Thursday, June 21, 2012

Boat or Boot?

Mebyon Kernow’s Leader, Cllr Dick Cole, blogged yesterday about the election to the French Parliament of Paul Molac, the first Breton autonomist to make that breakthrough, albeit with valuable support from the Greens and the Socialists.

His victory comes after the success of the Union Démocratique Bretonne in elections to the Brittany Regional Council in 2004 and 2010, winning three seats on the first occasion and four on the second. The regional council is a fake that covers four-fifths of Brittany, a bit like the ‘South West’ zone this side of the water, but Breton activists are showing how even the wrong answers can be captured and steered towards the right ones.

Another of our neighbours, the Mouvement Normand, has shown the potential of the Internet to take their message direct to the public with their web-based compilation ‘TVNC’ (TVNormanChannel). There can be no doubt that this is the way forward, probably in our case starting with small items for YouTube that can be linked to from our existing web presence. Much as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Mebyon Kernow have all done.

Will Wessex join the regionalist boat, now leaving with our neighbours on board on a rising tide, or will it be left behind beneath the centralist boot?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Themes, Memes & Ideology

“Not just the mere organization of a new party is becoming increasingly difficult – so is the expression of a new political idea or doctrine. Ideas no longer exist except through the media of information. When these are in the hands of the existing parties, no truly revolutionary or new doctrine has any chance to express itself, i.e., to exist. Yet innovation was one of the principal characteristics of democracy. Now, because nobody wants it any longer, it tends to disappear.”
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1973)

Regular readers will know that this blog has certain regular themes. Most fundamental is the localist and regionalist conception of democracy, coupled with a constant critique of the London-chauvinist, egocentric and militaristic thinking denying us the happier world we should all be enjoying.

A second group of themes links Peak Oil, food supply, population, sustainable transport and the long-term agrarian perspective. We aim to take a realistic view, rejecting both the head-in-the-sand, business-as-usual approach and the hopeful hippy idea that if we leave well alone it will all work itself out in the end without anyone getting hurt.

Last, but by no means least, is the theme of unjust possession, especially of money and land. Along with this, we oppose the Thatcherite cult of private property as an end in itself, and her abandonment of any attempt to define the common good by civic means. We envision economic life as a co-operative, not competitive or exploitative endeavour, and one in which quality and local distinctiveness are both highly cherished.

These are themes that have emerged in our discussions about the future of Wessex. There may be others we haven’t thought of. Maybe we put too much emphasis on some of the themes we already have. We are always open to feedback. We aim to provide quality in terms of the range and depth of posts here, and also their tone. Occasionally, a more strident note will be sounded, on juxtaposing the urgency of the problems, the simplicity of the solutions and the sheer lack of imagination that prevents them meeting up.

The themes above are all ones we view as vital to any self-governing Wessex worth having, one which is aware of the issues and knows where it’s going. But they’re not what defines the Wessex project, since they’re all about analysis and direction, in the abstract, not a fleshing-out of the new structures through which a fresh approach can be delivered. We believe in Wessex as one part of a more streamlined and sustainable system of government than the UK as presently constituted. Devolution has unleashed the potential of Scotland and Wales, long suppressed by the London regime. We are eager to join the achievers.

Wessex itself is more ‘meme’ than ‘theme’. It’s an idea with something for everyone, whether you love dialect, make T-shirts and car stickers, market holidays here, or are just impatient for the future to arrive. We are passionate about the Wessex dimension to our policies. That can mean building a Wessex-oriented transport system in place of one driven by London’s priorities. It can mean taking control of our seabed to harness the energy potential of tides, waves and wind for our benefit. It can mean feeding ourselves, not housing London’s overspill. Getting the meme ‘out there’, getting folk to ‘think Wessex, and why not?’ is something worth being passionate about. It’s the only way to make it stick and grow, so that Labour can’t go around re-inventing regionalism every 20 years as a convenient diversion, and as if it had no back story. The best guide to the memes and sub-memes we need to propagate is Celtic nationalism. We don’t have to become nationalists, or acquire uncritically, to learn from what works elsewhere.

A number of posts have explored our political philosophy, that is to say, what informs what we think ought to happen. We also need to become aware once again of the need for ideology, of the need to be on our guard against what must NOT happen, of what threatens those things we hold dear and against which we must not be afraid to speak out. An example given recently is the financial decapitation that has repeatedly robbed Wessex of an independent regional banking sector.

