Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year of the Wyvern?

In Chinese astrology, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, 2013 the Year of the Snake. A wyvern is something in between, so as we look back over last year’s achievements, we should also be looking forward to what still needs to be done.

It’s in the nature of the status quo to be triumphalist, to insist that what is must be. That there is no alternative. History warns us not to be so certain. Not even about a centralised Britain contemptuous of local and regional autonomy. And thus the work goes on.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Five Winning Ways

“We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”
attributed to Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

Radical parties write their own rules. That is how they eventually succeed. The tide of history will always flow with those who have the greatest, least compromising passion on their side. And the fewest doubts. So the way to make Wessex live is to live it yourself.

For example, by including Wessex as part of your own address and in addressing letters to others. And by challenging others to do the same. Those loyal to traditional county identities have been doing this ever since 1974. And bringing up their children to recognise proper geography rather than the imposed administrative areas. It’s why, when we refer to the ‘South West’ and ‘South East’ zones, we put them in quotes; we aren’t going to do obeisance to the London regime’s map of England.

Individuals and businesses can ‘go Wessex’ by flying the flag and by buying and selling merchandise based on the design. It’s impossible to visit Cornwall or Wales and not be struck by the contrast with Wessex. Why is our tourist industry not pushing OUR identity? Why is it allowing opportunities to drain away? When will it start pressing for ‘Welcome to Wessex’ signs on the motorways and trunk roads that cross our boundaries?

We want a self-governing Wessex region. And we do not need anyone’s permission to act accordingly. Clear thinking on this subject may be a helpful exercise for more troubled times when the London regime is less tolerant of opposition, when Wessex will need appropriate role models.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Alice Walker (1944-)

We need to actually exercise the political power we have, because that's the only way to obtain more of that power. By exercising it now. By calling others to account and doing it tenaciously. By not taking a sneer for an answer. By challenging. Everything. All the time.

Democracy is only corrupted when folk abrogate or irretrievably delegate their political responsibilities. Economic democracy – freedom from, not just freedom to – remains a viable and urgent political choice, if only the majority will take responsibility for their future. The status quo has a huge hold, because it’s issued all kinds of technocratic promises, and folk are wary of fighting it for fear that they won’t get what was promised, be it their pensions, their health care, or whatever. It’s only when they realise that the promises aren’t going to be kept that they will be free psychologically to challenge the status quo and replace it.

It’s easy not to respond to public consultation exercises, on the grounds that, for example, ‘the council won’t listen to us’. If that’s true, we need to push harder, not walk away. Someone, somewhere along the line, will read the comment and start to think. So it pays to make it an incisive and provocative one.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

We haven’t inherited Wessex fully realised; it’s a reality we’re having to build. We should no longer need to justify the existence of Wessex. So our task is to draw attention to the fact that Wessex exists, to the consequences of London’s mismanagement, and to the potential that self-government offers for a better life.

We have a long radical tradition in Wessex that doesn’t always feature in traditional historical narratives focused on London’s priorities. It’s an underground stream waiting to be brought to the surface. There’s discontent out there, but it needs to go beyond mere grumbling. It needs organisation. And a comprehensive approach to online activism.

“Greatness consists in deciding only what is necessary for the welfare of the country, and making straight for the goal… In the belief that you are NOT great, but small and weak, and expecting no help to reach you from any quarter, you will in the end surmount all hindrances.”
Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)

We’re a political party because nothing else works. Nothing succeeds like secession. Not necessarily secession from the Anglo-Norman State, but certainly secession from its habitual modes of thought.

Time spent lobbying Liebour, the Limp Dims or any other product of the Anglo-Norman State is time wasted. We’ve spent days at Portcullis House in Westminster, and elsewhere, in discussions with Alan Whitehead, Andrew George and other leading politicians who are part of the top-down approach. Explaining the facts to an establishment that refuses to comprehend. We can use such time more productively.

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Horace Mann (1796-1859)

But better still, stay around to enjoy it!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

English Is Not Enough

“What we think of when we talk of English traits really narrows itself to a small district. It excludes Ireland and Scotland and Wales, and reduces itself at last to London, that is, to those who come and go thither.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Identity today is in flux: so the Census results tell us. There are many currents but a key event, especially for political radicals, was the launch of the unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003, backed by almost the whole of the London political establishment. So thorough was that backing that it is difficult to find an appropriate reaction short of repudiating the British State itself.

It’s easier for those on the Celtic periphery to do this, slipping easily into an alternative identity removed both in distance and in scale from the London regime. It’s not so easy to do here, where the difference between England and Britain has historically been seriously blurred. England is 81% of Britain by population and its capital is also Britain’s capital. But one seriously big consequence of devolution is undoubtedly that more folk today identify as primarily English, rather than primarily British, than would have done 20 years ago. And they are prepared to organise as such. These facts have spawned a growing stream of pseudo-academic mush from a self-referential British Left anxious for an ideologically sound response that doesn’t rock the unionist boat.

The challenge facing a distinct English identity is the extent to which it has for a very long time been a dormant one. Tom Nairn, a Scot, wrote in The Break-up of Britain that the price of the Union has been a “peculiar repression and truncation of Englishness”. Anyone looking for an English identity today will find some odd, and often disagreeable, role models. Billy Bragg has done his best to present a radical view of England – and been pilloried for his pains by a labour movement that will happily march behind its trade union banners but views national flags with some unease. So the fringe has it. Dr Frank Hansford-Miller, who founded the English National Party in 1974, used to dress up as a Beefeater, in the belief that this was the English national costume. It didn’t do his cause a lot of good. Today’s English nationalists are as likely to dress in chain mail and pretend to be crusaders, especially if they dislike their neighbours from Asia.

Insisting that the only England is the far Right England does nobody any good. The far Right will find plenty who reject Englishness itself as tainted, for the same reasons that they also reject Britishness. And it can hardly be to England’s benefit to have to choose between a far Right vision and a total vacuum.

