Tuesday, October 30, 2012

No Heritage Soon

Where did the inspiration come from for our National Health Service? Historians have a habit, given that Nye Bevan was a Welshman, to look to Wales, to the miners’ and metalworkers’ mutual aid schemes at Tredegar and elsewhere.

Wessex has at least as good a claim. The Mechanics’ Institute at Swindon, opened in 1855 and paid for by the men of the Great Western Railway, contained the UK’s first lending library and ran many activities and classes. The same body that ran it also opened up health services to other workers. Bevan said of it that “There was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the country.”

This iconic institution closed in 1986, since when it has become increasingly derelict, and prey to vandals, arsonists and those who want to demolish it. This month the Victorian Society identified it as one of the top ten endangered buildings of its era anywhere in the UK. That it carries a Grade II* listing ought to ensure its protection, but doesn’t.

In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute is about as safe as the NHS. Bevan isn’t around to see what became of his baby. He’d be appalled if he was. What we’ve seen is a Conservative-led coalition drive through legislation to prepare the NHS for privatisation. The Coalition Agreement promised no ‘top-down reorganisations of the NHS’. (It didn’t rule out a policy that imposed a bottom-up one against the will of those at the bottom.) We’ve a Labour ‘Opposition’ whose credibility is shot to pieces after 13 years of support for ‘internal markets’, ‘trusts’ and ‘foundations’, all designed to soften-up the NHS for a more profit-oriented regime. This, after all, is a party comfortable with the idea of hospitals going bankrupt under the pressure of PFI schemes. Sir Richard Branson’s predatory offshoot Virgin Care has been seeking to run a range of health services in Wiltshire, as well as several other Wessex shires. How long before we see his logo plastered across Swindon’s Great Western Hospital?

We invite all who aren’t on the waiting list for a brain transplant to write a scenario for NHS 2020. Outsourcing all provision to the private sector, while protecting the principle of free-at-point-of-use, can only be Phase I. Then come ‘small’ charges to discourage frivolous patients, meet hospital food and heating bills, or contribute to the cost of ‘non-core’ treatments. The new 49% limit on private income sources for supposedly NHS hospitals is sure to be relaxed. Phase III means de-prioritising those unable to upgrade, lifting the regulatory ‘burden’, and letting the market rip.

Whichever party’s in power. Because while Bevan called the Tories ‘lower than vermin’, his own party have now spent too long scurrying around on the floor with them to aspire to anything better. Sue Slipman, Chief Executive of the NHS Foundation Trust Network, has described the idea of removing the 49% cap as "a really creative way of bringing more money into the health service". What readers may not remember is that Slipman, a former President of the National Union of Students, was first a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, then joined the Social Democrats in 1981 as a convert to Thatcherism. The destruction of the NHS is a long-term strategic goal of the spoilt hippy Left, their revenge against the working class for lacking revolutionary spirit. And the toffs round the cabinet table are delighted to oblige.

The recent launch of the National Health Action Party shows the degree of despair that so many folk feel at the way the three-headed dog of London politics is sinking its fangs into the things we treasured. The NHAP intends to stand against leading Tory politicians across the land. (No need in Wessex, of course: our policies are already 100% behind the NHS, so its supporters need only rally behind us.)

Labour have issued their ritual denunciations about ‘splitting the anti-Tory vote’. Yawn. Heard it all before. Labour’s definition of a democratic election is one where the Labour candidate wins, and not otherwise. In fact, the best way to eliminate any need for tactical voting is to introduce proportional representation. (It was Labour policy between the wars: how come it isn’t now?) That way we can choose our own alternative, to all three of the big Tory parties with their London bases and cosy links to the City. Labour might be shocked to find that, given a proper electoral system, the alternative turns out to be the biggest bloc of all.

Scotland and Wales have proportional representation and no-one is dismantling their NHS.  On the contrary: both countries have put the privatisation process into reverse, with NHS trusts being largely abolished and radical democratic reforms now on the agenda.  But then they have devolution.  Which, if you listen to the London parties, is something patients in Wessex just don't deserve.

Friday, October 26, 2012

All At Sea

Cornwall is bigger than Wessex. Yes or no? It depends on definitions. Land area is one thing, but there are some rights of sovereignty that extend out to the 200-mile limit of the Continental Shelf. And it’s not just sovereign states who have clearly demarcated areas of seabed to their name. So do the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So would Cornwall and Wessex if they too had devolution. Our area takes in half the width of the Bristol Channel, from Marsland Mouth upwards, and half the width of the English Channel, from Plymouth to Portsmouth. Cornwall is everything to the west and so, it’s true, is bigger than Wessex. With marine resources that dwarf its land area.

Seabed sovereignty means that geopolitics doesn’t stop at the shoreline; Britain is not an island in these terms but shares borders with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and certain Nordic countries, as well as Ireland. Wessex has a boundary with Brittany and Normandy (and the Channel Islands) that is longer than its boundary with the rest of England. Since those regions are also keen to develop the economic potential of their seas, there ought to be huge opportunities for hi-tech industries in Wessex to seek business there.  For their part, Cornwall and Plymouth Councils are already pushing.

Within these areas at sea, all kinds of things happen. There are large islands – Lundy, Steep Holm, Brownsea, Wight – and many smaller rocks. There are cables and pipelines in the seabed, dredging and drilling, fishing, sealife, recreation, navigation, naval exercises and, increasingly, installations to capture energy. The most optimistic estimates tell us that tidal, wave and offshore wind resources around the British Isles are sufficient to meet all our electricity needs by the end of the century (provided we use the power wisely).