Although we are told that we live in a post-ideological world, that is just another way of saying that we live inside the ideology that won. Which is why any other way of looking at the world, any assertion of other values, gets dismissed as unreality. The political value of history is that it tells us that there are other ways. They’re history because, applied as a whole, they failed. But elements of them, proclaimed and applied under new conditions, can still represent a more promising future to go back to than persisting with a status quo whose own success is now seriously called into question. Pushing against the weight of that status quo is what ideology is for.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Money to Burn

In the midst of ‘austerity’, the Coalition has gone shopping for new submarines, from which to launch WMDs against the morally challenged. The purchase price comes to at least £20 billion: that’s £3 billion already spent, £3 billion committed and £14 billion awaiting clearance as the ‘now too costly to cancel’ argument. On top of this, there are annual running costs of £1.5 billion.

The Coalition’s challenge is to explain why this makes sense, to anyone but their own armchair A-bombers. Why an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent achieves anything. Why grown men should patrol the oceans awaiting a surprise attack by an ‘enemy’ we no longer have, or maybe haven’t invented yet. Perhaps occasionally crossing paths with subs from other countries engaged in the same pointless activity. Protecting jobs in the defence industries – in this case largely outside Wessex – is clearly a significant political consideration but protecting jobs that do more harm than good only inhibits their replacement by better ones.

We’re told that replacing Trident is an ‘investment’. We’d like to know the annual rate of return then. Or some quantification of the extra security we gain that the Swedes or the Swiss lack, with such obviously devastating consequences for their quality of life. Given the resources the planet is called upon to sacrifice to this and similar projects, might it not be better value, as well as safer, just to heap the money in the middle of the street and set fire to it all?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Devon’s Difference

Racial purity is a fancy term for in-breeding. Those who like that sort of thing will carry on doing it. And those who don’t, won’t. In a free society, politicians shouldn’t normally be that bothered either way.

Genetics becomes politicised when it is used to bolster or attack treasured historic identities. Such identities should be strong enough not to need bolstering but it is always gratifying when those who deny the legitimacy of these identities are dealt a heavy blow by objective evidence. This month, new research was reported showing how the DNA of Cornwall differs from that of Devon or, put from the Wessex perspective, how the DNA of Devon differs from that of Cornwall.

A decade ago, the Wessex movement online was subjected to a hefty amount of trolling by a couple of egregious folk asserting Devon to be a ‘lost’ Celtic nation and noisily denying that it had ever been an integral part of Wessex. In fact, of course, the documentary evidence is that Devon became Saxon at a relatively early date and, just as clearly, that Cornwall did not. Only those will be fooled who want to be fooled: beware the DeVonci Code.

Who put them up to it? Labour and UKIP are both suspects, as they both had a vested interest in destroying any viable alternative to the ‘South West’ zone. Labour, because this would make it easier to impose their regional vision, in the demented belief that they were doing good. UKIP, because it would make it easier to oppose any regional vision, in the equally demented belief that its roots lie in Brussels.

We cannot touch upon this subject without mentioning the tendency of some Cornish to make counter-productive noises. The loudest is that the whole of Devon was Cornish in King Athelstan’s reign. It certainly wasn't. The evidence as a whole is that the Tamar was already the border in Alfred’s day, to be not defined but rather confirmed and enforced by his grandson.  Athelstan the Bastard deserves a better press than he gets, especially from the Cornish.

The historical relationship between Cornwall and Wessex needs to be much better understood for all kinds of reasons. The more one delves into what is recorded, what is claimed, and what is simply wishful thinking, the more one reaches the conclusion that no area of international history outside eastern Europe has been so poorly served.  Not just by deeply flawed attempts at popularisation but by the obstructive politicisation of the underlying scholarship itself. The fault does not always lie with the scholars. Key historical documents remain locked up in the Duchy of Cornwall offices, still ‘commercially sensitive’ after 700 years. The creation of a Cornish National Library, recently mooted, ought to be the opportunity to make them available in Cornwall to all concerned. And these include Wessaxons as much as the Cornish: the Duchy has always been a much larger landowner in Wessex than in Cornwall itself. Tug your forelock as you may though, it won’t happen in today’s society and that really does take the organic biscuit.

In the past and in the present, the truth about both has been concealed in order to facilitate oppression. In the future, as soon as possible, it needs to be exposed in order to facilitate justice.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Stitch In Time

We remain firmly opposed to the wave upon wave of London overspill housing that is changing the character of our region for the worse. (And destroying in the process the very things that settlers find attractive.) That’s not to say that we think all construction workers should pack up their tools and seek a different line of work. There’s plenty of work that needs doing to mend our battered and broken environment; any parish or town council can draw up a list. It’s just not a priority for the London regime.