It certainly is to the benefit of the UK establishment to foster the idea that there is no third option. That way, the far Right bogeyman can be recruited in support of the status quo. England needs the Celts. They must understand that they have a responsibility not to be selfish but to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of the English. Separatism would abandon England to be ruled by skinheads with swastika tattoos on their foreheads. Only the eggshell-thin veneer of Britishness protects the English from themselves and the havoc they would unleash... It’s ridiculous. It’s manipulative. It serves well the electoral interests of the Labour Party. And it’s not less real for being untrue.

So it’s important to those in power to suppress the creation of any third option. Regionalism can be spiked by insisting that the Prescott zones were it, that no more imaginative solution is open for discussion. Those who accept that as true are pushed back upon either the far Right unitary England or the status quo, lacking, as they do, the confidence to assert that actually there are several different paths down which England could travel and that it isn’t a betrayal of it to say so. A federal England, for example, isn’t any less English than a unitary one. It is MORE English, to the extent that it allows expression for regional and local identities too, which are necessarily part of any inclusive picture.

English nationalism’s greatest fear, stemming from the Prescott zones experiment, is that England will disappear completely. That it won’t be possible to be English at all. That division and disunity will accelerate to the point where Englishness becomes a crime. Yet there’s no problem with division and disunity at the international scale, or with denouncing a European identity, because those are deep-rooted attitudes that go back to the origins of our modern State. English nationalism still dances to a Tudor tune. Beefeaters, remember?

Disappearance does seem an unlikely scenario, though one easily exploited, both by those who might want such an outcome and those who don’t. What puts regionalists off nationalists is the degree of over-reaction this engenders. England becomes an embattled identity and a greedy one, one that wants it all. Any identity that doesn’t subordinate the particular to the national is railed against as an enemy within. Any recognition of legitimate claims – that Kernow and Gwent aren’t English or that it’s time to be friends with the Germans – is feared as a crumbling of the defences that will bring the whole citadel crashing down.

We aren’t opposed to an English Parliament that minds its own business and never interferes in the internal affairs of Wessex. We don’t campaign for one, because it would do nothing to advance our own cause. But we don’t campaign against one either so long as its powers aren’t envisaged as inhibiting the self-government of Wessex, now or at any time in the future. An English Parliament that practised subsidiarity might find itself with little or nothing to do, but that wouldn’t be bad news. We do agree that there’s injustice at large when you cannot write ‘English’ as your nationality on official forms. We do believe you should always have that right. What we don’t believe is that being part of the same nation as us gives those in London the right to dictate to regions that are more than capable of making our own decisions. Let the English identity flourish, because a secure identity is also a generous identity, able to view England as a community of communities. We aren’t afraid of it. It’s a pity if it feels the need to be afraid of us.

English nationalism’s second great driver, besides fear of non-existence, is a fear of unfairness. The classic oppressor-as-victim. If Celts can feel oppressed, so can the English. It doesn’t work, because the English are the majority in the UK by 4:1. It’s true that the English are oppressed, but it’s the English, or some of them, who are doing the oppressing. An English Parliament, without a commitment to subsidiarity, will only go on doing it.

Unfairness implies disadvantage. And the regions of England would be no less disadvantaged without regionalism than England would be with no recognition of its own status. Is the denial of status unique? Far from it. While much depends on what is a nation, there are several traditional national entities in Europe that are divided into regions and have no parliament of their own. For England, you could also read Occitania, Prussia, the Mezzogiorno, Aragon or Castille, all areas of Europe with either their own language or a history of powerful monarchical independence. And there are ways to recognise such entities without denying regional autonomy.

So are Scotland and Wales not disadvantaged, having no regional assemblies? Why is England singled out for special ill-treatment? Territorial government is underpinned by geography. Ignore geography and you ignore the possibility of any sensible arrangement of anything. Scotland and Wales are a fraction of the size of England, so any sub-divisions there count as local government units. An England without regions is, and would continue to be, badly governed because it suffers from diseconomies of scale.

It’s worth pondering just how vast a country England is. So too are the quantities of energy and other resources expended in governing it, and which won’t be around for ever. It’s worth pondering, because it’s difficult for those who live within commuting distance of the capital to understand what it’s like to live on the periphery. Often you’ll get the ‘write-off the regions and invest in London’s success’ line of reasoning from Tory think-tanks, who also fail to understand how the English periphery’s economic weakness is directly related to its political invisibility.

What English nationalists routinely propose as their ‘alternative’ to regionalism is to build high-speed rail lines to Newcastle and Penzance so that those coming cap in hand to London can do so all the quicker. The London view of England is that it’s better by far that those on the periphery should spend their unimportant, provincial lives on trains than that London should surrender any part of its monopoly of power. Centralism has determined nothing less than the very shape of England (and who gets to call themselves English). Lothian, now Scottish, was once part of Northumbria. It was abandoned by the united English realm, quite possibly because a king based in Wessex couldn’t hope to get an army there quickly enough to defend it in the event of invasion.

English nationalism’s third great driver is a belief in the responsibility of the sovereign centre to inspect and correct the localities, a tradition which regionalism would decisively break. The fear is not just that England is being mapped out of existence, not just that it’s being discriminated against by a Celt-loving Labour Party, but that without institutions to impose a uniform culture and a sense of subservience to the centre, all hell would break loose. You’d have different areas doing whatever they want, and that would never do. These things have to be carefully doled out, by royal charter, by private legislation, by ministerial fiat. You can’t just do it.

Why does the leading English identity only grudgingly concede a pinch of autonomy to counties and cities, while bringing down a metaphorical mace upon the heads of those who would restore England to its regional roots? We are all conquered. The Celts know they lost. The English lost too but have been taught to identify with their conquerors to the point where they think they won. They won at Hastings and have gone on winning ever since. If we want an end to Norman rule by 2066, regional government has to play a pivotal part.

It’s fashionable to sneer at the idea of the Norman Yoke, dismiss it as a 17th century fable and carry on the issuing of orders from London as if that’s simply an inevitable fact of nature. It’s not inevitable and it’s not natural either. Scholars like Jim Bulpitt have written about the centuries-old relationship between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’, between ‘high politics’ and ‘low politics’. What we’ve seen with devolution is a partial re-instatement of ‘middle politics’ that needs to go much further.

