Friday, November 30, 2012

The Long View

“Economics, said Mr Stanley [Oliver Stanley, then President of the Board of Trade], is 50% psychology … What we need, apparently, is not statesmen but hypnotists, not scientists, but witchdoctors, not confidence born of scientific prediction of the future, but confidence created by a political confidence trick. There is nothing surprising in this. It is the kind of mystic mumbo-jumbo to which capitalism is driven when austere reason pronounces sentence of death upon it.”
Aneurin Bevan, Tribune, 5th November 1937

Research for last month’s post on health turned up the little gem above. It’s striking for the parallel with current conditions. And equally for the contrast. Because while the practitioners of voodoo economics are as evident today as in the tense run-up to World War II, advocates of an alternative are not. Our rulers, from all London parties, raised on a diet of market mysticism and hero-worship drawn from Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, now appear incapable of imagining bold solutions that cut through the nonsense in the way that Bevan advocated.

The nonsense that says that care homes and children’s centres have to close so that a parasitical financial class don’t lose interest. The nonsense that says that our environment has to be sacrificed to massive, destructive development to kickstart ‘growth’. The nonsense that says that private property rights, no matter how acquired, are more important than rational, democratic collective action.

But there’s another quote from Bevan we can approve of even more heartily: “The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.” That’s something Old Labour signally failed to do. It had proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution in its manifesto from 1918 to as late as 1945. Arthur Henderson, its first Cabinet Minister and the co-author of that policy, wrote that: “The Labour Party is pledged to the widest and most generous measure of home rule that can be devised.” Its generosity soon evaporated once it calculated possible consequences for its Westminster majority. Home Rule for Wales was repudiated in 1952, Scotland following in 1958. And for decades it even looked as though the initiative would pass fully to the Conservative & Unionist Party.

Bevan’s soundbite, if considered at all, turned out to be about handing power to a new class of managers and excluding everyone else, because many of the policies Labour did implement concentrated power even more tightly in the hands of a London-focused elite. That was one reason why the Conservatives went on to do so well in Scotland. Scots saw nationalisation drain decision-making out of their country. The Conservatives, when they returned to office in 1951, not only reversed some of Labour’s nationalisation measures but they implemented a policy of decentralisation within the nationalised industries they retained. The Conservatives’ reward was to be the majority party in Scotland until the end of the decade. Today, after taking Scots’ loyalties for granted, they have just one MP north of the border.

The fate of the Scottish Tories is a fascinating example of how a political orthodoxy can implode within a generation. It’s fascinating for us because it shows too that the Tory majority in Wessex is not set in stone either. Often we are urged to adopt more right-wing policies to appeal to Wessex as it is today, rather than as we would wish it to be. But the fact is that we aren’t interested in maintaining the current direction of travel, because it’s doing our region irreparable harm. We are the heirs to a noble tradition, from the Clubmen to Common Wealth, that aims to keep the best of what we have inherited AND build a better, more secure future for all. We are even the natural home of those Tory-inclined voters who actually care about the environment. Anyone under 30 should certainly join, as it’s their future our policies are anticipating.

The Tory majority in Wessex has been with us since 1924. At the 1923 election Wessex, like Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, returned a non-Conservative majority. It’s hard to imagine now but that is our radical heritage and in the long run it is a heritage to which we must return. The practical point of studying history is to recognise that where things have been different in the past, so there is the possibility of them being different in the future. Orwellian regimes of all political hues aren’t keen on us knowing our history. Which is all the more reason to study it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sowing Bricks

The Conservatives, one-time party of the countryside, continue to plot their destructive, and self-destructive, course. Planning Minister Nick Boles told Newsnight this week that he wants to concrete-over 1,500 square miles, twice the area of Greater London, though he didn’t seem quite sure of the figures. Never mind. A million acres. Or thereabouts. Did he put his foot in his mouth himself, or was it put there on the orders of the Cameron/Osborne axis? You can already hear the Torygraph baying for his blood and they’re not the sort who pause to listen attentively when a former think-tank whizz-kid invites them to think the unthinkable.