One reason for querying why we are putting up so many new buildings is that we seem to be very bad at looking after the buildings we already have. Our tax system is designed to encourage the replacement or alteration of perfectly serviceable buildings, even those that form part of our heritage. It has long been pointed out that it is absurd to charge VAT on housing repairs – the sustainable solution – but not on new housing. The EU-approved answer is to collect the tax and then give it back as a grant. It would be, wouldn’t it? With all the extra bureaucracy this entails, it’s a solution that could only have come from Brussels.

Today’s Western Daily Press highlights Chancellor George Osborne’s recent decision to remove VAT relief on approved alterations to listed buildings. Ministers have claimed the decision is all about stopping millionaires installing swimming pools tax-free. In fact, a sample of 12,049 recent applications revealed only 34 for pools, of which less than half had any chance of qualifying for the VAT relief. (And most folk whose homes are listed are anything but millionaires.) The Government has now decided to provide additional compensation to listed churches and other places of worship. But it still offers nothing to help other community buildings or buildings in private ownership.

Many projects are being put on hold, or cancelled, as owners worry about raising an additional 20%. Pensioners Alan and Carol Hudson’s home is the Grade II listed 14th century Horsey Manor Farm in Bridgwater. Not only does their home require continuous specialist maintenance and repair but plans to convert outbuildings at risk of dereliction have had to be abandoned because of what is now a £50,000 VAT bill. The couple were quoted as follows:

“As champions of heritage in an area where 20% of the regional income is from tourism, we feel betrayed by the nature and method of introduction of this tax. We are repeatedly struck by how often the Government’s decisions appear to show little recognition of the realities of life outside the privileged circles of the City and Parliament.”

EU rules leave little enough discretion as it is – which is why we need a Europe-wide revolution to reform fundamentally self-serving institutions that have failed. It’s still more objectionable when the UK Government makes a mess even of what discretion it does have.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lord Bath at 80

Alexander George Thynne (he later dropped the ‘e’ from his surname) was born in London on 6th May 1932 but, as he put it, he “emigrated to Wessex within the next few weeks”. His mother was Cornish, a member of the Vivian family. His father was Henry Frederick Thynne, then styled Viscount Weymouth and later the 6th Marquess of Bath, the first of the showman aristocrats who opened their homes to the public after the Second World War. ‘We have seen the Lions of Longleat’, ran the car sticker. Inevitably, a spoof version was eventually to surface: ‘We have seen the Regionalists of Wessex’.

It was not until 1969 that Alexander first spoke of Wessex as a practical provincial definition (to use Thomas Hardy’s phrase), at a tourist board convention in Taunton. “I only reached the end of my speech with some difficulty,” he recalled. “There were some interruptions urging me to shut up, or to sit down.” By 1974, he had come to the conclusion that the only way to give clear expression to his regionalist ideas was to stand for Parliament, which he did, in the west Wiltshire seat of Westbury. And so Wessex Regionalism began.

Early in the next decade, there came a parting of ways. It might seem odd that someone who created a new political party because the others weren’t up to the job should then abandon it to enter the mainstream, but there are precedents. He explained his motives to The Regionalist in 1986 in the following terms:

“I felt that we had in fact publicised, and achieved, all that was within our reach within this particular phase of political evolution. There didn’t seem much point for me to be seen to be going over the same old ground, repeating myself, upon the political platform. Far better that I prepare myself for a time when I may have acquired an enhanced position to be useful to the devolutionary cause, with a seat perhaps, in the House of Lords: particularly if by that time there were to be an Alliance government in power.”

The majority view was that the Party should continue, a view that was progressively strengthened despite, or even because of, what was slung at it by the Westminster cartel (notably the tripling of the election deposit in 1985). There was, and is, no reason to allow ourselves to be relegated to an interesting footnote in some PhD thesis 200 years hence. While Alexander re-aligned himself with the Social Democrats and then the Liberal Democrats and awaited his seat in the Lords (which arrived in 1992 when he succeeded as 7th Marquess), others insisted that while there was energy to be devoted to the cause it should not go to waste.

Alexander’s tactical choice to exchange leadership of the Wessex Regionalists for the obscurity of the new centre ground appears not to have borne the fruit he may have imagined it doing. For all their federalist heritage, the Liberal Democrats today are in power nationally with a party dedicated to keeping regional devolution well off the agenda. It would be tempting to say ‘we told you so’ but it was far from apparent in 1981 that this would be the course of events.

What will be history’s judgement? We can today offer only the most provisional assessment. Lord Bath, probably, will take his place in a long line of Wessex mavericks from a comfortable background, from Edmund Burke to Tony Benn, but for the sharpest ‘compare and contrast’ we need look no further than Sir Richard Acland, 15th Baronet.