Our aim is, so far as Wessex is concerned, to lead that process of going further. Professor Jonathan Bradbury has written that the Blair government’s introduction of devolution succeeded “precisely because of its focus on local origination in each territory. From a central Whig perspective this produced adhockery and incoherence; from a Bulpittian perspective on territorial management it was a lesson in peripheralising the problems and legitimation of reform in each territory to local actors, thereby freeing the centre from the difficulties of imposing solutions but also arriving at workable answers.”

In other words, you cannot make ‘English regionalism’ work by drawing a map in London and expecting the locals to conform. The demand has to come from below and for that reason every region should be recognisably different. We don’t work any more closely than we need to with regionalists in other parts of England because that would be an undermining of the very ethos of regionalism. A tidy solution is the thing we rightly fear most, because it is the thing that leaves regions most susceptible to continuing central co-ordination and control.

Going further means having a thorough understanding of our place within England. The language of nationalism isn’t helpful to this. Is Wessex a nation in its own right? No, it isn’t. It’s a good theme for pub chats, but let’s be honest about it here. We can claim to be Saxons and not Angles/Engles, but so can Essaxons and Sussaxons. We can claim to have had our own kings. So did Rheged. Why should it matter? A region and a nation are both areas that assert their right to self-government and in both cases the only limit is the will to succeed. The word used tells us very little. Northern Ireland – a province that certainly didn’t set out to be a nation – has enjoyed more self-government for longer than any of the nations still enclosed within the UK.

When English nationalists come to investigate regionalism they always do so with an agenda. Does it represent a good idea for ‘England as a whole’? Or should it be suppressed as a threat to ‘England as a whole’? (That is to say, to the Anglo-Norman State.) Two can play at this game. Is England a good idea for Wessex? We have the right to reserve judgement, because Wessex created the unified English kingdom, for reasons that made sense at the time. It was our idea. As Britain is Greater England, so England is Greater Wessex. In a sense, Wessex owns England. And could dissolve it should it so choose, back to the mere geographical expression it was in the days of Bede.

Not that we advocate that. But it’s just worth remembering every time you’re told that ‘it’s for an English Parliament to decide whether England should have regions or not’. It isn’t. We aren’t dictated to by Mercians or Northumbrians who don’t know their history and so hide behind the Norman/Tudor version of it. You can imagine the reaction if England’s right to exist was judged by its relevance to ‘Europe as a whole’, but that’s somehow ‘different’, in a deeply irrational way.

The relationship between England and Wessex clearly matters more to some than to others. It matters to those nationalists, Celtic as well as English, who insist on dividing the world into silos of sovereignty. It matters much less to regionalists with a more flexible and accommodating approach to political geography. It matters least of all to those who realise that Wessex is real to the extent that folk talk about Wessex and not about something else, even if that something else is England. So maybe enough has been said on the subject. To make Wessex, we need to talk about Wessex and nothing more. England and Wessex are in no way identities in conflict. There is room for both. But to be English is not enough. We assert the right to be Wessaxon too.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Working for Wessex

Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead, in Cheshire. Though Labour is his label, he is no mere mouthpiece. The unique depth of his knowledge of matters relating to welfare reform is widely respected across party lines. So when he joined the panel for BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? on Friday night, interesting things were bound to happen.

He told a story about alienated youth in Birkenhead. Approached by some of his out-of-work constituents, he discovered that after more than a decade of taxpayer-funded schooling they still could not read or write. They wanted to work, but not for less than £300 a week. This he questioned, pointing out their lack of qualifications for such employment. And was asked in reply, “So you’d make us take immigrant jobs, would you?”

Field’s anecdote is troubling not so much in terms of its content as in terms of the political system’s failure to grapple with the issues it raises. Can we not organise things better than this? Must we see our countryside disappear beneath urban sprawl because we’d rather import others to do the jobs haughty youngsters disdain to do than challenge them a bit more forcefully?

Of course we can do better. If we are prepared to confront the Left’s dogma that no distinction can ever be drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor, that the poor are always and everywhere ‘victims’ of ‘the system’. An older Left would have changed the system; today’s just theorises about it and has no practical solutions to offer. It must be right to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving poor, just as it’s right to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving rich. There are three ways to tackle the latter problem. One is smarter taxation, that targets inherited wealth and unearned income, and tackles evasion and avoidance alike. Another is smarter regulation, that roots out unscrupulous behaviour that harms the environment and society. And the third is smarter public spending, that cuts out things that are of no benefit to us but line the pockets of the contractors who organise them. The defence and foreign aid budgets for a start would raise £45 billion.

But the real big spender is welfare. Excluding State pensions but including child benefit, this amounts to £97 billion a year. (Then add £30 billion for personal tax credits, which are welfare in all but name.) Can we honestly say that every penny is well spent? No? Then what are we to do about that?

As ever, the problem is one of over-centralisation. Once, welfare was organised at parish level. Later it was organised at borough or county level. Only in 1948 was it taken over by the central State. Centralisation has both plus and minus points. An undeniable plus is that the burden of welfare is spread evenly. Centralisation made sense to the generation that had been through the Great Depression. Communities suffering over 50% unemployment had to fund welfare by taxing those few still in work, depressing the local economy even further. But centralisation also means bureaucratisation. Rules and entitlements take the place of discretion and incentives. The system costs more to administer and its unconditional nature means that idle labour, a community’s prime asset, goes to waste.

Suppose parishes were put in charge. To avoid the pitfalls of the Poor Law, the money could still be raised centrally, or perhaps regionally, and allocated annually, on a per capita basis, as a block grant to each parish or town council. In larger urban areas without parishes, ward committees of the borough or city council could take on the same role.  The key point is that there should be interaction at a human level between the poor and the politicians, so that each side understands the constraints faced by the other. If we divide £127 billion by the UK population (63,182,000) then a parish with 500 inhabitants would have £1 million to spend each year as it saw fit.