Boles’ performance under cross-examination from Jeremy Paxman, and from Paxman’s other guests, was lamentable. Was it really the best he, or the Government he represents, could possibly have done with the material? Was it all just an act, part of some deeper, more sinister strategy? Or are Coalition Ministers every bit as thick as they sound, in Boles’ case like a twin of Michael Gove? These are the clowns giving orders to Wessex, the men and women making key decisions and directing billions of our money here, there and everywhere. We could do so much better without them.

Challenged to explain how building on farmland could be ‘sustainable development’, Boles hadn’t a clue. He acknowledged that there are ‘choices to be made’. Too right there are. Potentially between allowing your children the moral right to a house with a garden and allowing your grandchildren the means to avoid starving to death. Boles swerved by saying he’d avoid building on the better quality farmland but it was an evasive response showing just how little grasp he has of the issues inherent in his brief.

The MAFF Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) divides farmland into grades – 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4 and 5. The top three are described as the ‘best and most versatile’ land, which it is most important to protect. These three make up about 40% of all English farmland, though with huge local variations. Does Boles think the rest is expendable? Apparently so. He just went on about being able to import our food from some ‘elsewhere’ that is magically expandable.

Even protection of the best land has nowhere near the priority it had 20 years ago, let alone in the earlier post-war decades. MAFF is now DEFRA and busy saving the whales. Where MAFF would routinely have sent expert witnesses to public inquiries, DEFRA plays no active part in the town and country planning system. It does not see its job as being to defend the national interest in the round. Councils are advised in general terms to protect the best land, where possible, but they are told in even starker terms to get those houses built. They have neither the expertise nor the incentive to make up for the lack of any long-term strategy for food security. It ought to be worrying that Whitehall’s own staff dealing with these issues have been run down or privatised to such an extent that the issues themselves have dropped below the radar. There was a similar rundown of experienced technical staff in local government who dealt with flooding and drainage. Those teams have had to be painfully rebuilt at speed over the past five years.

ALC maps are very colourful to look at but they can mislead. In most areas they represent the results of surveys carried out at quite a coarse grain. More detailed site-specific surveys often reveal large pockets of higher grade land that would otherwise be missed. In some areas, such as the Somerset Levels or the Vale of Pewsey, and around many of our market towns, so much land is high-grade that development, if it occurs, cannot go anywhere else. The old planning technique of sieve-mapping was to overlay all the constraints to development and build on the land that still showed blank through the layers. The problem today is that those easy sites are gone and councils have to decide what is least precious and can be sacrificed for the least offence caused. It is an increasingly desperate process of cannibalising our surroundings.

The Daily Fail managed to come up with some cracking answers to the problem. Build on all that derelict urban railway land we can see from the train as we arrive for work. (And how will residents get around in the post-oil future, when additional tracks need to be re-laid?) Cut public sector pay in the provinces so that ‘wealth creators’ will be attracted out of the congested South East to areas in need of regeneration. (In areas of high unemployment, labour is a buyer’s market, so wage rates in one sector have no effect on the wage rates that can be offered in the other, only on staff turnover. But cutting them in either sector deflates the regional economy. Lower wages in the private sector reflect the transport costs associated with distance from the centre of power and wealth and so would not rise even if public sector wages were cut. But it might become very difficult to find a nurse or a policeman in Devon, especially one able to afford to live there. Regional variations in pay have pros and cons but there’s something particularly backward about regionalising pay rates while NOT regionalising power over all the other things that make up the big picture, like second “homes”.) It’s a depressing fact that those with real influence over policy-making in the United Kingdom of London & the Home Counties haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about, or of the damage they can do.

Meanwhile, we still have that ‘housing shortage’. Except that it’s nothing of the kind. Quite the reverse. It’s a population excess. And who’s to blame for it? Boles pointed the finger at Labour’s thirteen-year reign of error. And quite right too. It was reckless to open the doors to all the world’s waifs and strays and allow the population to rise by millions. And Labour now admits it. But Boles is part of a government that came to power promising to put right Labour’s mistakes. What has actually been done? There’s still nothing that resembles a credible joined-up strategy on immigration, border controls and welfare. And putting right mistakes doesn’t mean accepting unsustainable population growth as if it’s something that can’t now be reversed. PAY folk to emigrate. Over the medium term, it’s the cheapest option, avoiding the need for utterly unaffordable levels of spending on new infrastructure. Over the long term, it’s the only option that staves off catastrophe as fertile families multiply and fertile land declines.