The Aclands of Killerton House, near Exeter, were for long major landowners in western Wessex, at their height presiding over 15,000 acres in Devon and 20,000 acres in Somerset, on the edge of Exmoor. Richard was the Liberal MP for Barnstaple from 1935 until, in 1942, he was instrumental in launching Common Wealth, a radical socialist party whose surviving members became a major influence on WR from 1980 onwards. ‘CW’ won three by-elections before being dealt a near-fatal blow by the swing to Labour in 1945. Richard, having failed to win a seat in the new Parliament, was among those who then jumped ship, later serving under Attlee as Second Church Estates Commissioner. He declined to take any long-term interest in the fate of the party he had founded.

As a socialist, Acland did find his inherited wealth an embarrassment and in 1944 he handed his estates to the National Trust. Lord Bath is relaxed about the idea that Longleat should belong to the community of Wessex, but it is not an idea he sees any need to advance unilaterally. The House of Thynne has no grand gesture to its name to set beside the House of Acland’s generous gift.

Our past President, John Banks, who knew both men, described Acland as the more intense and hard-working. Some of his views could even be classed as impatient and intolerant. Of Lord Bath, the worst caricature might describe him as a hedonist, self-obsessed, absorbed in creating and collecting art, commercially-aware, though not grasping, and showing no more than a passing interest in the civic responsibilities his ancestors took for granted. (His grandfather, the 5th Marquess, was Chairman of Wiltshire County Council continuously for 40 years.)

Alexander spent just eight years actively involved in the politics of Wessex Regionalism. Over 30 years have passed since. Anyone in his position must surely battle against suspicions of all kinds. Ours is a difficult age in which to be a political aristocrat, no matter how original and brilliant are the ideas put forth. For every sneer at the silver spoon there will be an equal and opposite accusation of class treason. For every accusation of leaving our Party to sink or swim by its own efforts, there would otherwise have been the accusation of creating a kept plaything. When our Party’s first constitution was drafted in 1980, it was suggested that the founder should automatically be a member of the Party Council, without needing to be voted on. The proposal sat ill with Alexander’s democratic ideals; he argued against it and did so successfully.

Wessex Regionalism is indeed an original and brilliant idea. It could not have been created except by someone with the leisure time, the mental freedom and flexibility, and the degree of independence from mainstream politics that are needed to think deeply about the key political problems of our time. It could not have been launched upon Wessex and the world without the public persona and panache that the Thynnes possess in abundance. Anyone who feels embarrassed by the roots of Wessex Regionalism should ask themselves how else it might have emerged in the era that it challenged.

This very straightforward idea was expressed not in a series of weighty tomes but in a slim pamphlet (A Regionalist Manifesto, 1975), occasional articles, and election addresses. In artistic terms, it amounted to a preliminary sketch, not a finished painting. That is its attraction for those drawn to it by its need for elaboration. In that sense, it is a profoundly democratic, collaborative, even trans-generational project. It has a beginning. But no end. And along the way, what advances the cause of Wessex is incorporated and what doesn’t is discarded. No-one since Thomas Hardy has done more to breathe life into the identity we so cherish, but Lord Bath’s most lasting legacy may be to have left so much undone. In the ancient wisdom of Lao Tzu, “I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Banking on Stability

Stuckey is an important name in Wessex history. Douglas Stuckey, long the Chairman of Common Wealth, is a valued member of the WR Party Council. Outside politics, he is better known as the author of books and articles on Wessex history. Among these is Wessex Rising!, which charts the Monmouth Rebellion and the coming of William of Orange, the king in whose reign the Bank of England was established.

In the 19th century, Stuckeys’ was a household word across much of central Wessex. Stuckeys’ Bank, founded in about 1770 with its headquarters in Langport, was the second largest issuer of English banknotes after the Bank of England. Farmers offered one of the latter’s notes as payment were known to eye it disparagingly and then insist, “Gi’e oi Stuckeys’”. In 1796, because of the threat of French invasion, there was a run on the banks in Somerset. Except for Stuckeys’. The saying among the farmers was that they trusted Stuckeys’ Bank as much as their old sock for keeping their money in. While the Bank of England is popularly 'the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street', Stuckeys' Bank became 'the old lady from the west with a long stocking'.  Stuckeys’ disappeared from the Wessex scene after 1909 when it merged with a Lancashire bank that eventually became part of NatWest (and so today is 83% State-owned via the RBS Group). The name survives only in the Bath Stuckeys branch of NatWest.

That was not the last attempt by Wessex to develop its own financial institutions. There was the Wessex Trustee Savings Bank, founded in 1930, merged away in 1975 and now part of the 41% State-owned Lloyds Banking Group.