The money could be used to provide unemployed residents with a life of luxury. Or it could be made conditional on them doing something. It could pay for training or apprenticeships, or remedial education. It could pay for work on environmental projects. No-one knows the local area better than its parish councillors. What needs doing? Drainage clearance? Path mending? Hedge laying? Tree planting? Repair of derelict buildings? Let us look beyond artificial limits. Should only public assets be included? We don’t want local businesses using the system to get free labour but what if the cost were to be entered as a land charge against their premises, to be recovered if and when the premises are sold? Can district or county councils provide plant and materials to enable work to be carried out that would entail a long wait were it to be done on a more professional basis? What about projects of more than local importance, such as clearing old trackbeds for the re-opening of rural railways? Site preparation works for new housing or community buildings?

Local control of funds would turn the problem of unemployment into a limitless opportunity. Decision-making would move from bureaucrats with no motive to look outside the box to community leaders with good cause to ask searching questions and demand credible answers. One other consequence would be a different kind of parish councillor: real power would attract the most highly motivated individuals to stand for election rather than stand back.

A vision of empowered parishes shouldn’t stop at welfare-to-work. Parish councils should be the housing management authorities for their areas, responsible for allocating all social housing as it falls vacant. Village after village is being scarred by little developments of new ‘affordable’ housing, even where the village has plenty of social housing already. The problem is that existing housing is allocated at district level on the basis of assessed need, meaning that villagers cannot be housed because what housing there is gets given to townies in distress. So more housing, this time with local occupancy conditions attached, gets built to overcome that problem. It’s about time towns were made to solve their own housing issues within their own boundaries and only look to villages for help if the villages have spare room.

And then there’s local justice, which is in a sorry state. The continuing role of JPs is under pressure. At one end of the spectrum, fewer cases are coming to court as police get to issue on-the-spot fines (contrary to the spirit of the 1689 Bill of Rights, which requires any punishment to be imposed by a court). At the other, district judges (what used to be called stipendiary magistrates) are muscling in on the more complex cases. Magistrates’ courts are being closed, benches amalgamated. Local justice is becoming less and less local, with savings for the public purse being made at the cost of increasing inconvenience for defendants and witnesses who have to find their way to distant venues.

So why not establish parish or ward courts, made up of the local councillors, to deal with all those petty civil and criminal issues that touch upon the smooth functioning of the neighbourhood? Breach of the peace, vandalism, noise and public health, problem family matters, truancy, empty properties, non-payment of rent, eviction notices, planning enforcement. Lawyers would hate it. They’d protest about the potential for victimisation, inconsistent standards, the need to separate the executive from the judiciary. But against this must be argued the gain to the community in terms of the resurrection of responsibility and the sheer economy in speed and cost for all involved. We have a top-heavy society, weighed down with process, and we need to think radically about how best to simplify it.

Don’t expect the Coalition to do any of that, despite their penchant for tinkering at the margins of welfare policy. Don’t expect them to turn the political pyramid the right way up. Last month, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles castigated parish councils for a 3% rise in their spending plans. Why? That’s precisely what’s needed, matched by a much, much more than 3% reduction in the spending plans of Pickles’ own bloated, London-obsessed government. Parishes across Wessex should be demanding: ‘give us our money back and we’ll do an incomparably better job than you’.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Understanding New Labour

The Labour Party can be puzzling. It’s fanatical about change, indifferent to whether the result is an improvement. It applies, or attempts to apply, ill-considered policies, whose failure is then enjoyed as a ‘learning experience’ rather than acknowledged as proof of incompetence. It revels in ‘growth’, deaf to those who point out the damage, environmental and psychological, that inescapably results. Its key value today is market meritocracy – an equal chance to become more unequal – and not securing the common good. Above all, it glories in violence and repression.

The conventional narrative is that after its fourth election defeat in a row, in 1992, Labour was ripe for takeover by an unscrupulous gang of free marketeers, led by Tony Blair, with Peter Mandelson as chief fixer. The essence of New Labour is, supposedly, that means change, ends don’t. What actually happened was the triumph of a belief that ‘socialism’ can be advanced within an individualist, capitalist society simply by redefining what socialism is, even to extent of excluding what was once considered its most fundamental characteristic, the democratisation of economic life. The re-writing of Clause IV in 1995 allowed Labour to join the Thatcherite bandwagon, partying on the proceeds of privatisation and leaving in its wake a fast-collapsing society owned by others whose loyalty can only be bought by the application of money that doesn’t exist.

It’s a partial explanation but it’s incomplete. Labour was ripe for takeover only because of the moral implosion of its leadership cadre, an implosion brought on by impatience and personal ambition. And the roots of that lie in the student politics of the 1960s. That generation tasted power for the first time in the early 80s, in Livingstone’s London, in Blunkett’s Sheffield and in Hatton’s Liverpool. Thatcher outwitted them all and by the mid-90s, with the Soviet bloc in ruins, the ageing hippies were ready to do the Faustian deal that would return Labour to power nationally and fulfil their craving for high office. Policy, instead of being their guiding star, became whatever the focus groups said it was. The contrast with the more successful of the nationalist parties is instructive. After some wobbly moments in the 80s, they continued to focus on their primary purpose and eventually saw their fortunes rise.

Labour, on the other hand, is now damaged beyond repair. No-one, least of all the leadership, knows what the party stands for. Or at least they won’t say it in public. It shares this lack of explicit direction with parties of the Left right across the developed western world. The one place where the reasons shine through is Germany, where the student politics of the West now mingles with surviving habits of thought from the formerly Soviet East. It shows up in different attitudes to jihadism, with east Germans taking a more rigorous line against fascism in any form, and west Germans being more relativist and self-critical. This can plausibly be put down to the first being Marxist-Leninist and the second being Maoist. Our Left in the West is ‘auto-aggressive’, as the relevant term in German translates, or self-loathing, as we might say in better English. It has ceased to care about the structure of society, about the distribution of wealth or power, and wants principally to re-make the individual. Through embracing consumerism and globalisation it has sought to dissolve community solidarity. Through dumbing-down, deconstructionism and post-modernism it has sought to paralyse the intellect. Through an agenda of fear shrugged off as respect it has sought to place its own values and priorities beyond criticism. Welcome to the Cultural Revolution.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eric the Ostrich

The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has an assured place in history as the man who oversaw the first regulations to officially recognise the flag of Wessex. Although the Wyvern has a long pedigree, the current design of the flag dates from 1974, meaning that it took just 38 years to go from an idea to recognition in law. Few can match that. East Anglia took about a century. Cornwall and Wales didn’t have it easy either. It’s a point worth quoting whenever we’re accused of making no progress. Well done to the Tories for changing the law in our favour. It certainly makes a mockery of Labour’s claim to be a ‘progressive’ party, which ought to be on our side.

