Friday, March 15, 2013

On Banking And Being Boring

Ed Miliband spoke this week at the conference of the British Chambers of Commerce. He called for regional banks to be set up to lend to local businesses, an idea modelled on Germany’s Sparkassen. It’s an idea we first published in our 2005 election manifesto: “a Wessex regional government will support the formation and foster the growth of a Wessex-wide, community-owned banking system”. Once again, where WR leads, the London parties belatedly follow.

Vince Cable, speaking at the same conference, didn’t warm to the idea, saying that Britain isn’t Germany. No, it’s rather less successful than Germany at a lot of things. It isn’t that we can’t do the same things here – Birmingham had a popular, though unique municipal savings bank for decades until centralisation overwhelmed it – it’s that generally we WON’T do the same things. Even when they’re patently good for us. Look at how long it took Scotland and Wales to get legislative assemblies of the kind that the Federal Republic of Germany just takes for granted as part of the national character. If the UK has a national character, it’s not an attractive one once all the chauvinistic hubris about our ‘democracy’ is stripped away.

As for regional devolution, why DOES Labour keep on bungling it? As Miliband’s speech shows, there’s no shortage of need for a regional approach. But would his regional banks be anything more than the hated Regional Devastation Agencies with a different logo? Would they be accountable to the regions, or, as usual, to the posh boys of HM Treasury? What lasting and meaningful regional accountability can there be without elected regional assemblies? And how do you get THEM set up if voters won’t do as they’re told?

You cannot have regionalism without regions. But Labour still refuses any debate about what those regions might be, especially about how they need to be changed to make them both practical and popular. It’s made up its mind and won’t be budged. It won’t even engage with the intellectual argument about what kind of regions are needed to do the job envisaged. For Labour, it is self-evident that the regions are those that the Tories, advised by the civil service, created in 1994, based in their turn on wartime civil defence groupings. The advantage of this approach is that the regions exist. They are the status quo. That is all that can be said in their favour. Labour’s myopia forbids it to see beyond that simple bureaucratic fact of their existence. Box ticked. Labour’s myopia forbids it to ask searching questions, such as what is expected of a region, not just now, but in 50, 100 or 500 years’ time.

Labour doesn’t do the long term. It will be dead by then. But because of its myopia it is meanwhile doomed to preside over a succession of failed regional initiatives. The initiatives fail and will go on failing because they are so BORING. Scots wave the Saltire and Welshmen the Red Dragon because these represent identities that set them apart, that engender community, and, fundamentally, the sense that there are other ways to relate to humanity and the planet than through the filter of Westminster politics. No-one outside the Labour Party and its cronies would wave a flag for The South West Standard Region of England.

Folk can and do wave the Wyvern. It’s a symbol with roots deep in history. For obsessive modernisers, that’s a problem, but the revival of the St Piran’s Cross in Cornwall shows very well that a movement for today and tomorrow can draw on yesterday without being labelled ‘nostalgic’ or ‘sentimental’. The great strength in doing so comes from tapping into half-forgotten memories that are widely shared, and shared across the generations, however much re-interpretation the ideas undergo at the margins. It contrasts with the great weakness of constant re-invention of basic principles, namely that only the re-inventers are allowed to play. Only they get to design the logo, write the mission statement, run the training course, and applaud the leader’s speeches.  What unites them is not a common belief in anything that forms their destiny but a common disbelief in everything that forms their inheritance.

The new present exists in a bubble. It has no past and so it has no future. It will be re-invented into something else. Folk will believe in it for as long as it’s useful and then it will be discarded. That’s no way to build a regional community that will take on the might of London and, with its friends across these islands, comprehensively slay it. That’s OUR mission and there’s nothing boring about that. It’s the one great cause that has yet to have its day.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Kleptocracy UK

The MP for Maidenhead made a very interesting speech this weekend. Theresa May set out what some observers perceive to be her stall in a future contest for the Tory leadership. (Sad isn’t it, that the chatter is about what British politics can do for her career and not what she can do for British politics?) At the heart of her speech was a call for corporatism: still more private sector involvement in the provision of public services, coupled with, curiously, strategic industrial planning by the State. She denied, of course, that what she intends is anything like corporatism. (It’s always the best way to lay a false trail.)