Then there was the Bournemouth-based Wessex Building Society, launched in 1949, which merged in 1989 with London’s Portman Building Society to form the Portman Wessex. When this passed to the Regency & West of England Building Society the following year, the combined group adopted the Portman name. ‘Wessex’ had disappeared but the distribution of branches continued to be heavily concentrated in the far south of England and the head office continued to be located in Bournemouth. The Portman in turn merged with the Nationwide in 2007. And the Nationwide, as the name suggests, is anything but regional (though physically based in Swindon). It was a messy takeover that still rankles: members vote; they all get their windfalls; but there can be no second thoughts. What’s been done can never then be undone.

It’s a continuing struggle. Wessex doesn’t have the distinctive financial institutions of Scotland, with its own banknotes and historic names. Even Northumbria, with the Co-operative Bank, the Yorkshire Bank and many of the surviving building societies, can claim much more. We seem to be easy prey for London institutions, a place to send the back office functions while the decision-making is kept well out of our hands.

There is another way, still. In the wake of widespread disgust with the banks and building societies, credit unions are becoming a popular place to deposit savings and take out loans. Credit unions are self-limiting in that members must have some connection in common. This is usually a locality but it can be membership of an organisation. Plaid Cymru has a credit union for its members; perhaps we can look forward eventually to a Wessex Regionalist credit union? LETS schemes, and local currencies like the ‘Totnes Pound’, are easy to dismiss as a hippy gimmick but they surely also have their place in a more sustainable financial ecology.

We’d like to see more innovation from the centre too. Instead of the London regime being obsessed with preserving at any price the financial value of the zombie banks it owns, why not be bold and redefine them in terms of value to the customer? Break them up into regional banks. Mutualise or re-mutualise them. Tell the investment bankers to clear off, that they won’t be allowed to buy into them. Ever. We’re not holding our breath, because the regime has been backed into a corner where its interest as regulator and its interest as investor are diametrically opposed. One day, one of the two will have to give. The long-term public interest lies in destroying our money, not what passes for our democracy, because it’s far easier to replace. But who cares about the public interest?

What can we do? Look for opportunities locally (but in a joined-up, regional way). The antidote to the mass consumer society is the local producer society, meeting our own needs from our own resources. As the saying goes, if you want to see change, keep it in your pocket. Our money needs to go into our communities. We need to drain it from the banks and watch them die like fish out of water. It can be done. But it requires discipline and a firm ideological commitment to what will deliver sustainable long-term prosperity. We must never again give in to the blind temptations of short-term sell-out, as happened over and over again with banks, building societies, buses, trains, electricity and water. No-one must own Wessex but those who live here. No-one must benefit unfairly from using our land, our money, our politics, our society, or our lives.  What it comes down to is that good business decisions have to consider the consequences for all those they affect.  If our economic system as constituted can't or won't do that, then we need a new one.

That kind of thing doesn’t go down well. It gets called ‘financial terrorism’ and the like. And that’s not surprising. The stage is being set for the arrival of full-blown totalitarian liberalism. Maggie’s mate Pinochet did it with guns. Our current leaders will be doing it with laws. Greece and Italy already have their non-elected rulers in place. The idea is that freedom doesn’t mean doing what you like. It means living out your life in accordance with a rather crazy economics textbook. Individuals, governments, and even private businesses have all to abide by ‘the rules’. So bank customers must act ‘responsibly’ and not bring down the financial system in anger. Governments must submit to international laws of contract and not abrogate odious debts imposed upon their taxpayers under duress. We all have to take seriously the idea that banks create value in the form of financial ‘products’, which is a fancy name for fairy dust.

The clearest example of the new thinking came last month from Andrew Bailey, formerly Chief Cashier of the Bank of England and soon to be Deputy Chief Executive at the new bank regulator, the Prudential Regulation Authority. He proposes that free personal banking be banned on the grounds that it ‘distorts the market’. A market used to be the coming together of a willing buyer and a willing seller on mutually advantageous terms. Not any more. What buyer and seller think is now irrelevant. What matters is what the textbook says. And according to the textbook the purpose of markets is to ensure that wealth flows from the poorer to the richer by denying the former the means to say no.

Free personal banking doesn’t distort anything. Bailey’s excuses have been comprehensively trashed by the commentators. Banks make their profit out of charges for extras and, most of all, from lending our money out at interest, many times over (fractional reserve banking). The problem for banks is that interest rates are at an all-time low. They’re scared, because they’re not making enough money from our money. But the first to re-introduce bank charges will be the first to go bust as customers desert in droves. No-one dares do it. So the regulator steps up to ‘save the system’. Regulation, far from protecting us from the banks, therefore turns out to be the means of protecting the banks from us. Better check for space under that mattress now.  And darn that old sock.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whose Trains?