Pickles is a mixed blessing though. He picks and chooses shamelessly when it comes to turning localism on and off. Some things he does get right and long may it continue. We applaud his support for community identity, marked, for example, by the series of county flags that have been flown outside his London headquarters. We applaud too his no-nonsense approach to local government finance. Second-home owners should pay full Council Tax – why ever did they not? Councillors must question more to improve value for money. Cutting real services and causing real pain, in order to blame the Coalition while protecting politically-correct pet projects, is what Labour does. Pickles yesterday challenged everyone to do better, in advice entitled 50 ways to save. It’s blunt, using the language a Yorkshireman prefers, with no hint of the carefully crafted phrases of the civil service. When Pickles tells councils to cut the ‘posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies’, you can hear Sir Humphrey cringe.

We applaud many of the suggestions, which offer potential for huge savings with no harmful effect on services. That we’d rather see the savings go to maintain and improve those services than line bankers’ pockets is beside the point. Waste is waste.

We particularly applaud the suggestion that councils make money by doing business, for example by using spare capacity at depots to offer MoT tests to the public. Now that councils have a general power of competence there are few legal limits to municipal trading. Pickles has, knowingly or not, opened the way for a new wave of gas-and-water-socialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many councils ran profitable businesses in electricity, gas, transport and water and some even managed banking, restaurants and telephones. Specific Parliamentary approval was needed for every venture and many were successfully opposed by private businesses who felt threatened by public enterprise. Today the door is open to local communities to claw back some of that profit for themselves. Well done to the Tories for changing the law in our favour, yet again.

We do query one other suggestion, however, that councils should lapse their subscriptions to regional organisations now that regions are no longer in favour with the London regime. Just because its regional institutions have been abolished doesn’t mean that regional issues have. We think the Prescott geography was wrong but we don’t say that councils should be made to feel guilty if they work together at regional level. If the issues are too big for them to handle individually, or on a local cross-border basis, then regional thinking is inevitable if good government is to be achieved. The only alternative is for Whitehall to interfere in problems that don’t need to be resolved at so exalted a level. The result of Pickles’ irrational hatred of regionalism is bad government. It’s time he pulled his head out of the sand.  Because regional co-operation might very well be the 51st way to make some really significant economies.

Seismic Shift?

“Vote Blue, Go Green.” Remember that? And, of course, “the greenest government ever? Listen as the peals of maniacal laughter echo down the corridors of power.

Last week DEFRA launched its triennial review of Natural England and the Environment Agency. According to his foreword to the consultation paper, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson sees his job as being “to radically reprioritise Defra so that the Department and its work is focused on growing our economy”. While still, of course, “improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health”. The problem with tagging on such reassurances is that they become self-denying prophecies. Any evidence that growth is harming the environment will be either disregarded or downplayed, with much waffle about striking the right ‘balance’.

(Really, you’ve NOTHING to worry about. Oh, your local environment? Well, that didn’t matter all that much, did it? And at least it was destroyed in a good cause, don’t you think?)

It was last week too that DECC, headed by Energy Secretary Ed Davey, assured us that there’s nothing to worry about over fracking. Only the possibility of groundwater pollution and maybe a small earthquake or two. But just in case you’re not convinced, you’re not going to be allowed a say anyway. Central government, not local planning committees, will decide. (Cue more Torygraph readers heading off to UKIP, unaware that their policies are even worse.)

Don’t assume that fracking is a matter local to Lancashire folk; they’re just the first to face the consequences. Its potential extends over much of England, including Wessex. Londoners aren’t likely to be directly affected but they’re already keen to push the idea onto others. You want an economy rebalanced away from financial services? Well, there you are. Dig it. Then watch the profits flow away, just like those that enriched the coal owners a hundred years ago. The London regime will get its royalties, for transmission to the bankers; and we’ll get the pollution. Community benefits package? Who benefited most from Scotland’s oil? Or Dorset’s, for that matter?

It WILL happen though, regardless of the environmental harm, because humans generally lack the ability to plan ahead, trusting to the mystery of ‘markets’ instead. It isn’t in the nature of capitalism to let profitable commodities lie idle in the ground. Nor in the nature of cash-strapped governments to do the decent thing and agree an international default on so-called ‘debts’. And when the last molecule of commercially viable fossil fuel has been extracted from the ground, then what?

We’re told that fracking will buy time, providing us with a cheap (though that’s unlikely), independent source of energy while we work out how to make renewables profitable. Yet all the time the scientific mainstream tells us that we should be cutting greenhouse gas emissions yesterday, not today, let alone tomorrow. Are the likes of George Osborne worried? Not a bit. As William Hague put it, 30 or 40 years ago, half of them won't be here in 30 or 40 years' time. And if they are, they’ll still want to take the world down with them.

We have patiently explained where the root of all evil lies. We can only protect our environment from unnecessary harm if we curb our demand for energy. We can only do that if we end our addiction to economic growth, unrelated to human needs. Which we can only do if our financial system is not built on the idea that interest remains payable even when growth is absent. And that in turn means asserting ecological reality against the illusion-production and inter-generational irresponsibility that is no-holds-barred locust capitalism.