Her recipe is more interesting for the hidden ingredients than for those listed. The ever-greater exposure of public services to market forces has long been presented as motivated solely by a desire for greater efficiency. (Because, of course, services run by the British State are inherently inefficient, whereas they miraculously become efficient when sold to the French State.) In fact, the rules are routinely distorted to prevent in-house, public sector bids from succeeding, even where they clearly represent better value for money. It’s not about efficiency at all but about shovelling taxpayers’ cash into the pockets of those very private companies that are the most enthusiastic donors to Tory funds. Or it could be LibDem funds. Or Labour’s. All three are equally receptive to stale old ‘new ideas’ with an unerringly familiar theme. None apparently has the wit to recognise that if the best managers are in the private sector then the answer is to recruit them for the public sector. It isn’t to dismantle what's left of democracy.

What are we to make of the sudden re-emergence of that very un-Thatcherite phrase, a ‘strategic role for the State in our economy’? Perhaps we are to make of it that the very richest in our society have decided that free enterprise isn’t making them rich enough. The banking ‘crisis’ has revealed the weakness at the heart of the market: that in a big, generous country like the UK, banks too big to fail are not too big to bail. State planning of the economy can produce returns that are less volatile but also inherently more profitable, mainly by favouring some sectors or scales of business at the expense of others. There is an appetite for this among those in public administration who see the banking scam as horrifically disruptive of the public finances, which it is. But there is also an appetite among politicians to diversify the UK economy away from its dependence on the City of London casino. Rising energy prices are already beginning to force a re-localisation of manufacturing away from the Far East. There are prizes to be won by countries that manage the transition well. And for those companies who can get the Government to do their marketing for them.

So what’s our view on industrial planning? The first thing to point out is that the private sector plans all the time. If it doesn’t look ahead, it doesn’t survive. We believe in co-operation, not competition, so we have no ideological objection to industries considering needs as a whole and organising production accordingly. If the result is not to be a cartel put together to exploit the consumer, then industrial planning is something that needs to be done under the full glare of public scrutiny. It will be found that you cannot plan what you do not control, and that very often you cannot control what you do not own. A large public sector is not something to be ashamed of, any more than democratic accountability is something to be ashamed of. It is in fact the only effective way to ensure that economic interests do not elbow environmental and social/cultural ones out of the picture. What’s more, a decision not to plan is still a decision, and so still, unavoidably, a plan. Whether the captain of the ship of state steers it onto the rocks or lets the waves take it there unaided, he or she still bears responsibility for the consequences.

The past century has revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of State planning of industry, which is another way of acknowledging that the phrase encompasses a wide range of possibilities. To start with, is it ‘bottom-up’ or is it ‘top-down’? On that, all else depends. Is it about enabling our transition to a more ecologically conscious, decentralised society, or a final desperate attempt to preserve the opposite? Is it about strengthening the regions by winding-down their links to London, or is it, like HS2, about shackling them all the more tightly to their exploiter? Between the 1930s and the 1970s, successive UK governments practised a travesty of regional economic planning that zoned heavy industry in the peripheries, research and development in the Home Counties and the top management and financial functions in London. Much of Wessex got designated as the tourist and retirement zone. We can do without any more of that. It wasn’t just that centralist controls were ineffective in shaping regional economies for the long-term; it was also that they were far too effective in suppressing any local initiative that might actually have worked. Powerful elected assemblies in the regions would have pointed that out straight away. If we'd had them.

It isn’t only actions that get suppressed; values and visions get smothered too. We are proud to be a nimbyist party, with genuine concerns about the urbanisation of Wessex. We stand with those communities slandered as ‘irresponsible’ for not accepting London’s surplus population into their midst. We fear for their future once Theresa May’s State planners seek to draw media attention away from London’s chronic inability to act sustainably. We fear for their future once she points the magic wand of power at sites for a rash of new towns right across eastern Wessex. It WILL happen, if we have correctly interpreted what the London regime – us first, old chap – unfailingly understands by State planning.

Does the community benefit from its own destruction? Clearly not, but the community will never have a real say in any planning system designed primarily for private benefit (as all in the UK are). We know precisely who does though. Planning of all kinds, carried out in the public interest, depends upon absolute probity. Yet we seem to be sliding further and further away from that ideal as private enterprise becomes ever more pushy, public servants ever more corruptible, and the media ever more lax in its duty to scrutinise. The Daily Telegraph has been a shining exception to the rule and led yesterday with a story about a Tory councillor in Devon caught offering his services as a planning consultant, as one who knows what strings to pull to get that lucrative permission. It seems it’s not illegal to take money for insider information in this way. But perhaps the voters will judge him more harshly than the law will?

