Saturday, August 31, 2013

No Federal Finale

Officially, the Coalition doesn’t do regions. Much play is made of the apparent deconstruction of the institutional legacy heaped up by successive governments. Yet too much remains in place for the spin to be taken seriously. The regions still exist for statistical purposes and for European elections and are still used by numerous organisations, both inside government (such as English Heritage) and outside (such as the National Trust).

We have even witnessed the creation of new regional institutions, as when on the 1st February this year the two ambulance trusts in ‘The South West’ merged under the name of – you’ve guessed it – the South Western Ambulance Service. There remain two ambulance trusts for the two very different arms of the mainland ‘South East’, with the Isle of Wight sensibly retaining its independence. How long these latter arrangements will last is open to question. Elsewhere, the amalgamations have already delivered pure, unamended Prescottism.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realise that Lord Prescott may have good grounds to smile at the persistence of the regional tier in English administration. However much English nationalists may rant to the contrary, regions are needed if a country the size of England is to be governed effectively and efficiently. They’ve been around in one form or another for thousands of years. The Romans had them. And the Saxons. And everyone since who has tried to manage without a regional policy has either relented, or sat back and let its absence ruin huge swaths of the country as power, wealth and talent gravitate to the bloated centre of government in one small corner. Those who inhabit the peripheries of England are to be congratulated (or is it pitied?) for their patience. Less craven folk would have run up the flag of separatism long ago.

How must this be viewed abroad? Probably with some bemusement. ‘We’re all English, so, obviously, all decisions of more than local importance must be taken in London’. That’s a fair summary of English nationalism. Imagine how contested the equivalent statements would be in France, Italy, Germany or Spain. And how upset the Eng nats would be at the idea that ‘we’re all European, so, obviously, all decisions of more than local importance must be taken in Brussels’. So what still holds it all together, this Norman-derived view of a one-size-fits-all England?

Fear of more cost? Yes. But is that rational? Regions already exist, for sound, practical reasons. (They just don't have sound, practical boundaries.) The only additional cost is democracy and that can be offset by reducing the number of MPs at Westminster. How do you measure in advance the savings that would flow from better co-ordination of services regionally and better scrutiny of regional budgets? The elimination of waste and duplication? Does England need nine regions? We could probably manage very well with five. The reason we have more has a lot to do with Whitehall divide-and-rule, with not wanting powerful challengers in ‘the provinces’. All these things would be exposed if we could only have the debate that is needed, unconstrained by politicians from the London regime setting parameters we aren’t allowed to question. Exposed too would be the cost of the status quo. We shall be paying £73 billion (or more) to build HS2, the rail route ‘needed’ (in the face of all commercial evidence to the contrary) to maintain London’s grip on the northern peripheries.

Fear of less power? Yes. But is that rational? English nationalists online frequently pop up in discussions involving the Celtic countries, never to put a positive case for England but always to belittle their neighbours. ‘You wouldn’t be viable without money from English taxpayers.’ Look into it and you’ll find that it’s England that’s being subsidised, not the other way round. Those who believe, despite the evidence, that England subsidises the other parts of the UK and that that’s a bad thing should, far from criticising the Celtic nationalist parties, surely join them and work to put a stop to it. It’s an odd sort of argument that defines Englishness mostly in terms of ability to influence what happens in other parts of the UK. The white man’s burden and all that. But it’s very revealing of the true nature of English nationalism as British nationalism’s last stand, still clinging to Greater England. While resisting all bids for territorial reform within because they concern issues and areas that don’t ‘matter’. London is heavily subsidised by the rest of England and it has an elected assembly too. That’s fine, because we’re all English. Let’s whine about the Barnett formula instead.

Fear of less sovereignty? Yes. But is that rational? The case for a regionalised England would be the same even if the continent did not exist. The fact that our neighbours over there are regionalised should at least cause us to ask if we’re not missing something important. The way in which Europe and the regions have become tangled in the popular imagination is shocking. The politicians responsible for spreading misinformation should be ashamed of themselves. The fact that they don’t care about the truth tells us all we need to know. Regionalism has a long history in England, among folk who are not by any stretch of the imagination anti-English.  And if regions round the edges do start talking to their foreign neighbours, what business is that of London's?  Why should the abused peripheries not trust foreigners more than they trust the callous representatives of the London regime?