A report last month in the Western Boring Views informs us that both Cornwall and Devon County Councils may be looking to take over from Whitehall the supervision of local rail services in their areas. All worthily localist, of course. Whether that approach works elsewhere depends on how good the fit is between railway geography and administrative geography. It would work better in some counties than in others. The current proposal that rail services in the South-East, from Brighton to King’s Lynn, be consolidated into one north-south franchise across London shows that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

In Devon, a localist approach works well west of Exeter but less so to the east. And it is to the east, where the two main lines run in from Somerset, that the biggest growth in traffic seems likely to occur. After decades of an insensitive and destructive ‘Devonwall’ policy, Cornwall now seems set on the road to greater differentiation that, whatever the setbacks, will ultimately lead to substantial autonomy, if not outright independence. Even the setbacks along that road are creating a reaction that drives the process forward. So Devon looks increasingly eastwards. It shares a fire brigade with Somerset, and a Local Enterprise Partnership, the body responsible for economic development. The M5 corridor between Bridgwater and Exeter is one of the key growth points in western Wessex, as a journey along that route will confirm. And now the two counties share a very modest proposal for broadband too.  Not forgetting the Wessex Reinvestment Trust, now in its tenth year serving Devon, Dorset and Somerset.

Within the assumptions of the Whitehall system, regional rail services can be managed locally, but only at a price. That price is continuing Whitehall control over strategic decisions that are unlikely ever to be taken locally, but which could be taken regionally, such as funding branch-line electrification. The powers of local councils aren’t envisaged as extending to big operational priorities, such as freight investment, only to such things as the fares structure or what colour to paint the stations. Substantial devolution it ain’t. Although the possibility of councils forming consortia to acquire extra powers is raised, so are the legal and financial difficulties in sustaining them. That’s what happens when you’ve already decided that you won’t even consider regional government.

Yet the question of what is the right balance between central and local control may perhaps be best answered regionally. Those ignorant of our British railway past or our European railway present may imagine that everything would grind to a halt unless controlled from a giant signal box in London. In fact, a wealth of experience has been gained over the past 200 years in passing rail traffic from one system to another and dealing with the problem of overlap through running powers and joint lines.

We have been here before, with Cornish Railways in the 1980’s and Wessex Trains in the 2000’s. Did we buy a return ticket? Because we need to get back to that kind of solution, one that was enormously popular with all but the powers that be. The Scottish and Welsh governments are making huge strides in creating a better rail system for their countries. We’re not. Is it a punishment for being English that all we’re prescribed is ongoing centralism that inhibits adaptation to circumstances, coupled with local fragmentation in a form that could potentially inconvenience the rail user for no real benefit? Over the next 50 years we shall need to be opening or re-opening thousands of miles of railway. Wessex can do it. But can Whitehall and its partners in under-ambition?

Jubilee Hangover


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cradle of the Crown

“Whereas the liberties of England, its laws, statutes, system of justice and administration, had their beginnings in the Kingdom of Wessex;
Whereas that Kingdom in its heyday was at once the cradle of the English language and culture, and the bastion of freedom against the marauding Danes and Norsemen;
Whereas the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty is directly descended through the female line from the House of Cerdic, by far the longest-ruling of all the Royal dynasties among Her forebears;
Whereas the people of Wessex have always shown unparalleled allegiance to the Crown;
Whereas the loyalty and affection of the people of Wessex towards their homeland have never totally disappeared despite a thousand years of remote and centralised rule;
Be it therefore enacted by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, as follows:”
Preamble to The Statute of Wessex, our constitutional policy statement from 1982

Some of us are monarchists. Some of us are republicans. We at least agree that we would not now publish anything dripping with the deferential sentiments we expressed 30 years ago. It’s not just that the Monarchy has done nothing to earn our loyalty. It has given our region’s name to an Earl and Countess who still seem unsure whether that was just a joke that got out of hand. The disconnect remains between ceremonial roles that act as no more than a distraction from real political issues and those issues themselves. More of that later. There has been more substantial change too. We would today place less emphasis on the constitutional role of the Monarchy because the kind of Ruskinian, High Tory benevolent paternalism that used to infuse Conservative politics in particular – but was by no means confined there – has now all but expired.