To help such activities co-exist without conflict, the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 set up a streamlined system for planning and licensing the use of the marine environment – from below the seabed, on the seabed and up through the water column to the surface. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this system is part of the devolved administration’s remit. The Scottish Government has been vigorous in applying it to develop a renewables industry to take the place of North Sea oil. England has the Marine Management Organisation, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, its plan-making work moving slowly round the coast, priority area by priority area, with parts of Wessex maybe another nine years away yet. As for the consents regime, it can take up to four years to process a Harbour Revision Order.

Things are rather different in Wales. There the Welsh Government is sorting out its environmental powers, with many soon to be vested in a single new natural resources body, and forging ahead. Those concerned with our own marine environment may need to deal with as many as five different bodies. We have the Marine Management Organisation (Newcastle), Natural England (Sheffield), the Environment Agency (Bristol), the Devon & Severn Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (Brixham), and the Southern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (Poole). The next step after unifying these on a regional basis would be to devolve the Crown Estate Commissioners, the body that rents out the seabed and pockets the money for the London regime. It’s a priority for the Scottish Government. It would make sense in Wales too. And Wessex. If simply being English didn’t disqualify us, in the eyes of the decision-makers, from doing things so sensibly.

Just why so many English folk think that effective, efficient government is such a dreadful idea is something we’ll need to explore in future posts. The roots of an explanation lie in the centuries when absolute monarchs ruled the world, hanging, beheading and burning all who queried the views held by those at the top. But in 2012?

All the arguments against regions in England are deeply, deeply irrational. Regionalism is ‘un-English’? More like un-Norman. (How can Wessex be un-English?) Regionalism plays into the hands of Brussels? So we do without good government because the continentals have it? (The EU is a club of nation-states, with no enduring interest in promoting regions.) Regionalism will mean more bureaucracy? Scotland and Wales show the opposite: the reorganisation of environmental work in Wales is expected to deliver benefits worth £158 million over the next 10 years. (Regional administration in England already exists in many fields – it’s a fact of geography – but devolution leads to even more streamlined, cheaper, faster and better decision-making.)

The experience of our marine environment ought to be a warning. Never grumble about the incompetence of the London regime if you’re unwilling to work to replace it with a now proven alternative.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Seizing Power

Those old enough to remember the world before it went completely mad may fondly recall nationalisation as an inspirational idea incompetently implemented. Good, in theory, because it allowed democracy to be extended into the field of economics, so that choices can be determined by intelligent debate rather than by a mindless love of money. Bad, in practice, because the rules of procedure remained unchanged and were exploited in damaging ways. The same old over-centralised managements carried on with their same old haughty methods, with only nominal accountability to over-centralised ministries that answered to Parliament only when they felt it was Parliament’s business to know.

Accounting remained based on a concept of profit that precisely aligned costs and revenues, sometimes arbitrarily, with relatively little of the flexibility that might have allowed social priorities to intervene, but just enough of it to identify nationalisation with reckless loss-making. Thatcherism re-imposed the discipline of the market, refusing to allow declining industries to be run as social services. It was a logical response to the failure of the Callaghan government to balance the national books. Of course, there were strategic exceptions even then. Nuclear power and London commuter services might be lame ducks but they couldn’t be allowed to go to the wall. Coal, steel and engineering could. Which is why Swindon is now known for shops and not workshops and we buy our trains from abroad.

Thatcherism grew out of the problems that flowed from the 1973 oil crisis. It came to power in 1979 and merged seamlessly into Blairism after Labour, in 1995, ditched any remaining commitment to economic democracy. Since 2008 it has been in its death-throes. Bank bail-outs have proved that, politically, the free market is a lie. Cameron’s attempts to use the cover of austerity to drive forward privatisation of local government services and the NHS are facing determined opposition. Moves to sell-off our forest heritage have already been thwarted.

More fundamentally, the intellectual argument has been shot through the heart. The spivocracy of the free market no longer delivers choice. The choice of whether or not to sacrifice our lifestyle in order to prop up the financial class is now transparently a political one. Sadly, politics generally isn’t up to the job of responding. We have Labour continuing to champion competition and deregulation, while the case for State control of energy prices was last week made on the floor of the House of Commons by a supposedly Conservative Prime Minister.

As with railways, the pressure is building to take the energy sector back into common ownership. Maybe even democratic common ownership? There’s been none of that in energy since the last municipal gas and electricity departments were regionalised under the Attlee government. But regionalised in the usual ad hoc way. Two different sets of regional boundaries, pre-determined by agglomerating private company territories, neither set aligned with political boundaries, and in no way intended as a preparation for decentralised democratic control through elected regional bodies. If that ever was the ultimate intention, we’re still waiting.

We could, for example, have had a Wessex Electricity Board. (We did have a Wessex Electricity Company, whose expansion was cut short by nationalisation.)  It would have been difficult to achieve in the 1940s, when the priority was post-war reconstruction and ad hoc solutions ruled. But the industry was reorganised twice in the 1950s, ultimately creating a federal structure across England/Wales/Cornwall, while Scotland got its own separate institutions. The next time reorganisation was on the cards was in the 1970s, when Labour’s Tony Benn sought to centralise the industry into one vast corporation on the precedent of British Gas. Only the need for Liberal support to prolong the minority government’s life vetoed that. As for gas itself, John Osmond’s 1974 book The Centralist Enemy gives a breathtaking account of the damage done as British Gas was formed out of the regional boards. It’s the usual tale of looking to London for answers instead of coming together in defence of the region.