Cost, power and sovereignty are three significant cards. How does an establishment under attack play them to best effect? By proposing a federal Britain of four states: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (Cornwall is missing, obviously, but academics and politicians alike who ponder constitutional questions are steeped in 19th and 20th century history; they’ve yet to catch up with the 21st.) Federalism can be argued for on the basis that only one more parliament is needed, though it would be interesting to see whether that’s cheaper than a set of regional ones, once travelling costs are compared. It can also be argued for on the basis that power remains largely centralised and that it’s a different set-up to the one that Johnny Foreigner has, so a very British way of doing things. There are even Commonwealth parallels, in Australia, Canada and Malaysia, all federal constitutional monarchies.

Expect to see the federal solution pushed hard in the run-up to Scotland’s referendum on independence. The UK establishment are desperate to play it cool. The idea that they might lose the referendum isn’t one they want to talk about. No doubt the civil service has a plan. Delaying tactics. Negotiations over the split of assets and liabilities. Currency. Sovereign bases. A new UK-wide mandate to halt change. Anything just to make it go away. And if they win the referendum – as polls still suggest they will – quell the Scots just like after 1979. How? Why not try locking everyone into a federal constitution?

Try it and see. It might at least shut them all up for a while. Buy some time. The Welsh would have to accept more powers than they’re ready for but so what? It might have to mean a written constitution, which would be dangerous for the old order, but it’s possible it might not come to that. Some fudge involving the Supreme Court as arbiter might work…

It’s doomed. Folk from all parts of the UK, but especially from England, imagine that a federal solution is an easy one. It isn’t. There are no examples of stable democratic federations in which one state accounts for over four-fifths of the total population. Prussia and Russia were able to dominate Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union respectively because neither federation was truly democratic. It was possible therefore for the Prussian and Russian governments to be enmeshed with the federal governments to the point where any distinction became merely formal. Prussia’s experiment with a democracy all of its own, under the Weimar Republic, was abruptly terminated in 1932. The federal government cynically suspended the regional government and installed its own commissioners, setting precedents that the Nazis were then to exploit over the following two years.

Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are further examples of federations that didn’t work out, because one ethnic group was usually in charge. Within the common law tradition, we remember the balanced colonial federations that held together (Australia, Canada or Malaysia), not the unbalanced ones that fell apart (the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland or the West Indies Federation).

Federalists place great faith in the constitutional division of functions (along with an apportionment of revenues to fund them). So: this area is British (defence, foreign affairs); this area is English (health, education). Simple, in theory. But in practice, dividing lines are hard to draw, even with the aid of a constitutional court, because the areas of responsibility tend to flow into one another. What enables lines to be drawn, in most federations, is the difference in scale between state and federation. Each recognises the limits of what is practical, of what is too big for the one to handle and too detailed for the other. But where state and federation are evenly matched, continuous dispute over competences is inevitable. Add in the possibility that they could be under different political control and the fuse is lit. Add in the fact that in the EU context a British government would be responsible for negotiations over matters affecting English competences and the gunpowder is ready to explode.

A four-state federal solution will not work. A federal solution with England partitioned into regions might have been popular with theorists a generation ago. England didn’t exist in those days, as something politically distinguishable from Britain. Now it does. Celtic nationalism has created it. (It never had any reason to stir itself.) Since it won’t go back in the bottle, the challenge is to accommodate it. Dissolution of the UK may be one way to achieve a better relationship between the five nations but since not all are ready to demand their independence that remains a painful option.

By itself, separatism-all-round does not answer the question of what sort of England works best for those who live here. It transforms a debate that has long been largely between London and the peripheral nations into one solely between London and the peripheral regions. English nationalists appear to assume that once borders are in place with Cardiff and Edinburgh, England will settle down to a new Golden Age of national unity. It’s at least equally likely to fuel the fires of discontent in Bristol and Newcastle, with envious glances across those borders. Envious because Wessex and Northumbria are at least as capable as their Celtic neighbours of managing their own affairs. An England that wants stability will be an England wise enough to devolve most questions of less than national importance to a new breed of regional parliaments. And that, in practice, can mean almost everything.

