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.