Then came privatisation and all that followed. With the result that the energy sector today looks nothing like what was sold from 1986 onwards. It’s been diced and sliced and reassembled into conglomerates that make what the banks did with mortgages look relatively straightforward. Sometimes electricity is generated by one company, transmitted nationally by another, distributed locally by a third, and supplied to the consumer by a fourth. Sometimes the four are completely independent of each other. At other times one company does two or more but never entirely all four. It can also do one or more aspects of gas, and some suppliers have also done other things, like double glazing. But you can’t guarantee that yours will. And as for tariffs, the free market gives you a choice of about 400, a tactic known as confusion marketing. Which applies to rail fares too.

It’s chaos, and chaos is becoming unfashionable. Chaos isn’t good any more. It wearies the brain. The public looks to politicians to cut the Gordian knot and restore simplicity and sanity. To renationalise the railways, the energy companies, the water companies, and all the rest. If Labour won’t do it, maybe the Tories will. Who knows? There’s no reason why they couldn’t. It was Disraeli who bought shares in the Suez Canal, Churchill who took a stake in what became BP and Chamberlain who nationalised coal royalties. Even Edward Heath made the U-turn, selling off State assets to start with, but bailing-out Rolls-Royce in the end. It was the Tories too who stole our local water boards off us by stealth between 1972 and 1989.

Nationalisation always finds its way onto the agenda when firms look to the taxpayer to socialise their losses, simultaneously demanding asset sales as the means to continue to privatise profits. The acid test of true intentions is what, if any, compensation is paid, and to whom. Municipal undertakings have always been nationalised on less generous terms than private ones, thanks to the convenient myth that the State is one entity, even though its parts are politically separate and can even be diametrically opposed in outlook. One of the greatest boons of devolution may be to break down this unitary thinking, so that a parish or county council is at last seen as having rights that are vested in local folk and not in the London regime.

Our own contribution must be to point out the folly of simply repeating recent history. Nationalisation is centralisation and that means more of the same. More top jobs in London. More disdain for the folk on the spot. Priorities set in London for London’s gain and our loss. One size being made to fit all. And the whole show fanfared as Britain on the rise, united once more under its natural leaders.

Scotland and Wales will be sceptical. They won’t want to play that game. And neither should we. We need to take control of our energy resources and networks for our benefit, under the guidance of a Wessex Witan beholden to no-one beyond our boundaries.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Keep Calm And Cut It Down

So Andrew Mitchell has at last resigned over his altercation with a police officer in London’s Downing Street. Those who battled in vain to defend him helpfully stressed how stressful the job of helping to run the country is just at this moment.

Then why not make it less stressful by spreading the workload? Alex Salmond looked very unstressed this week, as all his ducks (or are they grouse?) start to line up. Salmond has the fun job of running a small country well, not Mitchell’s part in running a big country badly.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week at Westminster held an investigation into the foreign policy implications of Scottish independence. They were told by retired diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock that the global standing of an independent England of 50 million would not be appreciably different from the global standing of a United Kingdom of 60 million. (It was rather pleasing to hear him suggest that even Cornwall might want to go its own way.)

To put Sir Jeremy’s conclusion slightly differently, a unitary England would be almost as complex to run as a unitary Britain used to be. That is, for us, why England cannot remain a unitary state. Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia need to re-assert their own identities against the omni-dominance of London, ensuring that government is dispersed more widely for everyone’s benefit. Not least that of frazzled politicians. Think of it as a humanitarian act.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Democracy Haters

“He did not know her name, but he knew that she worked in the Fiction Department. Presumably – since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner – she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell’s technicians at Minitrue work for David Cameron these days, churning out press releases. Like the one that this week heralded the publication of the Growth Bill.

Now it’s sad that even the titles of legislation have become an ideological battleground. Canada recently passed a law to undo much of its federal environmental protection legislation. It called it the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act. (The Japanese in World War Two named their empire the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in a similar attempt to deceive.) When Enterprise Zones were introduced by the Thatcherites in 1980, a Labour backbencher tried in vain to have them renamed Industrial Development Areas. Not a chance. There is no room for neutrality in the war against economic democracy.

Or against democracy, pure and simple. All the bile in the press release is directed at folk who have used commons legislation to thwart development by getting local beauty spots declared to be village greens. Reading the press release, you can visualise folk with no local connection getting up petitions to oppose the democratic will of the community and deprive young couples there of the home they’ve always dreamed of. (Ever compassionate, those housebuilders. It’s amazing they don’t give houses away for free.)

There are actually four reasons why village green legislation is ‘abused’, as the Government would have it. One is that no-one associated with the London regime gives a damn about protecting anyone’s environment. Two is that the local folk most directly affected have no other way to protect it, because even if the parish is 100% against development, it can be over-ruled by the district council. Third is that the district council, even if it agrees with the parish, can be over-ruled by Eric Pickles or one of the thugs in his employ. Fourth is that the district is forced to meet the demand for housebuilding whether it likes it or not, so its agreement to allocate a site for housing is obtained under duress.