Federalism works where everyone wants the same degree of autonomy. It comes under strain where some have greater aspirations than others and falls apart where the range of aspirations becomes too great to accommodate within a single framework. Often, that’s down to geography. Remote islands, for example, are clearly capable of exercising wider powers simply because what they do doesn’t impinge much on others. Peninsulas – like Cornwall and Scotland – are almost in the same position.  England forms a more compact block, though still a huge one, where opportunities for federalism or something like it have yet to be fully explored.  It is one nation, in theory.  But it's also a nation whose geography has moulded long regional histories and deep-rooted cultural differences. The one-size-fits-all crowd have yet to recognise the damage done to real English lives by ignoring this.

Different laws, languages and administrative frameworks are no obstacles to a political union within the same commonwealth, any more than different religions, classes or individual outlooks. The only means to unite them is precisely to respect them. So wrote Yann Fouéré, in L’Europe aux Cents Drapeaux. Federalists have their work cut out if they think they can manage that in the Disunited Kingdom.  They'd be far better off looking beyond it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Thin Red Line In The Sand

In our massively over-centralised world, subsidiarity mainly means moving power back towards the individual and to the most local communities wherever possible.  But not every time.  It’s also about co-operation in place of competition.  It’s always about doing things at the right level, the smallest level that works.  The level at which global security works is global.

There are two kinds of rogue state.  There are those that do terrible things.  And there are those who go after them as vigilantes, impatient with international law and due process.  Those for whom it is better to do something than nothing, even if the very best outcome they can achieve is not to make matters worse.  More often than not we have seen how military action without a clear political strategy does anything but that.

Parliament’s rejection yesterday of military action in Syria will not prevent military action taking place.  But it does end the assumption that wherever there is a fight to be had Britain will be there, wearing the deputy sheriff’s badge.  Is it such a disaster for Britain if this time the US takes France along instead to share the burden of being le gendarme du monde?  France is the former colonial power in Syria, as Britain was in Iraq (and had made a few bold attempts to be in Afghanistan).  While the mandate may end, the colonists never mentally go home.

If yesterday’s vote marks the turning point in foreign policy that some are claiming it to be, what next for the British lion?

First of all, it really is time for a clean-up of government policy towards the arms trade.  The David Cameron who today is licking his political wounds is the same David Cameron who has hawked military hardware all round the Middle East as an unpaid commercial traveller for the death industry.  Do British companies not make anything else the Arabs might like to buy?  Medical equipment perhaps?

Second, we need to appreciate that projecting British power in the world comes at a cost.  Successive governments have met that cost by selling off the family silver.  The result is a growing mismatch between the imperial-era rhetoric of being able to influence events abroad and the commercial reality of having lost the ability to influence them at home.  Reading the roll-call of vital industries and assets that are now foreign-owned ought to bring into question just how British the hollowed-out British national interest now is.

Third, we really must press for an answer to the question of what the possession of nuclear weapons is supposed to achieve.  Are they a cost-effective addition to our security or just a status symbol?  Is there any realistic prospect of them being any more useful and relevant in the next 20 years than they have been in the past 20?  Do the Swedes or the Swiss lose sleep over not having any?

Finally, can we perhaps remember what the United Nations is for?  According to its charter, members reject the use of armed force, save in the common interest, and agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.  Just because the Security Council doesn’t always agree with you doesn’t prove that the Security Council is wrong.  Its greatest flaw is of course the position of the five permanent members, who owe their seats – with the right of veto – to the fact that 68 years ago they won the Second World War.  It’s an untenable position, one that kicks dirt in the face of any who truly believe in the sovereign equality of all nations, the UN’s very first founding principle.

How to remake the UN for the 21st century?  One course of action – cutting the Gordian knot – would be to dissolve it and start again with a new constitution that rogue states can veto only by not re-joining.  Another would be for the UK to do the decent thing, abandon its permanent seat and the veto and return the seat to the pool for others to have their chance.