But in the short term? Nothing will happen. London politicians are too indebted, in every sense, to the City to see the noose they’ve made for themselves. The political Ponzi scheme demands a growing population to create a growing workforce and a growing tax base with which to reward favoured interest groups. Legal fictions require interest to be paid as agreed, even when the real economy has no hope of sustaining the means to do so without consuming the ‘natural capital’ of our countryside. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with creative accountancy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blue Touch Paper

It’s an interesting possibility that those who want a kind of war, on terror, on non-growth, or whatever, are in fact aching for a real fight between countries. War is the dominant thought that occupies their waking moments. David Cameron and his party don’t do morality. The idea of a supposedly ethical foreign policy, with its unprovoked invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and its sabre-rattling towards Iran, can be safely parked with Labour. Cameron has a supposedly commercial foreign policy. Using taxpayers’ money preferentially to subsidise the arms trade.

Why does he do that? If the goods were any good, wouldn’t they sell themselves? That’s not how the deals are done. It’s politics, ultimately, not business. Think of the contract as a subsidy to the UK to obtain from its government the correct point of view. This routine prostitution of sovereignty is the price paid for basing an economy on global trade and finance and not upon using our indigenous resources (including high-tech know-how) primarily for our own long-term benefit.

So on a sales tour of the Middle East this month, the Great Warmonger praised British arms exports, deflecting criticism by saying that countries, even the autocratic ones, have the right to defend themselves. Leaving aside the fact that weapons and equipment can also be used for internal repression, the question remains: defend themselves against whom? Neighbours with more money than sense, happy to spend it when British salesmen come knocking? It’s an ethical foreign policy of sorts. A policy of fair play. A policy of dealing death and destruction equally to all sides. And playing with fire to the point where Cameron cannot be excused responsibility for the consequences. As a principled example to the world, it’s almost as good as Blair becoming Middle East peace envoy. Now, where’s that Nobel Prize?

In the current climate, it’s easy to say that morality has to go out the window, because jobs and profits and taxes and debts are all at stake. It’s a shame folk won’t draw the conclusion from this: that our system, having been acknowledged even by its supporters to be immoral, should not be sustained for one day more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Great Dictator

David Cameron told the CBI yesterday that he wants a war economy, with himself as Winston Churchill, to pull the country out of recession.

Of course, it’s all ridiculous, prep school nonsense. The only real war is being fought by British troops in Afghanistan, despite public opposition. No-one in the UK is going to be shot or bombed by the fiendish forces fought against in the war on non-growth. Many of us are actually relieved to have some respite after decades of seeing our communities ravaged by developers and weekenders wielding their fat-cat cheque-books.

In putting the war analogy into play, Cameron’s aims are two-fold. Firstly, to cut through all the democratic safeguards that prevent his chums in the commercial sector lording it over us, slashing social and environmental protection, and in effect rebuilding feudalism. Clearly, Cameron is no historian. Otherwise, he would know that a real total-war economy involves massive, detailed State control of every aspect of productive activity. Which is about as far removed from his real intentions as can be imagined. For him, the job of the State is simply to smash any opposition to the new national infrastructure needed to crush the provinces still further and speed their exploitation. Not in the public interest but in that of the global system to which he has devoted his service. A system that views democracy and liberty as irksome irritations.

Secondly, Cameron’s rhetoric has the same menacing tone as George W. Bush’s ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. He wants to anathematise any alternative to his own bleak vision. Like all the London politicians, he starts from the premise that, of course, EVERYONE supports growth. The corrupt financial system that bankrolls his party can’t cope with its absence. So the only question is what destructive practices are to be introduced next in order to stimulate it. Those who fail to acknowledge the ‘seriousness’ of the situation and submit accordingly are to be regarded as traitors. Watch out for Regulation 18B.