The Tory party is deeply split over the environment. One half really believes in it. The other half can only see the £ signs. And that’s the half that’s winning and will probably go on winning because that’s where the party’s funding comes from. The other half would be better advised to join the Wessex Regionalist Party and fight for democracy. Our view is that if development enjoys genuine local support, untainted by bribes and threats, then it’s for local folk to live with the consequences whatever they may be. It’s also that calling in the big fist of London government if you can’t get your own way is not how our society should seek to deal with conflict.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Right Royal Ruination

Prince Charles likes to let his mother’s Ministers know his views. In at least 27 letters to seven Government departments in just seven months, many of the letters being “particularly frank”. To release these letters would damage the Monarchy. And there again, since we now know this, the Monarchy is damaged anyway and the clamour for release will only grow. Who’d be Attorney-General with that one to juggle? Only a Tory one like Dominic Grieve could get away with being so bold about it. Labour have always been a load of lickspittles out of fear of alarming the tabloids.

HRH faces the difficulty that he doesn’t fit any of the ideologies of the age. He’s not a self-made millionaire. He’s a millionaire thanks to the generosity of King Edward III, who died in 1377. He’s never stood for election to any public office, been given a job on merit, or won a notable award, yet he still ranks as a VIP. The Duchy of Cornwall, despite the name, has its estates mainly in Wessex. The latest capital and revenue figures on its website show the extent of the Prince’s extraordinary good luck, bestowed on a man of evidently abysmal intelligence.

‘Charlesgate’ raises many questions. We have three to add to those which the London media deem important.

1. Why is £677 million of public money managed as a private landed estate rather than by the local folk whose environment it is?

2. Is funding Charles and his hobbies the best possible use of £17.2 million a year (less tax generously donated) when local authorities in Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire – all shires with Duchy properties – are faced with making huge cuts in public services?


3. Is there a similar file of embarrassing letters from the Earl of Wessex?

Royal Commissions are out of favour these days but if ever one were needed to delve through the mediæval murk to the heart of the matter, a Royal Commission on the Monarchy, with power to not take no for an answer, would be a very good place to start. We’re all in it together, after all, but some are rather more in it than others.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Challenges of Paradox

Not a Doctor Who adventure. Just a series of thoughts for the day, to keep those sociologists, economists and politicians puzzling.

1. Couples who care most about rising population have the smallest families, abdicating the future to those who care least.

2. Countries that believe privatisation will restore national pride sell their assets to the foreign governments who dispute this the most.

3. Advocates of more democracy are rarely in the majority.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Evil Empire

Incredibly, in the USA it’s actually a crime to use basic computer skills to access military information that isn’t adequately protected. We say ‘information’ rather than ‘secrets’ because to call something a secret and not put in place the means to keep it so is wishful thinking and a little bit laughable.

Laughable? It’s very serious (according to Labour’s Alan Johnson). No, seriously.

Oh, all right then. It’s hilarious. The Pentagon, with an annual budget of $700 billion, can’t even defend its own computer systems against a man looking for UFOs. Does it sack its IT specialists and get some better ones? And give the man a medal for identifying the lapse in security? No, it tries to get him extradited. Because he isn’t American and he doesn’t live in America. Nor was the ‘crime’ committed there.

Now the UK’s extradition arrangements with the US are being reviewed. Surely the question ought to be why they’re allowed any at all. Because if US courts are anywhere near as flawed as their computers, no-one can honestly expect justice from such a bunch of malignant clowns.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US enjoyed worldwide sympathy and goodwill. It squandered both faster than it burns oil. Its record in overthrowing democracies that make the wrong choices and in wading in where it isn’t wanted is shameful. No British government should surrender sovereignty to an organisation where it’s expected to act as junior partner to this shady regime.

The counter-argument used to run along the lines of ‘at least we’re not the Russians, look at their human rights record’. Now it’s more likely to be ‘at least we’re not the Chinese, look at their human rights record’. No, we’d rather look at Uncle Sam’s, thank you very much. If it’s that good, what’s to fear in recognising the International Criminal Court like most of the world? The US is one of only three states – along with Israel and Sudan – to have signed the Rome Statute and since reneged, in its case less than a year before the invasion of Iraq.

The decline and fall of the American empire is inevitable. Its average IQ is now 19th in the world and facing some stiff competition. (The top 10 nations are either east Asian or central European.) Then there’s its unsustainable energy footprint. As well as a defence budget five times its nearest rival, accounting for over 40% of world military expenditure and draining away 5% of GDP, to do little more than irritate, annoy and occasionally enrage. It’s a pity that the day of reckoning won’t come soon enough to secure justice for the maybe millions who lost loved ones in its numerous crusades to impose ‘freedom’ at the point of a gun.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Defending the Defensible

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot.
Rudyard Kipling, Tommy (1890)

Never in the field of current affairs have there been so many unflattering headlines about the military as we have witnessed this weekend. Marines accused of murder. Retired top brass accused of corrupt-(ish) practices. The Territorials to be renamed the Reserve and made to fill the gaps in regular provision. Gaps brought on by a semi-bankrupt nation attempting still to play at being a world power to please empire loyalists in the shires.

It seems Britain’s establishment continues to crave ‘influence’ in the world largely because its upbringing inhibits it from respecting the autonomy of others (at home as much as abroad). Greed is good, according to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. You want it? Grab it. Why ever not? After three decades of regulatory capture, of rules rewritten at the expense of social and environmental stability, the dividing line between enterprise and theft has become increasingly flexible. The self-interested men (and women) are our new heroes.

New Labour, inspired by American neo-cons and ably supported by the Opposition, took Gekko’s doctrine to a new level. Violence is good. Especially with the ending of the Cold War, the cold-blooded killing of people in other countries has become an acceptable and sometimes popular tool of normal politics. And so a part too of the cross-party consensus. Since 1945, the UK has been involved in more military operations than any other country, including the USA, and there is no sign of this belligerence diminishing.