Its apogee was the ‘royal socialism’ of the Attlee Labour government, which deftly converted surplus military servants of the Crown into its civil servants, creating swaths of bureaucracy in which senior officers could discover a new but familiar role. St Edward’s Crown became in due course the universal logo of everything from the Forestry Commission to the National Blood Transfusion Service. The question of how the smaller nations could be reconciled with this soon arose. One of the great debates of the 1950s in Scotland was whether pillar boxes should bear the English or the Scottish crown and whether the royal cypher there should be E II R or just E R. The same decade saw the Welsh flag officially recognised and Cardiff declared the capital of Wales. It saw too the foundation of Mebyon Kernow, advocates of another nation not wishing to be sidelined. The day before, 5th January 1951, historian W. Stuart Best read a paper to the Dorset Natural History & Archæological Society entitled Relations between Wessex and Cornwall in Early Days. With the wartime exploits of the 43rd (Wessex) Division still strong in the memory and post-war conscripts organised under the Wessex Brigade, with the wyvern as its cap badge, it could have been a fertile time for regionalism but regionalism, remember, is tainted with democracy. No post-war government has wanted very much to do with that. Not when it can hide behind the skirts of the royal prerogative.

In the late 1980s, Town & Country Planning, the magazine of the Town & Country Planning Association, ran the headline ‘Regionalism: creeping up the agenda again after all these years’ to accompany a piece by Dr Michael Hebbert. A sketched illustration filled the front page: a sketch of a putative Cornwall-Wessex border post. On the Cornish side, a bearded border guard with a peaked cap on his head and a rifle slung over his shoulder stands beneath a fluttering flag of St Piran. On the other side, eastbound travellers are welcomed by a sign bearing the wyvern and the words ‘H.M. Government of Wessex’. Someone had great fun drawing that.

The problem for all those who wish to see meaningful regions in England is what lies either side of these episodes. The 1950s did not lead to a self-governing Wessex region in the 1960s. Nor did the 1980s bring forth anything relevant in the late 1990s. The romantic idealism of the lean Conservative years is always translated by a returning Labour government into an obese caricature, a regionalism heavy on bureaucracy, desperately thin on real democracy, and based on compass-point boundaries that seem deliberately drawn to thwart the emergence of any credible regional identity. They keep on doing it because their intellectual tradition lacks the moral imagination to be capable of anything else. Regionalism is creeping up again in Miliband’s New New Labour and from its past failures that party has learned precisely nothing.

Those who have heard Tony Benn speak will know how much he values the idea of Parliament as scrutineer of the executive. For Benn, as for so much of the fossilised Labour brain, politics is stuck in the 1640s. The great divide is between the Crown and its Ministers and the critical voice of a free Commons. We are all still Cavaliers and Roundheads, in varying proportions. Well, not all of us. Some of us have enough of the spirit of the Clubmen to question why it should matter so much who controls the destiny of the centralised state. And why we need it anyway.

One reason why republicanism has a strictly limited following in Britain is the Cromwellian legacy. Yes, Cromwell gave Britain its first written constitution – the Instrument of Government – and its second – the Humble Petition and Advice – but it was not a Britain we would enjoy living in. Many of the ideas that ultimately came to be associated with the London regime in its most centralised form were first trialled in that era. It was Britain’s first unitary state – the Scottish and Irish Parliaments were abolished for its duration. Local government had first come under the control of committees of MPs and ultimately Major-Generals were appointed to oversee regions remarkably reminiscent of the Prescott zones. Cromwell was no Leveller and he knew who his paymasters were. The City of London’s finest were among those who benefited from the sale of Church, Crown and Duchy lands.

If Cromwell’s legacy was to provoke the reaction that sped the Restoration, it has also defined subsequent nostalgia for a kingless society. Mainstream republican discourse in Britain always imagines the substitution of an elected British figurehead for the hereditary one. And nothing more besides. Any other reforms that are taken for granted to be part of the package – because they provide the real justification for change – turn out upon examination to have no necessary connection to the monarchy/republic issue, while others that can reasonably be said to be intimately connected are ignored. It’s the usual tale, told by a whiny Islington idiot with a one-dimensional view of our history.

The United Kingdom is assumed to morph effortlessly into the United Republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The issues of nationhood that a monarchy can to some extent dampen down are assumed to be unimportant, as indeed they are when viewed from London. No doubt the national question seemed equally irrelevant when viewed from Vienna in 1918. The Republic will inherit the centralising work of the Monarchy intact. Dream on.

There are places where the transition from monarchy to republic has indeed maintained central control, and increased it, France being the textbook example. The terrors of transition may even have provoked that increase, in order to maintain a vice-like grip on provincial forces of reaction. The absurd mechanicalism of the French Republic however, as Jonathan Meades has perceptively pointed out, is a cult rather than a coherent philosophy, a Parisian salon conspiracy imposed upon a country still reluctant to join in. British republicanism would be much the same, if – and it’s a big IF – it actually had a republican conception of Britain as a place. Getting rid of the monarchy in order to strengthen a sense of Britishness is a delusion that fools no-one but those who cling to it.