Homo ‘sapiens’ is a stupid creature, competing at financial and legal mind-games instead of taking action to rein-in its excesses. What we can do as individuals to oppose stupidity is to buy as little as possible, and to buy it locally from locally-based and ethical suppliers whom we know and trust. A leaner, more localised economy is in everyone’s long-term interest. Disengagement from national and global economic institutions is a process that needs to make much more rapid progress.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Quintarchy

“[The accepted code of behaviour in politics] may be stated as follows: Talk about problems. Never mention a solution. Solutions make people mad as hell... Never excite a minority. Therefore all solutions should be anodyne, even if public affairs need bold and imaginative solutions. Never tell the truth. The people are too weak to accept it, and they will only turn on you if you do.”
Derrick Hearne, The Joy of Freedom (1977)

We’ve tried as hard as we can to avoid discussing regional matters elsewhere in England and our aim generally is to continue to do so. We do get comments to the effect that we should set out the bigger picture into which Wessex fits. Often the comments come from Celtic nationalists, who see nothing wrong in the idea that their nations should steam ahead without waiting for England to make its mind up about its constitutional future. But still think it strange that Wessex should steam ahead of other English regions and not proceed at the pace of the slowest, perhaps even diverting its precious resources into getting them up to speed. We don’t apologise. That’s how it is. We don’t want some English Constitutional Convention to clip our Wyvern’s wings.

Yet the clamour continues, with all the wrong questions being asked. What’s the best way to decentralise power in England? Wrong question, because there’s no letting-go of the wider area’s overbearing demands. So what’s the best way to achieve autonomy for Wessex? Now that’s much more like it. England needs Wessex if it is to become a sane society organised at the human scale, one in which the negative influence of London, politically, economically and culturally, can at last be overcome. The only proper response from Wessex is therefore to assert itself and not be too bothered by the bigger picture, clinging concern for which is simply a sign that others just don’t get it. After all, a greater concern for the sum of the parts than for the parts themselves is precisely the doctrine we oppose.

That all said, the bigger picture is there. We want to see other regions asserting themselves too, because we benefit from the questions that raises about the bigger picture as seen from their perspective. We have worked closely with regionalist movements in the Midlands (Mercia) and the North (Northumbria) and from time to time said encouraging things to those in East Anglia who would join the effort. Which leaves just London and its inextricable hinterland. What would you call it? Londonia? It’s as good a suggestion as any, and trips off the tongue rather better than Greater Greater London. And if that’s the outcome, then there would be five.

Another question we get asked is why we don’t revive the Heptarchy. Winston Churchill remarked in 1954 that it might be a good thing for England to become a heptarchy again “but that is something I must leave to Anthony [Eden] to think over for the future.” Part of the answer to the question is that the Anglo-Saxons themselves abandoned the Heptarchy, linking the three smallest of its kingdoms to the Crown of Wessex. That is why so many historical atlases run the word ‘Wessex’ across to Thanet. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, is clear that sharing a king didn’t make Essaxons and Sussaxons into Wessaxons. The territories remained geographically distinct and kept their own laws and customs. It’s a misunderstanding we often battle against but Wessex really does stop at Hampshire.

Whatever lies to the east is certainly not Wessex. Its transport links run overwhelmingly towards London, and from a very different direction than those crossing Wessex heading east and north-east. Buckinghamshire too, has road, rail and canal links to London and relatively little that faces towards Oxfordshire. We don’t argue our boundaries on what made sense a thousand years ago. We argue that the pragmatic definition of Wessex is that region, out of all those sets of boundaries for which there is historical precedent, that also makes sense today, grouping historic shires around an industrial-era geography. Those who would rather insist that we pick up precisely at the point where Earl Harold left off in January 1066, even if we could know such a thing with certainty, have no sense of the broad appeal that is essential for our success.

For the same reason, it is possible that shires will find themselves on a different side of other regional boundaries than history might at first suggest – between East Anglia and Mercia, or Mercia and Northumbria. As we’ve often repeated, history is our inspiration, not our blueprint, and certainly not our straitjacket. We want to take our past with us into the future. That is why we will have no truck with the Prescott zones. But we are a party whose focus is on the future, not the past. We value our past for its ability to energise our future, a task at which the Prescott zones were always bound to fail. Wessex needs Wessex because the alternatives, in a resource-constrained world, are dire. The stakes are too high for arguing over angels on the head of a pin when we’ve a real-world region to build.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Constitutional Engineering: Fail

British parties of the far Right are often treated as interchangeable. No-one on the Left can be really bothered to explore what nuances separate them. But the differences can be quite significant. Clearly, the English Democrats want a centralised England, having given up any hope of a re-centralised Britain: they’re a rearguard party that regards regional assemblies as divisive (whereas if national devolution is, it’s too far gone to complain about). The BNP and UKIP remain British nationalist parties but they tackle Britishness in radically different ways.

The BNP has learnt to use ‘Britain’ and ‘the British family of nations’ as alternatives, enabling it to reach out with ambiguity to the Celtic periphery. It respects devolution as an expression of subsidiarity, and seeks to extend its benefits to England through an English Parliament. It has even toyed with the idea of regional councils, based on “historic regions such as Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia” and having limited strategic responsibilities. In short, it knows its history.

UKIP has never reconciled itself to devolution because it doesn’t know its history. It isn’t interested in understanding how Britain really came about; its only interest is in projecting an imagined Britain that is fiercely united in its opposition to Brussels. It can’t make up its mind about culture, promoting uniculturalism – “aiming to create a single British culture” – but also promising to celebrate “all cultures” (plural) from around the British Isles. It appeals by being uniquely shallow and contradictory. While the BNP wraps itself in the combined flag of three patron saints, UKIP wraps itself in a £50 note. It’s a direct insight into the parties’ respective values.

UKIP’s manifesto, besides ranting against regions, proposes to re-engineer devolution, abolishing separate elections to Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Stormont. Instead, it would populate those legislatures with Westminster MPs, who would sit there one week in four and then at Westminster for the rest of the time. English (and Cornish) MPs would spend their fourth week at Westminster, sitting as a so-called ‘England-only’ assembly. Politically, it’s a non-starter: any attempt to do anything of the sort would cause the UK to self-destruct. As an idea though, it’s revealing of UKIP’s sheer incompetence at policy-making, in more ways than just the obvious one of acceptability.