It’s not an entirely fanciful scenario.  If Scotland becomes an independent state, what happens to the UK seat?  Russia was quick to claim the Soviet Union’s place and England would no doubt attempt to claim the United Kingdom’s.  Whether it would get away with that is anyone’s guess.  With the nuclear subs based firmly on Scottish territory, and no immediate prospect of being able to relocate them, expect some fine diplomacy, to say the least.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ins & Outs

So, what is the Conservative Party’s settled policy on Europe?  Not one to be written without a regular check over the shoulder in the direction of Monsieur Farage.  Expect many more gimmicks like the one we saw recently: in effect taking scarecrows on wheels around the inner cities, urging illegal immigrants to get the message and get packing.  It’s not the effectiveness of the policy that matters, it’s the effectiveness of the politics.

Another gimmick is the ongoing, rolling consultation whose sub-text is the taking-back of selected powers from Brussels.  The whole thing stinks of hypocrisy from a government that believes subsidiarity is too good for the likes of us.  Less power for Eurocrats, more power for Ukocrats.  Great.  Super.  Less power for them in London, more power for us in our communities?  Frightfully sorry, but, no.

We’ve explained before that we are ‘Euro-wary’ rather than pro or anti in principle.  The EU is a force for good so long as it promotes genuine subsidiarity, drawing the poison from the Norman dogma that the Crown-in-Parliament can do no wrong.  It is not a force for good when it builds its own managerialist dogmas to replace it.  That genuine subsidiarity has any possibility of co-existing in the long run with a drive for ‘ever closer union’.  That the acquis communautaire cannot be reduced.  And that the EU is committed to deepening the competitive market economy rather than nurturing a co-operative, democratic one (see the Lisbon Treaty, Article 119, which applies regardless of national, regional or local choices at the ballot box).  Much of the emerging EU constitution seems designed more to frustrate reasoned debate than to facilitate it.

The capture of an idealistic project by bureaucratic and business interests is always tragic but it won’t be reversed by a refusal to engage.  UKIP’s faults aren’t just that it lives permanently in the 1950s; they are also that it believes the UK can be improved but that, from the UK’s perspective at least, the EU cannot.  It’s not interested in finding the ardent allies who most certainly do exist.  Regionalists, from many countries, have argued for fundamental reforms that would change not only how the EU works but how the UK works, if the UK continues to exist at all.  The system is broke.  All of it.  And so it needs to change radically at EVERY level.  There can be no no-go areas of policy, nor, since we all have to get on with our neighbours, can one identity (such as English, British or European) exclusively dominate the rest.  New structures must ensure that we can co-operate with each other, without feeling put upon.  Existing structures struggle to achieve the first; they fail spectacularly to deliver the second.  No wonder folk are angry.

In the 1975 Common Market referendum, only two areas of the UK voted ‘No’.  They were Shetland and the Western Isles.  Support in Scotland generally was lower than in Wales, which was lower than in England.  (Every area in Wessex, except Avon, was then more pro-Europe than the England average.)  It might seem that the greater the distance from the heart of Europe, the cooler the reception.  Norway voted to stay out, twice (1972 and 1994).  Greenland voted to leave (1982).

Yet in 2013 it was on his trip to Edinburgh that Farage was given the roughest ride.  UKIP has become the protest party of choice primarily for the English electorate.  North of the border, it isn’t viewed as a liberating force but as the bearer of the old shackles.  The combined votes for the main avowedly Eurosceptic parties – UKIP and the BNP – in the 2009 European elections exceeded 23% in every English area but London.  Wales was not far behind but Scotland didn’t even make 8%.

Scotland, Wales and Cornwall do well out of EU funding, but so do many of the old industrial areas of England.  There is an understandable unease that, were the funding to vanish, there is no guarantee that the UK would either replace it or devolve the powers required to make it unnecessary.  Yet funding arrangements alone do not explain England’s attitude: UKIP came second in the Barnsley Central by-election in 2011, right in the heart of EU-assisted South Yorkshire.

So why the popularity in England?  Perhaps because UKIP appeals to nostalgic images and national stereotypes that have nothing to do with the way the world actually is in 2013.  But there are three themes it does especially well.  One is that our national wealth is solely or largely wrapped up in the City of London and its post-imperial connections and these must not be challenged (hence the £-sign logo).  Another is the anti-immigrant theme (all those Bulgarians and Romanians, for whom we quite rightly should NOT be building houses).  Though where Farage would put the 2.2 million British ex-pats if they had to leave the other EU countries where they’ve made their homes we just don’t know.  And then there’s the real joker in the pack: that Europe wants to smash England up into regions.