David Cameron yesterday responded to the jailing of Chris Huhne by trotting out the usual platitude about no-one being above the law. Another one we often hear is that those who make the law shouldn’t break the law. The real problem comes when those who make the law know where the loopholes are. They can frame legislation and other processes from which they can ultimately derive personal benefit. The crooks have always done that. What should especially worry us is when they become increasingly open about it and start drawing lines that the State may cross but democracy may not. Mrs May’s big corporate society is looming over the horizon. And one old definition of corporatism, from the 1970s, remains true today. It is ‘fascism with a human face’.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Faith In The System

Is a fatal flaw. Vote for the same old crooks as last time and you’ll get the same old policies they promise and don’t deliver. Consider a couple of planning cases in Gloucestershire that were reported in the press this week.

At Tetbury, nearly 300 homes at two separate greenfield sites outside the town were approved on appeal by arch-‘localist’ Eric Pickles earlier this year. Objectors were appalled, complaining in a letter to a local resident, the Prince of Wales no less, that they are “horrified that central government has imposed this situation upon us.” Charles is renowned for his interventions in planning debates and he’s well-enough briefed to be able to point out when the architect has a massively inflated ego but isn’t wearing any clothes. However, as the Duchy of Cornwall makes a mint from extending any town or city anywhere it’s lucky enough to own the land, it’s unsurprising that he’s chosen to remain silent for once.

So if the Minister raises two fat fingers and the Prince turns a deaf ear, what then? Further north, Pickles granted permission last year for two major developments totalling 1,000 homes on farmland near the village of Bishop’s Cleeve, not far from Cheltenham. The local authority is Tewkesbury Borough Council and they weren’t having that. They took him to court, arguing that he had failed to apply his own policy of localism, enshrined in the Localism Act 2011. The judge backed Pickles’ freedom to use his powers to over-ride local opinion, upholding the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

Tewkesbury Council’s Conservative (!) Leader, Cllr Robert Vines, reacted with apparent shock: “The Act has not delivered what was expected and suggested by the Government when it was introduced, which was to remove top-down planning and transfer power to communities.”

Well spotted. And it’s a realisation that is dawning right across Wessex and beyond. You have been had.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Upping the Occupation

Nearly a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond this week announced detailed plans for the withdrawal of British forces from Germany (along with the £600 million annual injection into the German economy that they represent). The Army’s presence there dates from the Second World War, nearly 70 years ago. We may like to think we have flexible armed forces but much of the time their basing is determined by the availability of facilities constructed decades ago in a quite different world from that of today.

Bringing the troops home is therefore a logistical headache. Where to put them all? Hammond’s rationalisation of the defence estate is planned to accommodate a smaller army, but in fewer, better places. So an overall run-down is a run-up for Wessex, with Aldershot and Salisbury Plain identified as key bases. Is that good news, or bad?

Good, according to Wednesday’s Western Daily Press, which focused on the economic benefits of more public sector employees in our region. Curiously, an increase in civil servants would doubtless have been seen as a drain on the economy and a worrying sign of state-dependency. The difference lies in the fact that soldiers, by themselves, aren’t going to force up local wage rates. They spend money, but they don’t ‘distort’ the labour market. They are, in a very real sense, ring-fenced.

There is a down side. The move to Salisbury Plain will mean building homes for more than 3,000 extra soldiers and their families, in a fragile environment already under huge pressure from private housebuilders. Those who welcome the injection of cash should bear in mind that the cash came out of their own pockets before it went into soldiers’ pay. If the London regime would now hand it back, it would do more good giving it to the parish councils to spend on things that are actually needed. Even before the payroll costs are counted, £850 million is planned to be spent on MoD infrastructure in Wiltshire and £100 million in Hampshire. But we somehow ‘can’t afford’ to spend that sort of money on anything useful…

The Army came to Salisbury Plain in 1897, considering the then ‘forlornly desolate’ farmland ideal for practising cavalry charges. As it turned out, the very last cavalry charge in its history came the following year, but it held on to its purchase. No permanent camp was intended. That changed the following year too. Since 1897 the area the Army controls has more than doubled. Sometimes land is taken over as an emergency expedient that by degrees solidifies into a permanent policy. Remember Imber. Army commanders will miss Germany, with its wide open spaces. Its training areas are vastly bigger than anything our crowded region can currently offer. Will we see more of Wiltshire compulsorily purchased to compensate? Time will tell. (In 1872 the Army did acquire temporary training rights over half a million acres stretching all the way to Somerset but that appears to have been just for one big exercise, and was well before the era of mechanisation.)