The reason why the devolved legislatures have separate elections is because they have governments attached. Separate elections allow those governments to be held to account by the electorate. UKIP’s solution would require voters in Wales, for example, to vote for an MP BOTH on the record of the Cardiff administration and the record of the Westminster one, even though they might be controlled by different parties. We’ve heard it said repeatedly that it’s such a shame that municipal elections get treated as a judgement on the Westminster government of the day, with good, normally popular councillors losing their seats as a result of things over which they have no control. And UKIP wants more of this?

The whole point of devolution is being able to choose a government that better matches your ideals. Suppose you like Labour’s social policies but not its views on the economy? Then vote for it in devolved elections and for someone else at Westminster. ‘Empowering the people’ is UKIP’s slogan. Its policies would do precisely the opposite.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Our Friends in the North

For successful autonomist movements, politics is a spiral. There are achievements. There are also setbacks. But campaigners learn from them and when the debate begins again they have already moved it up to a higher level than it occupied before. We can see that process at work in all the Celtic nationalist movements. None is where it wants to be. But all are well beyond where they were 30 years ago.

It’s a course of action that we plan to follow. While we work away for a political breakthrough that may seem as if it will never come, or come too late to save Wessex from its ill-wishers, remember Alfred in Athelney. Remember too the little achievements that are the stuff of which history will one day be written. Take the Wyvern flag. The modern design dates from 1974 but until 1997 no-one, so far as we know, had taken the design off the page and used it to make a real flag. It had its first unfurling in public before Wells Cathedral that year to welcome the Keskerdh Kernow 500 marchers to Somerset’s diocesan co-capital. Over the past decade, it has gone viral, up flag-poles, onto merchandise and websites, and into the Flag Institute’s UK Flag Registry. This year the London regime had to acknowledge these facts and we are now free to fly it. One day it will fly over a Wessex Witan once more and if now is our Athelney, that will be our Ethandun.

So let’s keep moving up the spiral. Meanwhile, let’s also ponder the fate of another region that isn’t spiralling upwards but just going round in ever-decreasing circles. Poor old Northumbria. If England is a nation placed within the British nation, then Northumbria is as close as it gets to a nation placed within the English nation. Geographically, historically, ecclesiastically, linguistically, even gastronomically, it’s a land apart. Objectively, it often shares more with Scotland and Wales than with the ‘soft south’ of lowland England. Scottish radical Hugh MacDiarmid gave one of his poems the lines, ‘The official frontier has whiles been changed; Frae the Mersey to the Humber it sh’ud be’. So where’s its regionalist party been all these years?

It’s a sad story. In 1973 the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution reported and the following year Labour came to power with proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution in its manifesto. Alarm bells began ringing among those who realised the extent to which the northern parts of England might lose out if powerful national assemblies were created. Some Old Labour types dug their heels in and opposed devolution for anyone. Others were more constructive. In 1975 a small group of radicals, led by a Liberal academic, Michael Steed, set up the Committee for Democratic Regional Government in the North of England and launched a magazine, Northern Democrat. Two years later, with money from the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, they re-badged themselves as the Campaign for the North, with an office at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and a full-time Director, Paul Temperton.

With savvy use of the media, CfN’s profile rose and its membership, soon in the hundreds, included leading local politicians, MPs and prospective MPs, mostly from Labour and the Liberals, though Conservatives too saw the case for regional pride and even a measure of regional autonomy. In 1978 CfN published Up North!, sub-titled ‘how to unshackle a forgotten people’, 47 pages of facts, figures and arguments about what it described as “one of the most important regions not only of Britain but of Western Europe… suffering from the over-centralisation of government (and of everything else) in London”.

The London Left press sneered at the ‘special pleading’ (a term used for anything that challenges their self-assumed right to preside over the allocation of the common wealth) but they needn’t have bothered. Labour wasn’t that interested. Most responses to its discussion document, Devolution: the English Dimension, simply agreed there was no demand. Nobody was asked. Well, actually, they had been asked: the Kilbrandon Commission produced a mountain of evidence that the demand was indeed there, and at a level comparable with Scotland and Wales. The politicians just couldn’t be bothered to organise it.

In 1979 everything screeched to a halt. Devolution stalled in Scotland and Wales. No 10 was now Maggie’s den. And, for CfN, the chocolate money ran out too. Paul Temperton’s last task was to give himself the sack. CfN crawled along for years on a voluntary basis but never regained momentum. Cynics claimed the bigwigs had just used it to advance their careers and then let it flounder. When devolution was put back on the agenda by Blair and Prescott, no-one in the Labour establishment cared what CfN thought.

We did. We worked with CfN’s stalwarts throughout the lean 80s and 90s. One past Chairman, exiled to Somerset for work reasons, was WR election agent for the Woodspring seat in 1983. Another printed every issue of The Regionalist magazine at cost, on a home litho press, as well as many WR election leaflets. ‘Printed in Northumbria’ was the ultimate answer to those who accused us of wanting to set one part of the country against another. We’ve no patience with those who’d like WR to be an English inversion of Italy’s Northern League, wanting rid of the backward half of the country. There’s a common interest between those who want regenerated cities in Northumbria and protected countryside in Wessex. It’s the London regime that promotes as ‘the national interest’ NOT the sum of regional interests (as it should be) but the interests of a financial class with no loyalty to anywhere.

When Blair and Prescott set to work, they could have built on CfN’s foundations but chose not to. New Labour, like Frankenstein’s monster, didn’t have recognised antecedents. “No-one cares about the past,” was Blair’s view. So the wheel was re-invented as an act of pure will. Wholly new regions were defined, campaign groups fell into line behind them and Anglican bishops were prevailed upon to chair ‘constitutional conventions’ based on the successful Scottish model. No-one was allowed to point out that Scotland is a historic nation with centuries of relatively recent independence, while the administrative region of The North-East was created – by the Conservatives – out of nothing in 1994. In the end it mattered not a jot what the clerically-headed conventions did. They were just cheerleaders for a policy written in London. There was never any prospect that any of them might write an actual constitution for their pseudo-region. Prescott wasn’t listening to them. The rest of the Labour government wasn’t listening to Prescott. And in the 2004 referendum it became clear that no-one was listening to Labour’s laughable regional policy either.