We want to see an England whose regions are thriving politically, economically and culturally.  It can’t happen while all key decisions are being made in London.  Nor can it happen by pretending that a host of often tiny and always cowed local authorities can make the really big choices on education, health or transport, or exercise law-making and tax-varying powers.  Whether a regionalised England would be an England without national institutions – institutions at the all-England level – is however not actually in the gift of Brussels at all.  It depends on decisions made by the government of the UK.  It depends on how the relationship between Britain and England is expressed.  EU membership is wholly irrelevant to the issue, which would continue to exist even if the continent did not.

Let's take a common objection to the absence of an English Parliament.  That England is the only European country without an elected national voice of its own.  It’s not quite true, since England dominates the UK Parliament numerically and so the counter-objection that England doesn’t deserve two parliaments when others only have one each is not entirely unfounded.  It’s also the case that the English Parliament even in mediæval times included representatives from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.  There is a much reproduced image of Edward I in Parliament flanked by Alexander, King of Scots and Llewelyn, Prince of Wales.  If you go around claiming overlordship of the whole island then centuries later this sort of thing does come back to bite your descendants.  There’s a precedent for a Scottish Parliament that just covers Scotland.  There isn’t a precedent for an English Parliament that just covers England.

So make one?  France has its Parlement.  Germany has its Bundestag.  Italy has its Parlamento.  Spain has its Cortes Generales.  Why not England?  What all these countries also have is regional government.  Yet English centralists, so keen to make international comparisons when demanding an English Parliament, take a strangely different line if regionalism is mentioned.  It’s somehow not quite English enough.  Too foreign.  (Wessex, foreign?)  Or, perhaps, grudgingly, something for an English Parliament to discuss later.  Why later?  If you’re going to change the constitution, why leave the job half-done?  Why set up distinctly English ministries for a whole range of topics that could be dealt with regionally if you then have to dismantle them to bring regional devolution into being?  We don’t work for an English Parliament, because it would not of itself advance our cause.  We don’t take issue with its creation, so long as it has no power whatsoever to override the views of a Wessex Witan on what works best for Wessex.

What is clear is that if England were an EU Member State, the EU could no more be a threat to England than it can today be to any other country, including those that already have regional government.  England, what crimes are committed in thy name!  Full recognition of the rights of the other four home nations is denied out of a misplaced belief that the English national psyche cannot cope with the loss of empire, with the inability to find a leading ‘role’ in the world.  Always the need to find someone to dominate, and someone to fight with.  All so very Norman.  Just like the refusal to devolve power to meaningful regions within England.

We have a ruling establishment that slips easily between being mainly English and being wholly British but cannot bring itself to be European.  (Maybe it’s an Anglican thing, a hangover from the Tudors.)  To its immense disappointment, it has discovered over the past 40 years that Europe is too big to be dominated.  So it now wants to look elsewhere for a victim, while convincing as many folk as it can that the rest of Europe wants to dominate us.  Instead of seeking allies in Europe, we in Wessex are urged to shun those with whom - as one of a number of predominantly rural regions being transformed for the worse by a powerful metropolitan neighbour - we actually have every reason to make common cause.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fighting On The Beaches

Sussex isn’t Wessex.  We don’t claim it and the Saxon chronicles, read attentively, back up us on that.  Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to glance east at present.

At Balcombe, environmental protestors are making life difficult for Cuadrilla, the firm that wants to frack for oil and gas.  It’s been well described as ‘extreme energy’, a last desperate squeezing of the fossil fuel fruit that defers by a few years the real reckoning we need to undertake.  And all the while adding to climate change.  Cuadrilla’s response?  That they have complied with all relevant laws and regulations.  Which says a lot for the competence of our law-makers.  One of the exceptions is Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, who got dragged away by police yesterday.  Balcombe’s actual MP is Francis Maude, a Conservative, Paymaster-General and Minister for the Cabinet Office.  Now, watching him get arrested would be real fun.  Watching him lose his seat would be better still.

At Newhaven, there’s a different issue.  The French, who own the West Beach, have sealed off public access and the locals want it back.  It’s a story with all the right ingredients.  (And the online comments are a hoot.)