We are all sucked up into the vortex and expected to play our scripted part, ‘celebrating’ ‘our’ armed forces even as they convert psychologically damaged raw recruits into long-term victims of PTSD, shooting to order in illegal wars that have no moral purpose, never did and never will. The armed forces have become in effect a cult: the disciplined use of rational means in pursuit of utterly irrational ends.

Back to 1945 then. Remember the four ‘D’s of the Potsdam Agreement? Opinions differ as to what exactly they were but de-militarisation, along with de-nazification, features in everyone’s list. The Germans were to be cleansed of their militarist past because it was a bad thing. Our own militarist past – and PRESENT – still require similar attention. Will it take a well-deserved, comprehensive defeat to bring that about? And then what? If we want a military we can possibly consider to be doing a worthwhile job then the best way to start may well be to abolish the whole lot of it and think it through again.

So, from the beginning, why do we need the armed forces at all? What good do they do? Several countries get by without having any. Iceland is one, yet it still won the Cod Wars of the early 70s, humiliating the Royal Navy by a combination of diplomatic pressure and fisheries protection vessels engaged in sea rage. Ideally, military spending everywhere would be nil. Spending directed towards military objectives is almost always waste (though research can lead to civilian applications that transform our lives for the better). If it leads to war, the waste is ghastly. If it doesn’t, it’s still money that could have been spent on better things. The challenge is to so organise our affairs as to minimise the need for military spending, especially as conventionally understood. The real need is for an emphasis on tension reduction, rather than on the received wisdom that violence is a necessary part of the human condition, let alone one to be glorified. No easy thing to do, but so much better than the alternative. And the key lesson remains that tension can be raised as surely by too much military spending as by too little: so don’t be the one who started it.

Looking ahead, conflict seems as likely to require military software as military hardware, as rival teams of hackers work to bring down each other’s critical national infrastructure. More brain, less brawn? Quite possibly. As defence blurs seamlessly into counter-terrorism, surveillance and interception, as movements, not states become the enemy, so the internal/external divide dissolves and questions of civil liberty arise to challenge what is being done, by whom, to whom, and for whose benefit. ‘National security’ is becoming an increasingly unconvincing reason for not discussing national security.

It may well be that the military mind of the future will be even more focused on systems and logistics. Valuable skills exist in dealing with crisis situations, in military aid to the civil authorities when circumstances overwhelm the response normally available. Natural disasters furnish the best example, as when the Army was asked to help out in Cheltenham and Gloucester during the floods of 2007. It’s not just about manpower, not just about soldiers filling sandbags. It’s also about the strategic thinking needed to put in place parallel systems, such as for distributing drinking water or back-up generators. And to do so on timescales that bureaucracies or businesses, for whom the unexpected is a rare event that usually cannot command instant resources, would find truly challenging. Amidst all the rhetoric about outsourcing and encouraging the public sector to take risks, it’s worth pondering the consequences for resilience when contractors fail or risks go too far. (Remember G4S.)

Military planning is at the other extreme from financial whizz-kiddery: what matters, what has to be argued for, is what needs to be done, where, how and when, not what the price tag says. It’s about physical realities, not made-up money, which in the Mad Max scenario of the future isn’t worth a thing. When the Soviet Union collapsed after 1990, legal ownership, bureaucratic regulation and money were all bent to the will of those who had physical control over the material resources. What mattered wasn’t who had jurisdiction over the factory but who controlled the machinery, the energy sources to run it, and either the co-operation of those who could work it or access to enough violence to take it over anyway. Another parallel could be the fall of Rome, when the senatorial landowners merged with the barbarian chiefs to lay the foundations of feudalism. If we would avoid rule by diversifying drugs barons, local warlords and ruthless opportunists generally, then collective security needs to move up the agenda, sharpish.

During the decades either side of 1980, computer consultant and Welsh nationalist writer Derrick Hearne set down his political philosophy in three books: The Rise of the Welsh Republic, The Joy of Freedom and The ABC of the Welsh Revolution. Today more than ever they deserve detailed study, not least because Hearne’s aim was to map a route to survival in what he predicted was the forthcoming Age of Scarcity, looming larger now than then. Equally rejecting big monopoly capitalism and big bureaucratic socialism for the alternative of a ‘community-benefit state’, Hearne visualised a Wales in which markets and interventions therein were led to support rather than destroy communities. It was a no-nonsense vision with universal youth conscription for public works, including the building of a new rail network, a focused exports policy modelled on the Japanese zaibatsu, and utter contempt for Labour’s legacy of cowed colonial cronyism. Not all of this programme is transferable: the English have a deep distrust of large standing armies, and hence of conscription, and are, on balance, quite right to feel that way. That said, there are thought-provoking arguments all round.

In building his ‘model’ of a free Wales, Hearne the computer consultant was keen to set up some creative tensions and feedback loops. The institutions he described were designed to balance short-term economic thinking with long-term strategic thinking. The latter role he assigned to the Army of the Republic as ideological guardian. It’s a role often played by the military elite in countries struggling to escape from a past world. Atatürk’s Turkey is perhaps the best-known example. Outside Switzerland, it’s not a role that sits easily with democracy, but in Hearne’s not unrealistic future, democracy would have to work hard for its survival. His suggestions were intended to assist, not hinder, that goal. Indeed, the primary purpose of his proposed army was not to wield weaponry at all, but willpower.