Every so often, someone will put their head above the parapet and propose a regionalist renaissance up north. We’ve reported once or twice about these disjointed interventions. Last year saw the launch of a campaign group, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. It sounds like CfN all over again, except that this time it seems to be for socialists only (though no member of the Labour Party is likely to be turned away). And today we learnt that the latest edition of Tribune carries a major article by former Blackpool Conservative MP (and spy) Harold Elletson calling for an elected regional government. It’s remarkable stuff alright. “A new ‘Northumbria’ is exactly what the North now needs,” he writes. “Rather than an English parliament or a reformed House of Lords, what is required is a pan-Northern trans-Pennine region with its own executive and assembly. Coupled with a radical restructuring of our current inflated and inadequate local government system, a Northern Assembly, or a new ‘Council of the North’, would not only re-engage people with the politics but also provide the basis for The North to become one of England’s most successful and prosperous regions.”

Does it deserve a round of applause? Or a slow hand-clap? We’ve heard this sort of thing too often from the pathological liars of the London parties ever to be fooled again. There are usually reckoned to be three levels of devolution – executive, legislative and judicial. But there’s a fourth, which is key to the whole. And that is political devolution, the break-up of the London party machine, so that devolved administrations really are free to set their own agenda. Otherwise, for all the trappings, a parliament or assembly is just a load of puppets on a string.

There are three ways to organise constitutional change. One is the territorial party, which is ideologically committed and treats all compromise with suspicion. Of all the nationalist movements, Ireland’s comes closest to the model but all have aspects of it. Then there is the cross-party consensus-building seen in the case of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which the SNP boycotted but which paved the way for devolution to be established as Scotland’s settled will. The third approach is for the Labour Party to have an internal discussion and then seek to impose its solution on civil society. That was what happened in Wales, and the reaction was such that the referendum would have been lost but for the hard slog of Plaid Cymru’s workers on the ground.

Northumbria has already lost one referendum and it will lose the next one if it continues to regard devolution as Labour copyright. It’s a land of contrasts alright, culturally and politically. The great monastic sites of its Golden Age – Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Hartlepool, Whitby, Lastingham – continue to dominate the landscape. Yet the material culture they produced is more likely to be found locked away in the libraries and museums of London (where nationalists, British and English, are content that it stays). Its tradition of protest against national policies that disadvantage the region – from the Pilgrimage of Grace to the Jarrow Crusade – is second to none. It was once among the most significant heavy industrial regions in Europe. Yet today its anger at being marginalised and de-industrialised is dissipated in supporting a vampire party that climbs over its prone form to national power. Northumbria will rise again only when Labour gets a well-deserved stake through the heart.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Whose Europe?

"Every step forward is preceded by a suppression; every reform by the exposure of some abuse; every new idea is born because of the inadequacy of the old concepts."
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)

Please don’t call us Europhiles. Please don’t call us Eurosceptics. We won’t be driven into any Manichaean pigeonholes. We might perhaps settle for ‘Euro-wary’, attentive to fresh possibilities to gut the British state from within but never fooled by warm, integrationist nonsense concealing a hard, neo-liberal agenda we can get at home. We love deeply our little bit of Europe but our attitude to the European Union could be characterised along the lines of ‘we wouldn’t have started from here’. The way to liberate the European consciousness is not to unite nation-states but to divide them. Division is what multiplies the cross-border issues and impels us towards their resolution at the regional and continental scales. (Trying to resolve them at the national scale just leads to war.)

The Right in British politics knows what it doesn’t like but doesn’t often let on what it does like. So we have the Scots being warned off independence lest Spanish centralists, fearful of the Catalans, veto their application to (re-)join the EU. Yet the same broad Right can argue that being outside the EU is a good thing, for the UK, but somehow not for its constituent parts on their own. Implicit in this is the idea not only that the UK has critical mass in a global market but that the advantages this brings are for the good of all, and not just of London and its surroundings. An idea too easily disproved by self-evident facts to require further comment.

UKIP’s results in this week’s three by-elections may have them believing that they are the new third force in British politics. A much more realistic view is that they are the new home of the protest vote and that normality will resume at the general election. UKIP, with their fanatical opposition to devolution, are just what the establishment ordered: a combination of safety-valve for the desperately disillusioned and attack dog against anyone suggesting meaningful reform of the creaking British constitution.

Some meaningful reform of the creaking European constitution would be welcome too. The auditors’ qualifying of the EU accounts, now for the 18th year in succession, has become an empty annual ritual, like something out of Gormenghast. And it’s getting worse, though the cause owes more to faulty oversight nationally than in Brussels. The European Parliament’s merry-go-round between Brussels and Strasbourg continues, at vast financial and carbon cost. It will go on until MEPs do the obvious and boycott the Strasbourg sessions. Some face-saving formula can then be devised to allow the French Republic to let go.

And the budget negotiations? Who needs UKIP when other European leaders might be happy to see the back of the British delegation? Of course the European budget should be cut, first, ahead of national ones. But national budgets in turn should be cut ahead of regional and local ones. We despise Britain’s government for its cherry-picking attitude to subsidiarity. Imagine how things SHOULD be. Regional representatives gather for talks, somewhere central within the UK. Carlisle, say. Wessex demands massive cuts in the UK budget in order to protect its own spending plans, which are under pressure from shires keen to safeguard the most essential local services. Eventually a deal is struck. Several common policies are jettisoned, with jurisdiction passing to the regional governments. The bloated Whitehall bureaucracy is forced to tighten its belt at last. Its international budget, for interfering in the affairs of other countries and generally throwing its weight around, is pared back. A transition package is agreed for regions worst hit by the contraction of UK Government spending. In the background, diplomats agree new protocols on inter-regional transport, trade and tourism.

We might even imagine the slogan. In Britain, but not run by Britain. Sounds fair?