Up With The Joneses

A letter in the Bristol Evening Post this week berated the ‘South West’ zone’s MEPs for not stemming the flow of Bristol jobs across the Severn. The problem is real enough, as south Wales has long benefited from regional development money in one shape or another. But to define the problem as being about how well Bristol’s interests are being defended in Brussels, or London for that matter, is 15 years out of date. Cardiff is home to the Welsh Assembly, a body with the power to change laws, make decisions and direct funding, a body with no Bristol equivalent. Local politicians in Cardiff can walk to where the national politicians are and sit down with them for a chat. Bristol’s have to travel cap-in-hand to London.

Bristol can have parity with Cardiff only once it becomes willing to re-think its own identity and loyalties. Meanwhile, it remains the victim of those varied strategies employed by the London regime to persuade it not to attempt any such thing.

The first of these is the anti-regionalist strand of localism. The idea that under-powered, under-funded local councils can get together and, if they can take their minds off bus shelters and litter bins for five minutes, agree on strategic priorities. Not a hope, compared to what the Welsh Assembly can do for its communities west of the Severn. How about a Boris for Bristol then? Another dead end. The City of Bristol, which is not even the whole of the urban area, has a population roughly one-seventh that of Wales, roughly a twentieth that of London. Wessex, we need to remind you, is bigger than either. Cardiff doesn’t have a Boris and there are no plans to impose one, nor bribe/threaten voters into ‘choosing’ to have one, because one simply isn’t needed. Cardiff hosts something much more useful.

The second diversion is nationalism. National identity is what devolution is supposed to be recognising, with Cornwall ignored and England assigned its traditionally silent role of wearer of the magic cloak of Britishness. It’s a convenient wheeze but it doesn’t work. And not just because there are nations left without devolution (Cornwall and most of England) and two areas with devolution that aren’t nations (London and Northern Ireland).

Geographers have been quick to point out that with the exception of London – essentially an issue of metropolis management stretching back centuries – audible demand for devolution has come from the peripheries. That’s true of Ireland in the 19th century, Scotland and Wales in the 20th and perhaps of Cornwall and Northumbria in the early 21st. National identity is not the sole determinant of devolution that nationalists insist it to be.

Administrators have been equally quick to point out that Scotland and Wales, whatever nationalists may call them, are regional in scale, and the practical problems they now handle for themselves exist at the same sort of scale within England. They also exist in most large European states, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the difference being that none of those has any hang-ups about regional government.

Real regional power is opposed mainly by English nationalists, who want to keep it all to themselves. Their contributions online and in the press often try to convince us that England won’t be a smaller Britain, that somehow an English Parliament would be distinguishable in its outlook and policies from what we have endured under Westminster. But on most occasions during the 20th century the result of an English General Election would not have differed from the actual outcome of a British General Election, except in the size of majority. We mightn’t even have been spared Scots at the top, since we know they can stand, successfully, for English seats.

An English Parliament would change nothing. Would it speak with one voice for England? Of course not: England is far too diverse to be expressed fairly by a single voice, though that won’t stop some from trying, denouncing BBC moves to Cardiff and Glasgow while slyly adding Salford to that list. We know very well the complaints of the Scots and the Welsh that Westminster, obsessed with its own imperial dreams, has too often left them to rot. Without a doubt, an English Parliament would do the same to Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex unless they have devolved parliaments of their own to ensure that it cannot.

The third false hope is that devolution will simply go away. It won’t, and Wessex must live with the consequences of the existing arrangements until it demands and achieves parity. Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, pointed out that devolution is a process, not an event. The Welsh Assembly will carry on trying out the powers it has acquired. And that will mean job losses in Bristol.

Bristol is the home of certain ‘Anglo-Welsh’ functions like the Environment Agency and the Planning Inspectorate. They are based in Bristol because it’s the largest city between Cardiff and London and in pre-devolution times that suited a civil service that was formally united but liked to create the impression that it respected national differences. (Often, the same circular would go out from both ministers, but on different letterheads.) Post-devolution, that unity has gone and increasingly the Welsh Assembly is pursuing its own path. The point is now approaching when it sees no further purpose in joint institutions. That will mean more than just a few top jobs re-locating to Cardiff. It could mean many more re-locating to London as the central State retracts, with consequences not just for public sector office jobs but for those in academia, consultancies and other businesses reliant on such institutions for work. Bristol may be sitting atop a rubber band about to snap. Bristolians, if they’ve become accustomed to their city hosting a governmental role, will need to explore the possibility of a Wessex government being the means to maintain it in a post-British future.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Roger & Out

Over on the east side of Mercia, a seven-year old boy has been told by the local council that he’s not allowed to fly a pirate flag in the garden. It’s a breach of planning law, one that could mean a fine of up to £2,500. And no, it’s not the council’s fault that they have to uphold silly laws from Westminster, laws that they’d never even have imagined if they’d had the choice.

The story sounds ridiculous in the extreme, especially when, as the icing on the cake, we’re warned that flying the Jolly Roger might encourage piracy. Until you remember that it’s equally against the law to fly the Wessex flag in Wessex. Presumably because it might encourage identity, and dangerous thoughts of self-government? Of throwing off the London yoke and making our own decisions? Even tiny little decisions, like what flags we’re allowed to fly...