The Army’s job was to identify, create and maintain the facilities and stocks required for survival, including survival of an economic blockade. There is, Hearne pointed out, a difference between an economic planning consideration, based on investment returns, and a survival consideration, based on the worst-case scenario. One concrete example he gave was that “the Army would insist upon a reserve stock of steam locomotives and their attendant servicing facilities, which [economic] planners might find somewhat quaint”. In Wessex, a comparable example might be the battle to protect farmland, as the source of our future food supply, against those ‘economists’ who consider its short-term residential development value to outweigh any need to think ahead. Food security. Energy security. Environmental security. There are more threats out there than we might care to think.

There are many terms used to describe the kind of strategic thinking needed. ‘Horizon scanning’ is one. And there are many ways of applying that thinking. One is to think simply about the future of everyone, as in really caring about posterity. Another is to look back as far as forward in the life of a specific community, as in the Seven Generations concept. What is lacking is any mechanism for turning such thoughts into action. Think-tanks often appear disconnected from the day-to-day policy measures that really need to start to be turned around now. The military are much more used to grasping the connection between objectives and resources and both the opportunities and the threats presented by change.

We condemn the misuse of taxpayers’ money to fund needless wars, to subsidise the arms trade and to keep some of the most beautiful countryside in Wessex out of bounds. (Nor should we belittle the political consequences: the occupying forces in the Devizes constituency number 11,000, plus their families, easily more than the Tory MP’s majority.) But we also need clear perception and resolute action to build a viable future for Wessex in uncertain times, when many military skills could prove their worth in a mixture of crisis management service and survival think-tank. Time for some creative tensions of our own?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Analysing ‘Dave’

The MP for Witney is a Tory Prime Minister for our times. Not too blatant a representative of the landowning and military class (though do scratch and sniff), nor the child of a grocer, but a public relations man. What you see is anything but what you get. Like Blair, Cameron is first and foremost an actor.

So it pays to unpick his pronouncements this week. Take the conference speech.

Let’s begin with the brief: “Here was the challenge: To make an insolvent nation solvent again. To set our country back on the path to prosperity that all can share in. To bring home our troops from danger while keeping our citizens safe from terror. To mend a broken society.”

Nope, not done any of that. Fail. A sovereign nation becomes solvent by repudiating non-existent, made-up, so-called debts, not by imposing austerity on the most vulnerable. (Precautions are necessary, however.) A decent country ensures prosperity for all by zero tolerance of tax evasion, not just of benefit fraud. To avoid soldiers being killed and maimed and the public becoming a target for terrorism, why not stop being Washington’s eager little poodle? (Special relationship? Nice gimp mask Dave.) As for a broken society, it is NOT broken. Thanks to the incompetence of the London regime under all three major parties, it is in fact wrecked.

“We are in a global race today. And that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours. Sink or swim. Do or decline. To take office at such a moment is a duty and an honour and we will rise to the challenge. Today I’m going to set out a serious argument to this country about how we do that. How we compete and thrive in this world, how we can make sure in this century, like the ones before, Britain is on the rise. Nothing matters more. Every battle we fight, every plan we make, every decision we take is to achieve that end – Britain on the rise… And to those who question whether it’s right to load up a plane with businesspeople – whether we’re flying to Africa, Indonesia, to the Gulf or China …whether we’re taking people from energy, finance, technology or yes – defence … I say – there is a global battle out there.”

Nothing matters more than winning that egg-and-spoon race, does it Dave? Britain on the rise. Throbbing with thrust. We have to ask what planet Cameron is on. As far as we’re aware, there’s only the one. So to talk of continuing growth in order to maintain our differentials is catastrophically irresponsible. To avoid planetary burn-out, the developed world must mark time while the rest does what it has to do to deal with absolute poverty and adapt, just as we must, to the post-oil world. This really is no time for jingoism. Superficially, the theme might appear to be about meeting the challenge of global competition, perhaps as an alternative to global growth in a world that recognises the finite nature of its resources. But Cameron has not in fact moved beyond growth, which he mentioned eight times in his speech. Competition gets only one mention by name.

It’s also worth questioning what, in Cameronland, national success actually means. In what sense is a global company, based in Britain, actually British? If it arranges its affairs to pay tax somewhere else? Or if its shareholders could be just about anybody? Bristol Airport belongs jointly to an Australian investment bank and a teachers’ pension fund in Canada. The French government runs Bournemouth’s buses and supplies electricity to half our region. Wessex Water is owned by a conglomerate in Malaysia. Until we are prepared to take our community’s assets back under democratic control, any stake we may have in Dave’s world is by condescension and not by right. And since on average these assets were privatised at a discount of 30% on their market value, let’s not be hearing any nonsense about full compensation.

If you can stomach it, listen to Cameron praising the NHS as he buries it. The number of managers down? Of course, if you contract-out everything to the private sector the staff magically disappear from the payroll and become someone else’s problem. The numbers of doctors, dentists, midwives and operations all up? Well, what do you expect in a country with sky-rocketing population growth? More of your money spent on health care abroad? And since when was it the UK Government’s job to meet any shortfall in the health budgets of other countries (many of them more than rich enough to look after their own)? Thanks to the Big Society initiative, the donations that used to aid charity work overseas now have to keep services running at home, and all because the UK has made the political choice to pretend to be skint.

What’s the real story behind ‘public service reform’? A phrase to conjure with there. Not public service improvement, please note. Just reform. Change, for better or for worse. Unless you’re a contractor bidding for whole new tranches of profitable activity. That’s better. Definitely. And it should come as no surprise that donations to Tory funds follow. The taxpayer gives money to the contractor and the contractor gives some of it to the Tories, who respond with more of the taxpayer’s money. Surely, any firm donating money to a political party, especially one that is either in government or with a strong chance of becoming so in the near future, should automatically be barred from tendering for government contracts? Isn’t that obvious? Wriggling around the issue with talk of due process and administrative safeguards won’t make the smell of corruption go away.