Veteran Republican Congressman Ron Paul said, in his valedictory speech this month, that real patriotism is not blind loyalty to the government but a willingness to challenge it when it’s wrong. We can see that with idiots like Cameron at the wheel, there’s a whole lot of challenging to be done.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Winners & Losers

Writers on Bristol, from the Rev. George Heath in the 18th century to Bryan Little in the 20th, have seen in it ‘the London of the West’, a city that would dearly love to outshine its larger rival but is not above copying its every move. So ‘a Boris for Bristol’ stands firmly in that tradition. This week Bristol got, not a Boris, nor a Ken, but a George. Its first executive Mayor is an Independent (and former Liberal councillor), George Ferguson, a flamboyant local architect with a real love for his city, a man who can at the very least be trusted not to use it as a mere stepping-stone to a safe Westminster seat.

Independents did well too in elections for Police & Crime Commissioner, taking four of the seven posts available in Wessex, a logical response to public fears over a policy whose aim appears to be to politicise the police. The Coalition has some apologising to do over the comedy of errors that these elections became. No proper explanation of the change, let alone a justification of something that emerged half-baked from the think-tanks and was waved into law with no real debate. Inadequate publicity from the candidates, denied their traditional right to a free mailshot. No real choice of visions, with all of them putting forward the same promises of greater efficiency and effectiveness. And almost a media blackout, with far more focus on a US presidential election in which the 51st state doesn’t get to vote than on police elections here in which we do. The BBC suggested that national publicity was poor because London wasn’t taking part, as its policing arrangements differ. Nice of the BBC to admit how poorly it serves most of the country.

Voters had three ways to get their own back. They could elect Independents. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. They could spoil their ballot papers, using them to tell the powers-that-be what they thought. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. They could boycott the poll. Which they did, on an unprecedented scale. The reaction from the political establishment, given a no-vote of no confidence, has been furious. All the usual over-the-top froth about ancestors dying to secure the right to vote. What comes to mind is Bertolt Brecht’s quip about the easiest solution being to dissolve the people and elect another. The fact is that voters don’t like being shepherded into the polling booths to play a scripted part they would never have chosen to write. Cameron’s pet project, like Prescott’s made-up regions, crashed and burned because folk were given what was thought to be good for them. They felt insulted by it and excluded from the process of shaping it. It wasn’t the wrong answer. It was the wrong stupid question. And there was no box on the ballot paper allowing anyone to say so.

Direct elections to the (now-abolished) police authorities might plausibly have captured the public mood better, if change was inevitable. At least that way, a variety of viewpoints, representing the wide variety of localities, could have been fed into police decision-making. Much hostility was directed at the idea that one person should hold all the power, one person upon whom decisive pressure could then be piled by those behind the scenes. It’s equally an argument against directly elected mayors and one sign of the growing reaction was Hartlepool’s vote on Thursday to abolish the post there and re-instate the traditional civic Mayor and government by committee. Stuart Drummond – H’Angus the Monkey – therefore goes down in history as not just Hartlepool’s first directly elected Mayor but also its last.

A chapter is closing. We are used to having things described in terms of private sector versus public sector; an alternative terminology might contrast the commercial sector and the democratic sector. For a generation, commercial values have been in the ascendant, seeping in to areas that are literally none of their business. Impatience with the slow, gentle process of consensus-building has seen democratic traditions rubbished and big, finance-friendly bosses installed to bully through ‘necessary’ changes. The credit crunch has forced a rethink, now that we know what’s at stake when power is handed to the representatives of commerce, against whom we are allowed no redress.

Democracy requires genuine choices to be available. Instead, we have three main parties all starry-eyed about ‘choice’, solely as it is defined commercially, in terms of buying and selling. The more choice the commercial sector is allowed to give us, the less choice we have to uphold other values. Planning is one obvious example. Although public consultation is an integral part of the planning process, the right answers cannot be given because only the wrong questions are asked. Where would you like development to go? Never the ‘upstream’ question, would you like development?