Start with a populace who’ve woken up to the fact that if you want to protect your community’s rights, don’t allow them to be sold off.  Private corporations have no loyalty to place.  If you want to defend your heritage, keep it public.  Yes, Maggie, that means the STATE has to own it because no-one else can be trusted to do the job.  There shouldn’t need to be a debate about this, only about how locally the responsibility should rest.  If you put the government’s assets up for sale they’ll be bought by someone else’s government.  The French.  The Germans.  The Arabs.  The Chinese.  Do we own any of their assets?  Do they look that daft?  And it’s not only the governments.  Private companies from across the world now own huge swaths of what used to be our public sector.  The money raised from those sales?  Oh, we had SUCH a big party up in London.

Then there’s attitudes towards the French.  Always good for a WW2 joke at their expense.  Nothing like resting on our laurels to remind others of events before most of their parents were born.  The fact is, they DO own a lot of southern England now.  And in Newhaven’s case, who exactly are these French owners?  The Département of Seine Maritime, in Normandy.  Imagine East Sussex County Council owning the port of Dieppe.  It’s like that, only in reverse.

It’s well known that the Queen owns the foreshore here, all of it, so the froggies are clearly in the wrong.  You’d think so, reading the outpourings of patriotic internet bores.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  The Crown Estate Commissioners are responsible for only 55% of the foreshore around the UK, about 320,000 acres.  In Cornwall and Lancashire, the respective royal duchies stand in for the Crown.  In Orkney and Shetland, Norse udal law suggests that the foreshore rights go with the land, not the sea, so adjoining landowners usually have the sounder claim.  And elsewhere?  We’ll come to that.  The Crown certainly owns the seabed below mean low water mark, about 23.8 million acres.  Or does it?  Not all, especially where estuaries are concerned.  The Port of London Authority owns part of the tidal Thames river-bed.  Several river-beds in Devon belong to the Duchy of Cornwall, while the Beaulieu River in Hampshire is part of the Beaulieu Estate.  And a large slice of the Severn Estuary forms something called the Beaufort Royalty, owned by the Duke of Beaufort through his property company, Swangrove Estates Ltd, to which are paid the dues for sand dredged from the bed.  Never heard of the Beaufort Royalty?  Unless you need to know, you probably won’t.  Maybe with tidal energy now on the agenda, you’ll be hearing more.

Land with no other owner belongs by default to the Crown.  That is how the royal forests originated, as well as the ownership of upland commons like Dartmoor (granted away in 1337 to the Duchy of Cornwall and still owned by it today).  The Crown is assumed to own the seabed and things that come out of the sea, like whales and wreckage, and, except in Orkney and Shetland, the foreshore is treated as an ‘incident of the sea’ rather than an ‘incident of the land’.  That doesn’t mean that the Crown cannot part with its rights, and along half the coastline it has done just that.  In seaside resorts the beach often belongs to the council, ensuring that at least some of the money from the deckchairs and the ice creams stays local.

That still leaves a lot of the one-half in private ownership and even the other half can be exploited for profit, since the Crown Estate Commissioners have a money-raising job to do for central government.  Should they?  Or should all beaches be locally owned, turned over to the parish council to manage, in partnership with a wider authority if necessary?  Should the seabed off our coasts be plundered for London’s benefit, or conserved for ours?  These are the sort of questions we’d love to see a Wessex Witan debating in respect of our two coasts and the narrow seas we share with Wales, Brittany and Normandy.  Scotland’s recent experience of sweeping land reforms has shown that it will take a fresh constitutional settlement to inspire the fresh thinking needed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Down The Drain

Thames Water’s bills are set to rise.  That’s bad news in Swindon, especially as the reason given for needing the money is to upgrade infrastructure in London.

The locals aren’t happy and the suggestion has been made that perhaps Thames should be split into Upper and Lower zones for billing purposes.  An excellent idea.  London can well afford to pay for its own infrastructure.  Which of the London parties will include it in their manifesto?  That’s right.

It makes sense to us as an interim solution but what is really needed is for Wessex to take back control of its own natural resources.  Forty years ago, most of Wessex was supplied by local water boards, made up of councillors from the area served.  Swindon, along with Bath, Plymouth, Southampton and Winchester, was one of five Wessex councils that still ran its own water department.  These were financed by municipal bonds, and ultimately by ratepayers, but under democratic control, as befits a natural monopoly.  