There is regularly concern about the power of lobby groups and think-tanks but the concern is to some extent misplaced when the entire Government is in effect a lobby group for its funders. A party that governed in the public interest would as a matter of unshakeable principle subordinate capital to community, and not the other way around. We have the quasi-religion of ‘propertyism’, when what we need is economic democracy. And the only folk more opposed to that than the Tories are the other two big parties.

“We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war …we just get behind people who want to get on in life.”

And far too often do so, at the expense of what others hold dear. Nice for them, but being a bully isn’t nice. Cameron rounded on the nimbies in his party, and rightly so, even if for the wrong reason. For Dave accepts the insane policies of economic growth that drive the demand for housing that is correctly seen as offensive by those whose environment is being ruined. Let’s be clear. NIMBY is nowhere near good enough for us. Nobody’s back yard should be up for grabs.

Dave’s caring side showed through earlier in the week when he was asked by the Western Boring Views whether he’d back a cap on second homes: “Some of the controls people have suggested will drive out the investment and the building that is required to give these communities support. What is necessary in some cases is that we're not building enough homes that are affordable to local people. Getting rid of some of the planning controls. I think that will help those sorts of communities. Often the suggestion is why don’t you stop people selling their homes if someone else is going to use it as a second home. I think that is quite difficult to deliver in practice. It would be very bureaucratic. And I think it would rob a lot of people of the value of their homes.”

It’s impressive how delighted Cameron is that house prices in our rural communities are being driven up to meet the demands of the wealthy (such as those working ever so hard in the City of London at “socially useless” activities); and delighted too that more homes are to be built to meet those demands, despite the environmental damage this will do. It’s almost like listening to a Labour politician. Far from being an investment in the community, second homes mean that locals have to pay more for housing than they should and that the community has to find more funding than it should to offset the costs imposed by up-country predators.

When he turned to education, Dave talked a lot about success. But what he really meant was failure. Because in praising free schools he was praising the losers. Those who were too lazy (or arrogant) to engage in the democratic process to change the education policies of their local council. Or, having tried, had lost the argument. But now expect to be handed millions of pounds of public money anyway to experiment on children. If that’s a lesson in democracy, we can only hope no other countries are paying attention.

Is there anything wrong with ambition? Beware. Ambitious folk are, by definition, unhappy. At times there’s something not quite right about them, something swivel-eyed. When they don’t mind hurting others to get where they want to be. That’s not to say that folk shouldn’t do their best. Or even more – as Churchill insisted – if that’s what it takes to get the job done. But that’s something that should come naturally. Not from a sense of being driven, the sense of insecurity and fear on which the Tories feed. According to Cameron, “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.” Which can mean either that he has no idea of how the English language works or that he wants a still more unequal society. Not good news either way. But either way a completely unsustainable position. The philosophy that has dominated the last 30 years is that income distribution doesn’t matter. It’s better to grow the cake than squabble over how to divide it. In a post-growth world, income distribution does matter because the cake won’t ever be getting any bigger. And that should cause any Tory sleepless nights. As well as the military, since income distribution is as much an inter-national as inter-class issue.

“This is the country that… fought off every invader for a thousand years.”

Here was a quote that had historian Dan Snow in stitches. We could ask what Cameron thinks William of Orange and his Dutch army were doing marching across Wessex in the autumn of 1688. Dave’s maths are as approximate as his history, given William the Bastard’s victory 946 years ago this evening, but we can let that one pass. A much better target would be the idea that ‘this’ country is that old. The UK didn’t exist 1,000 years ago, but are facts to be allowed to get in the way of all this Boy’s Own stuff? Arch-unionists will always denounce our part in the revival of the Wessex identity, claiming it as anachronistic, an undoing of a historical destiny to centralise (but only as far as the Channel, mind you). In fact, we are careful to distinguish Wessex, the geographical frame of reference through which we view our world, from whatever other state or states existed on its territory at particular dates in history.

Unionists, Cameron included, make no distinctions. One country. Always have been. Always will be. Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set. In contrast, we see nothing but a cause for disgust in the idea that Britain should be ’great’, if by that is meant having a sense of superiority over others, equally blind to their merits and to our faults. No chauvinism please, please, we’re too small a planet for that.

If you can’t have them punching the air for Britain, how about shedding a tear? Was it Dave’s masterstroke to mention his dead disabled son and bask in reflected Paralympic glory? Or just mawkish?

But that was merely the warm-up for Thursday’s unveiling of plans to mark the centenary of the First World War, to be orchestrated by Wiltshire MP Dr Andrew Murrison. A warmonger makes casual reference to the war to end all wars and it passes largely without comment. So does the fact that quite a few of Britain’s disabled athletes wouldn’t even be disabled if the PM had given peace a chance. It’s long been seen as sophisticated in establishment circles to embrace war, as a normal part of making the world safe for capital to do its business, at the expense of broken lives and squandered taxes. Now that the last men who fought in it are silent, the stage is set to re-present the First World War not as an avoidable human tragedy but as a great national triumph. And invite history to repeat itself yet again. For to commemorate what was an utterly pointless European civil war as Britain’s second finest hour and to elbow the context out of the way is to learn nothing. Cameron, a thoroughly revolting man, would have it so. Dulce et decorum est. (Best buy-in the bunting before prices rise.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Great Turn-Off

In his 1915 poem In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’, Thomas Hardy wrote of young love and the agricultural routine as the unchangeable backdrop to war, the things that ‘will go onward the same, though dynasties pass’. The first verse features a man guiding a horse, still then the unassailable essence of farm power on the move.