Last month, planning permission was granted to CALA Homes to build 2,000 houses at Barton Farm on the edge of Winchester. Barton Farm has been a huge local issue for over a decade, with development bitterly contested through political and judicial channels. In 2000 we took part, parading the Wyvern, in a well-attended march through the city centre to a rally at the Guildhall. Now Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has ruled in favour. He accepts that the scheme will harm the landscape, inconvenience existing residents and increase traffic and congestion on local roads. But none of this can prevail against the greed of housebuilders, whose cause he backs.

Decisions like this demonstrate the deep contempt the London regime has for the good folk of Wessex. Its aim is to obliterate us, culturally and environmentally, as obstacles to ‘progress’. And so long as we continue to vote for its candidates it will go on winning.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mud, Blood & Poppies

Last month we commented, with due acidity, on David Cameron’s £50m plan for a great national festival to mark the centenary of the Great War. Marking the anniversaries of momentous events is not in itself a bad idea. But in this case there are three things wrong with its implementation.

The first is the political agenda of national re-unification, planned ahead to co-incide with the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 election. It’s so blatant that you’d have to be blind not to see through it. The Scots are certainly not fooled. Then couple that with what’s expected to be a heroes’ homecoming as the Fourth Afghan War inevitably ends just like the others did. With the departing foreigners wondering what enduring achievement lies behind the self-congratulation. It isn’t history’s fault that 2014 lands in the middle of all this but it’s very much the fault of ruling politicians if they exploit the fact.

The second, the consequence of the first, is that we’re not expected to look back from a position of greater wisdom but from precisely the position that led to war in the first place. If Europeans would commemorate their common tragedy then Europe should do so together, along with the colonials who also gave so much. The Council of Europe might be the institution to look to to organise this, since it includes Russia and Turkey. That’s not the politics of a super-state, it’s subsidiarity in action. There is simply no way that national silos can sensibly commemorate a conflict they caused. Cameron’s plans pit the resurrected British Empire against Fritz the Hun and Johnny Turk, with everyone else floating freely in the vicinity. Perhaps a token link-up with the Germans somewhere. If you insist. But let’s not forget who WON, eh? What’s a few million war dead to set beside the transient buzz of glory?

The third, the consequence of the second, is that the unmentionable victims of the war will remain unmentionable. It will be remembered as a Great Power conflict, in which only the losers can be the bad guys. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Party at Westminster, urged Irishmen to enlist to defend Belgium and Serbia in the belief that his cause might benefit from some general sympathy for the small. It proved not to be the case. It took another 35 years for at least the majority of Ireland to rid itself of egregious foreign rule. While new states flourished from the Baltic to the Adriatic, small nations and historic regions trapped within the boundaries of the western allies suffered renewed persecution. The independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine, proclaimed as hostilities ceased, was crushed by French arms after 11 tumultuous days. No plebiscite for you, mes amis. The German-speakers of southern Tyrol were ordered to become Italians, their heritage systematically closed down and removed. Breton patriots, backed by no less a figure than Marshal Foch, asked for their own seat at the Versailles peace conference. Breton losses in the war were proportionately double those of Paris. The Bretons believed they had earned a seat. It was denied them, on the grounds that their sacrifice only proved them to be twice as French as anyone else. France continues even now to oppress Brittany and deny its existence as a nation.

Today the usual Whitehall farce will be played out. Those who continue to wage war will cry their crocodile tears. Murderers will lay red poppies at London’s cenotaph, remembering, but learning not a thing. Those who remember and want others to learn might consider sporting the white poppy of peace. Either instead of or as well as the much more restrictively focused red one, which still deems irrelevant the sufferings of civilians and those innocents designated ‘the enemy’. The Royal British Legion, as a charity, can neither glorify war nor denounce it. Would it disapprove if it could? There are those enough who welcome a regular renewal of warfare, just so the youngsters know what the Legion is on about. As an organisation it has no interest in a lasting peace that would ultimately abolish its reason for existing. So who speaks for the truth that prevention is better than cure?

In Edwardian Britain, poppies, given their narcotic properties, were a symbol of sleep, oblivion and death. Nothing better marks the inversion of values brought about by the Great War than that a symbol of forgetfulness became the symbol of remembrance. And through the fog of current war ‘they’ struggle still to grasp the point, remembering how and forgetting why.