Because of Treasury interference, however, the publicly owned water service was never able to spend what was needed to keep itself up to date.  When we hear about 'crumbling Victorian sewers' needing replacement we really ought to ask why the Victorians were willing to put public money into public works and our generation is not.  Might it have something to do with the ruling ideology that sees public utilities as pipes for channelling customers' payments into deep private pockets?

Today Thames is a subsidiary of Kemble Water, a consortium based in Australia.  Surely decisions about water bills in Wessex shouldn’t depend on what London demands, let alone what suits investors in Sydney?  In recent years, large slices of the company’s shares have been bought by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and the China Investment Corporation.  Are they elected by the voters of Swindon?  If not, ought we to describe this situation as progress?

The Wealth of Wessex

Here is a link to the case for Scottish independence, set out in maps and numbers.  The second map shows the extent to which the wealth of England, measured in GDP per head, is concentrated along the M4 corridor.  It’s our wealth: our answer to the claim that we all depend on London's cleverness with noughts.  It's a diverse wealth too, based on our natural resources as well as our talents.

The M4 corridor has been the engine of England’s real economy all the way back to the 80s.  When our constitutional policy document, The Statute of Wessex, appeared in its third impression, in 1996, we highlighted that three county areas in the M4 corridor (Avon, Wiltshire and Berkshire) had significantly above average GDP/head and that three in the peninsula (Devon, Dorset and Somerset) had significantly below average GDP/head.  The Isle of Wight came bottom in our list, below both Scotland and Wales.

The matching of high and low output areas within Wessex indicated then, as now, that as a whole it could be financially viable as a self-governing region of the future.  It was neither dependent on extreme and unsustainable wealth, as London is, nor poorly-resourced, as the former industrial regions are (and will continue to be until regional self-government gives them the powers they need to recover from the effects of centralism).  For ourselves, self-government offers the opportunity to spread the prosperity base wider within Wessex so that the lower output areas do not remain dependent retirement zones.  (Dividing GDP by population will inevitably tend to produce a below average figure so long as the economically inactive population are an above average proportion of the whole.  Reducing the influx of retirees has the same effect as increasing economic development, which is why control over our housing stock is so vital.)

Had Wessex responded at that time to the call for self-government we could by now be as rich as the Swiss and possessed of the best public services in the world.  Instead folk sat back and watched as that wealth was systematically squandered by the London regime.  On wars.  On bank bailouts.  On prestige projects that have rarely worked and are often of no conceivable benefit to Wessex.  And above all on maintaining the system of micro-managing local affairs from the centre for London’s benefit. 

The Scots are waking up to the fact that they’re being robbed.  We need to do the same.

If Enough Is Never Enough

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.”
Otto von Bismarck, 1867

Bismarck’s most famous quote is characteristically double-edged. Understood passively, it implies working within the constraints of the world as we find it. But to what end? Understood assertively, it implies redefining those limits, steadily moving the goalposts onto new territory. So that what was previously impossible becomes possible. And what was previously possible – for others – ceases to be so.

We live, increasingly, under a system of totalitarian liberalism, where democratic choices are assumed to be limited to superficialities, to whether Leader A appears to have more charisma than Leader B. Because nothing striking separates them on policy. The London parties fight for control of the centre ground when what is actually required is to roll up the centre ground and re-locate it. Lenin did that in 1917, not just for Russia but for the world. Thatcher did it in 1979. The scale of the challenges we face today demands no less a transformation. Do it now and we at least have some chance of avoiding the suffering they both relished imposing.

Last week’s news was dominated by population growth. We ought to be alarmed that human numbers are exploding but the BBC – what a vile organisation that’s become – was shamelessly biased in its coverage. Those for whom growth is an opportunity rather than a problem received significantly more prime airtime for their views. Once again we were assured that growth is good, that it will pay for our pensions and our long-term care. How thick do they think we are if they believe we won’t spot the flaws in their population Ponzi scheme?