What British republicanism is actually about is a sense of entitlement concealing an otherwise naked lust for power. Those who are not born into privilege should have an equal right to take the top job, to be Mr or Ms Britain PLC, to travel the globe, to shake hands with the natives, and to review the military might of Bloody Britannia. And for an elected head of state there might even be a lucrative lecture tour added on.

Just why is it that we have a head of state? So many presidential systems unthinkingly displace the monarch’s person while retaining the role. The President does all the things a monarch would do, even down to inviting a leading politician to form a government. Does the politician kneel and kiss the President’s hands too? The Swiss manage well enough without a head of state. Their federal cabinet members take it in turns to be President for one year. And when a foreign dignitary lands on Swiss soil, all seven of them line up to say hello. Collegiate government is the real alternative to the system of l’Etat, c’est moi or führerprinzip that generally prevails in monarchies and republics alike. We don’t need elected leaders if we can learn to live without leaders at all.

One fascinating compromise is the idea of a monarchy without a monarch: perpetual vacancy. Hungary has tried this a number of ways, all deriving from its unique idea that sovereignty resides not in the person who wears the crown but in the crown that the person wears, the Holy Crown of St Stephen, which no monarch has worn since 1916. Poland had a slightly similar doctrine and there are lesser parallels in Czech and Spanish practice. In England, the last lawfully crowned king died in 1066. In perpetual vacancy, the cost of having a monarchy is avoided but so is the cost of converting all past legislation to republican language. Courts, for example, can continue to be held in the name of the Crown, as the symbol of the nation. A crown does not have to be headgear: being a circle it can just as well represent unity and equality, like King Arthur’s Round Table. Such thoughts, however, are unnecessary in contemporary circumstances. Britain/England is not likely to become a republic of any kind any time soon. And it would take a royal foot put very badly wrong indeed to change that.

Our policy has evolved step by step. We recognise that there is no barrier to having a federal monarchy: Australia and Canada provide two common-law examples. We also recognise that vesting sovereignty in a sovereign is the precise opposite of our vision of grass-roots democracy. Whatever ceremonial role the Monarchy may play in our future, it cannot be allowed to define our actual political status. We are not subjects, to be accused of ‘treason’ if we dare speak our minds. We are… well, not citizens either. That’s the metropolitan, Roman, Jacobin view, blood forever running in the streets. We are members of society, rural as well as urban. The Monarchy, if it survives, must exist on terms with which we are comfortable. Today, we exist on the Monarchy’s terms and that must change.

Last year, we adopted a policy on regional control of resources. The Crown Estate in Wessex, including revenues from seabed resources such as sites for offshore wind farms, should come under regional control as part of the Wessex common wealth. Many of these assets, especially those on land, could be passed on to even more local control. Revenues generated from our labour or from the use of our environment should not be drawn away for the free benefit of those in London, whether they wear a crown or not. Mainstream republicans don’t mind the money going to London – it’s all the more for Islington to play with – and that is how they have proved themselves irrelevant to our cause. The way forward, we suggest, is not to attack individuals or institutions as such but to follow the money and demand it back.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Big in Russia

Our blog seems very popular in Russia just now. Last month there were more pageviews from there than from the UK, with the USA far behind in third place. A third of all pageviews from Russia since figures began occurred during May.

What can we say to provide some context for readers in the world’s largest country?

First and foremost, we offer another point of view. The mainstream media in the UK accommodates a startlingly narrow range of opinions, with those not endorsed by the rich and powerful dismissed as contradicting reality. Media concentration means that even those branch studios and provincial newspapers that one might expect to stand up for diversity of thought do not in fact do so. Where would we be without the Internet? We may not be rich or powerful. We may indeed have deep contempt for those who are. But we exist and we have something different to say that we believe is worth hearing.  This year in particular, Jubilympics and all that, 'the eyes of the world will be on London'.  Our voice, small as it is, is raised against the perception that the UK is nothing more than a city-state.

Second, we have a political philosophy, of space to ‘live and let live’, that stands for things that interfering globalists just cannot appreciate. We have no wish to impose a philosophy on the world – that would be the very opposite of regionalist thinking – but we are not unhappy if others learn from us, just as we are willing to learn from them. Tribalism is at the root of many conflicting identities but its destructive power can best be neutralised by dividing political authority, by respecting the sovereignty of the small, not the great, and by not taking more than we need from the common treasury we inhabit. The key to all that is that place does matter, that without it there is no understanding, no community and no vision.