In the year after Hardy’s death, Stalin announced the Great Turn, the introduction of a planned economy in the Soviet Union, with tractor power the dominant image that has come down to us of industrialised agriculture driven by oil. The Soviet Union was already the Ford Motor Company’s largest customer, a relationship that began under Lenin. The struggle for control of oil-fields was a recurrent theme of the Second World War and has never wholly submerged since.

The world that for Hardy seemed eternal was gone within a generation. In its place we have our own certainties. So certain in fact that Peak Oil deniers will, with a straight face, assert that cars are now such a necessity that governments simply won’t allow them to disappear. Voters wouldn’t stand for it. They will stamp their feet until the laws of physics are repealed. So petrol will run out? Then we must invest in a new network of electric vehicle charging points throughout the land, and the quicker the better. Right. So where’s the electricity coming from?

A report from energy regulator Ofgem last week identifies an increased risk of blackouts in the UK from 2015 as generating capacity shrinks, with no safe, sustainable alternative in sight. We have become so used to the idea of an energy-rich world that the idea of having to prioritise in an energy-poor one is quite novel. Locally and regionally, public transport is going to have to play a larger role, with a growing share of scarce electrical power.  Yet at present we are still building major new roads and high-speed rail lines in the weird belief that the way to kick-start regeneration is to enable folk to leave faster.

Energy politics is where it’s all at from now on. There’s so much we ought to be doing, especially in the field of conservation. To quote Jonathon Porritt, in an interview he gave to the Wessex Chronicle in 2009, “it worries me enormously that debate in political circles is ALWAYS about one supply option versus another supply option. Should we have clean coal, or nuclear? Should we have nuclear, or renewables? Imported gas versus biomass? It’s just unbelievable how quickly politicians turn to the supply side of the debate, whereas by far the most important thing, BY FAR, is energy efficiency. If you don’t press the energy efficiency button and keep pressing it and pressing it and pressing it, then there is no amount of renewable energy that can then be brought forward in such a way as to keep the lights on.”

We hear none of this from any of the London regime politicians. They want us to believe that the party will go on for ever. They think that flogging a flatlining economy is going to get growth galloping again. So we can pay off debts that were created out of nothing, and so don’t deserve to be repaid, and most certainly not at the expense of mining our environment. Instead of deciding together what we can sensibly turn off now to ease our future pain, they want more population, more development, more consumption, less effective planning restraint, less concern for things of the spirit, less sense that we have any responsibility for the longer-term future.

And folk actually vote for these creatures.

Friday, October 5, 2012

On Track

You can buy electricity from the gas company nowadays. And gas from the electricity company. Confused? Then what are we to make of the West Coast rail franchise, where the bearded boss of an airline is displeased that the Department for Transport so nearly awarded the contract to a bus company? Is it really so old-fashioned to suggest that railways might perhaps best be run by railwaymen?

Not so old-fashioned at all, as One-Nation Labour inches towards renationalisation. Others have been through this cycle before. Free markets, it is said, have got us where we are today. Along with the abuse of free markets by those with the means to use the political system to rob us when the going gets tough. All in the good cause of ‘financial stability’. That renationalisation is happening elsewhere is a sign of coming times here, as commercial elites lose their way and other interests start to move in on the vacuum left behind. Banks and railways are two examples of market failure, where the private sector is increasingly throwing itself into the arms of the State and saying, in effect, ‘we’re stuffed, now you sort it out’. It’s not as if the railways cost less now that the subsidies are paid to private companies. They cost more.

We watch with trepidation. A debate over the future of public services, and especially over their democratic control, is one we welcome, but not one with a predetermined outcome. Common ownership is not a problem in itself; centralised control, however, is.

We want to see railways owned and managed by those who care about them, those who use them and those for whom they are an integral part of the local community and its functioning. We don’t want them run by multi-national conglomerates, passed around like Monopoly cards and subjected to permanent revolution in the form of franchises too short for long-term investment planning and too long for meaningful accountability.

But neither do we want a return to the black hole of British Rail, or any part of the managerialist nightmare that was nationalisation, where the management was above accountability and the politicians practised keyhole interference but displayed no sense of vision or responsibility towards a vital public asset.

We have two specific reasons for trepidation, one economic, the other constitutional.

Labour wants renationalisation because it is a party of grands projets. It wants the white elephant of HS2, just like the other London parties, as a virility symbol and won’t be dissuaded by sober analysis of the facts. That commercially the project doesn’t stack up. And that integrating the far-flung provinces with the London market will ruin them further. We need WORSE connections to the capital, not BETTER, if we are to protect our own local economies from evisceration.

Renationalisation of the railways is set to become a core belief for One-Nation Labour because it provides a means of re-imagining a united, non-devolved Britain. No more rail powers for Scotland and Wales then, let alone the English regions. Whitehall must prioritise, for the good of all. The spirit of 1945 and all that.

We have a very different set of priorities. No grands projets at all. Just the infinitely more useful policy of re-opening lines and stations to provide the fundamental infrastructure of a post-oil world. And for that, Wessex doesn’t need Whitehall poking its nose in. It’s great that attractive new thinking is underway on the railways. It’s a shame that it’s not really that new or really that attractive. Wessex can do much better. Yes, we’re on track, but keep watching those signals.