With impeccable timing, last week also saw the publication of the latest issue of Population Matters Magazine, a periodical put out by the pressure group Population Matters. It certainly does matter, especially on the frontline of the battle against growth, here in Wessex. Norman Pasley writes of his own experience in Hampshire:

“Last year I remember a flurry of letters in the Hampshire Chronicle – mostly generated by members of the Winchester Population Matters local group – about the population pressure on Winchester’s primary school places and classrooms, and the controversy about taking cherished green spaces for more housing. 

In April this year, Jonathon Porritt gave a talk to 225 people in Winchester. Also in April I gave a talk to 120 members of U3A in Fareham called, ‘As we journey to 2050, do we need to look after the planet?’ The audience were on-side, the hour went well, and they asked lots of questions. Only 30 people took my hand-out (it seems you can’t inspire everyone!).” 

So concerned folk puzzle over what, if anything, they can do. Elect dozens of Wessex Regionalist MPs and thousands of Wessex Regionalist councillors. Every one of them unafraid to defy Westminster’s anti-Wessex laws because they understand the fundamental illegitimacy of top-down rule. That much ought to be obvious. But all the while the puzzling continues, so does the destruction. It rolls on because totalitarian liberalism insists that the locusts must go where they will. Green Belt is invaded. Villages double and triple in size. Roads slash the countryside. So much beauty. So much history. So much food security in an uncertain future. Lost, for what?

A false promise of prosperity from perpetual motion, fuelled by a system of debt-driven finance that inexorably ratchets up the damage. Blessed are the accountants, for they shall devour the earth.

A different approach isn’t difficult to define. Moving to a steady-state economy, tackling unemployment through shorter working hours, not through ever higher levels of socially useless activity that piles on more stress. Measuring success other than in monetary, GDP terms. Anti-globalisation and defence of the common wealth. A community-benefit State that does not shrink from ruthless punishment of those companies that put profit before people and place. Repudiation or rescheduling of debt wherever it is doing more harm than good. The inspirational books have all been written. Their prescriptions are well-known. Political debate manipulates them where it can and ignores them where it can’t.

Labour in 1997 and the Coalition in 2010 both came to power promising to rein-in the insaner plans for housebuilding that we have witnessed. Prescott promised to replace ‘predict-and-provide’ with ‘plan-monitor-and-manage’ but in no time he was back to ‘think of a number and double it’. Pickles promised localism, but then admitted that the only discretion devolved was how to accommodate growth, not whether to do so. (A case of ‘you pick the beauty spots to destroy, so we don’t have to shoulder the blame’.) We know, of course, that by 20th century standards housebuilding is currently at a rather low level (hurrah!), but the damage it does is cumulative and in the past there was at least an understandable reason: slum clearance and post-Blitz rehousing. Today we do have a choice but are failing to exercise it openly. It is being made for us by those who think they know best. No wonder there is such widespread despair at the failure of the London parties to articulate real local concerns honestly and consistently.

Breaking the pro-growth consensus requires a whole new level of campaigning. We are engaged with the intellectual debate, the ‘metapolitics’ that defines the centre ground. And, being a political party, we are engaged with the more rough-and-tumble world of demonstrations and elections. We need both, to sharpen the weapons of argument and to use them, to stand in the vanguard of a movement for change in Wessex.

Against us are ranged two camps. There are the boneheads who think that an ever-expanding population inhabiting a finite environment is an opportunity for innovation (if they’re LibDems), for profit (if they’re Tories) and for repression (if they’re Labourites), not a problem that an ecologically aware and freedom-loving society ought to confront before it reaches catastrophic proportions. And then there are the airheads who won’t even discuss the issue because it’s too difficult for them to cope with. The mentally cauterised who imagine that there has to be some racist sub-text behind population concerns (so how DO you raise them?) or that to complain about the loss of all that we value is only subjective after all, while their own selection of values has to be objective truth because they learnt it in first year sociology.

Simon Ross, writing in Population Matters Magazine, put it thus:

“Developmental and environmental groups, particularly, seem determined to ignore the ‘elephant in the room’… The Campaign to Protect Rural England’s charter to ‘save our countryside’ from development carefully avoids addressing England’s high population density and population growth. Such groups are one focus for our lobbying but we may have to wait some time for a change of heart.” 

It’s a nuanced assessment, but it ignores the gaping chasm of reality. Time is something we just don’t have.