Hammond proposes seven key bases, or ‘clusters’, across Great Britain. One in Scotland, one in Northumbria, two in Mercia and one east of London. The two in Wessex have already been mentioned. The Scots are disappointed to be getting only 600 more soldiers when they’d been promised 7,000 by Liam Fox in 2011. Never mind. It’s all grist to the independentist mill.

By 2020 the 15,000 troops based at the Salisbury Plain Super Garrison will be twice as high as the number at any other British base. Wessex is, by tradition, among the most militarised parts of Britain, with whole shires economically dependent on the London regime’s generosity with our money, and so firmly bound in their loyalties to the politics of centralism. (The military is the largest employer in Wiltshire.) Electoral fraud? You might very well think that.

With the population expected to grow fastest in the south of England there is, in terms of recruitment, some geographical logic to this emphasis. There are also sound reasons for grouping certain units together where facilities can be shared, while still not keeping all the eggs in one basket. Nevertheless, it helps to know what the recipe is before you decide how many eggs you need. And that underlying question still hasn’t been answered. What exactly is the Army FOR?

In terms of its primary military role, there are three possible answers. To keep the peace at home. To defend the realm against attack. And to launch retaliatory, or even pre-emptive strikes against other countries whose rulers have upset Her Britannic Majesty’s Government.

The first of these functions shouldn’t be under-estimated. In an economic crisis, with bankers turning the screws and police budgets squeezed, a bit of back-up on the streets could be very handy. Ultimately, the law that is upheld is not the law arrived at by rational debate but the law arrived at by decisive violence. Ireland furnishes several proofs that that isn’t automatically in the gift of governments.

The second function would appear to be the main reason we have our armed forces. To prevent others storming up the beaches. In truth, the threat of invasion has never been more remote. We are certainly vulnerable to attack, but not as we know it. The further we travel into the digital age, the more critical our region’s energy and communications infrastructure becomes. It’s at risk from hostile governments, from terrorists and even from criminal gangs. But conventional weaponry isn’t an effective deterrent or an effective reaction in most cases. Let alone Trident.

So is the MoD really a Ministry of Defence? Or of War? Is it us that it’s defending, or itself? The top brass. The bureaucrats. The contractors. All have a reason to keep the show on the road. The third function allows them to do just that. And our economic model makes it unavoidable. The UK imports over half its food and raw materials. It has to keep open the lifelines of trade and take a dim view of anyone who would disrupt them, no matter how laudable their political ambitions for their country. Remember Suez. The old imperialist slogan, used to justify colonialism, was ‘trade follows the flag’. Today the flag follows trade wherever trade directs it to go. Which is why any move towards greater regional self-sufficiency is a move away from international tension.

With a new scramble for Africa opening up, led by the Americans and the Chinese, it’s not a good time to be locked tight into any global system, economic or military. It is a good time to be thinking ahead for once, not about short-term prosperity but about long-term survival. Greater freedom for Wessex is a good thing, for us, but it’s a good thing for the rest of the world too.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The New Menu

“the merchant’s function… is to provide for the nation. It is no more his function to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend. This stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true clergyman, any more than his fee (or honorarium) is the object of life to a true physician. Neither is his fee the object of life to a true merchant. All three, if true men, have a work to be done irrespective of fee – to be done even at any cost, or for quite the contrary of fee; the pastor’s function being to teach, the physician‘s to heal, and the merchant’s, as I have said, to provide. That is to say, he has to understand to their very root the qualities of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtaining or producing it; and he has to apply all his sagacity and energy to the producing or obtaining it in perfect state, and distributing it at the cheapest possible price where it is most needed.”
John Ruskin, Unto This Last (1862)

Europe’s ‘horseburger’ scandal reveals starkly what happens when Ruskin’s vision is rejected. It is particularly embarrassing for the Co-operative Group to find horsemeat in its ready meals, given the Co-op’s origins as an alternative economic model that was supposed to guarantee working folk wholesome food, free from adulteration by unscrupulous shopkeepers.

Rogue traders there always are, especially in a culture that uncritically lauds enterprise and can’t easily spot when creativity crosses over into crime. It’s also a culture that regards taxation as theft, so we can’t expect any more food inspectors to be hired in current circumstances. That leaves inspection to the supermarkets, who will pass on the cost to the consumer. We pay one way or the other, but what we really need is a change of mindset, towards one that promotes zero-tolerance of bad business practices in the first place. Perhaps a revival of the old guild system?

There’s no doubt that our food supply is a mess in all kinds of ways. Take a look at one website that sets out all the inter-related aspects we need to be thinking about reforming. We’ve written before about food, and wouldn’t change a word of that. So it’s good to see that we’re in at the beginning of a worldwide re-evaluation of what goes on our plate and how it gets there.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Negatives, Positives

An election with 14 candidates was always going to squeeze our share of the vote, making in-depth comparisons difficult. So we don’t view our 30 votes in quite as negative a light as you might suppose. Larger parties than us, that have polled much more in other circumstances, can limp in too; the English Democrats were also among those failing to make it into three figures at Eastleigh. Part of the problem with having a wide choice under first-past-the-post is that there’s often little that separates the smaller parties other than emphasis. The National Health Action Party supports the NHS. So do we. The Peace Party opposes militarism. So do we. Only proportional representation can remove the scourge of tactical voting.

A specific factor adding to the squeeze this time was UKIP. As soon as it became clear that Labour were a no-hoper, it was UKIP that mopped up the anti-Coalition vote. Their policies became almost irrelevant to that. Yet to protest against how the current crop of Westminster politicians manage the Whitehall farce is still an abdication of power and not, as a WR vote would be, an assertion of determination to take it back.

UKIP ran a campaign that was not only very well-organised but clearly very well-funded. Their campaign headquarters was a large, prominent building in the heart of the shopping area. That doesn’t come cheap. But with 11 MEPs, UKIP aren’t short of EU funding. The idea that the European Parliament might be paying for an anti-EU party’s attempt to get into the UK Parliament (from which it has so far been excluded by the time-honoured British practice of first-past-the-post) is one of history’s little ironies.

It would be naïve to suppose that we fight elections simply with a view to the votes, since our role is as much educational as political at this stage. What is currently of greatest positive significance to us is the publicity we gain, which is by no means limited to the seat contested. We have seen a phenomenal increase in web traffic over the past fortnight, with a steady stream of new followers on Facebook and Twitter and the highest-ever monthly number of pageviews on this blog, 3.6 times the number observed during the General Election campaign in May 2010. That is where value for our money lies.

Our aim therefore is to work for the last to be first. That’s what we exist to do, and we will continue to make the case for Wessex until it triumphs. The messages of support we have received – and continue to receive – are evidence enough that our ideas are sound, but remain sadly before their time. Sadly, because the longer it takes to implement them, the more wholly-avoidable suffering there will be.

The Thinking Thirty

Colin Bex issued the following press release today:

“Dear Eastleigh residents,

This is to confirm my pleasure at having had the privilege of being able to offer you the opportunity of voting for two of the most necessary changes in government to prevent this part of your Wessex region from being targeted as a continued victim of crippling austerity by Westminster and Brussels.

I congratulate the 30 people who had the wit and courage to vote for these changes, and I would be pleased were you all to contact me at to arrange a meeting in the town in the next month or so to discuss how we may consolidate our support and plan another battle for democracy in the 2015 General Election – this time with a full slate of candidates around the counties.

With a little under half the electorate refusing to vote, yesterday, and at least 90 spoilt ballot papers, the Liberal Democrat candidate was returned with less than 17% support from the constituency, thus committing you to business-as-usual by undemocratic diktat.

Any reasonable person will see that as an entirely unacceptable basis to justify the histrionic delight demonstrated by that candidate and his supporters at the count early this morning, at seizing power and embroiling us all in the further damage to be visited on Eastleigh by the callous, unrepresentative ConDem coalition government in the months and possibly years to come.

During my campaign over the last two weeks, I met only one person who openly condemned the Wessex Regionalist proposals, and that on the false ground that they would cause too many new levels of government. In fact of course we propose fewer levels than at present, with the crucial difference that the 'top’ level regional assembly and ‘upper’ level county councils would be answerable to the 'lower' level parish councils – unlike the reverse top-down imperative to divide and rule, as at present.

Finally I would thank all the delightful people I met – both candidates and citizens, especially the staff at the Wagon Works pub, and the council officers who enabled me to stand with efficiency, courtesy and friendship.

Until 2015 – good wishes to all
Colin Bex,
Parliamentary candidate,
Wessex Regionalists – the party for Wessex”