Monday, December 30, 2013

Wise Men (and Women) From The East?

January’s issue of BBC History Magazine includes an interview with Professor Linda Colley, described by Wikipedia as “a historian of Britain, empire and nationalism”.  It’s a very revealing article, to the extent that Colley articulates what are the common, unconscious prejudices of the metropolitan chattering classes – the MCCs – towards the past, present and future of these islands.  In 1999, when she held a post at the London School of Economics, Colley was one of several speakers invited by the Blairs to deliver a Millennium Lecture at 10 Downing Street.  This talk, Britishness in the 21st Century, was subsequently widely referenced by the British Council and other mouthpieces of the regime.

If we believe her latest piece, “London has been influential in lots of different ways, some of which have been benign: it does continue to pump a lot of money into the economy, for instance”.  It’s astonishing that someone as ignorant of the facts as Colley can achieve the influential position she holds.  London is habitually presented as the UK’s cornucopia, through comparing its contribution to tax revenues against a highly selective reckoning of money spent there specifically for its benefit.  Money spent there that is deemed, however questionably, to be for the benefit of the whole UK is excluded from the calculation. 

A historian of empire ought, one would think, to be more inquiring about how London’s wealth is amassed and at whose expense, since it mostly doesn’t come from growing or making things locally.  In double-entry terms, most of the money pumped into the economy is made up to correspond to an equivalent amount of misery inflicted, here or elsewhere.  The systematic eradication of the City of London would undoubtedly be the greatest advance in human freedom since the abolition of the slave trade.

While Colley refuses to be drawn on the outcome of next year’s Scottish referendum, her contribution does outline some ways in which Britishness might mount a recovery.  The three-headed hydra we shall need to slay comprises federalism, a written constitution, and a charter of UK rights.  Expect to hear all three argued to death by the MCCs over the coming years as a means of keeping real change well off the agenda.

We have explained before why federalism cannot work to turn an unequal union into an equal one.  There’s no point in labouring the numbers.  The word has a deceptively gentle ring to it, an air of fairness drawn from other contexts where federalism does work because the facts of geography are favourable to it.  It can’t make a silk purse out of the pig’s ear that the UK has always been.

How about a written constitution?  For England, it might work, as might a federal union of English regions (though better still a confederal one).  So it might too for the other nations of these islands, individually, as sovereign states.  What good could it do the UK?  To demand a written constitution in advance of sorting out the territorial power relationships is profoundly reactionary.

An unwritten constitution is fluid, allowing devolution to be expanded relatively easily as compared to getting a constitutional amendment passed.  The purpose of a written constitution – in the UK context – is to make constitutional change more difficult, especially through requiring the consent of the whole UK to any change.  So Scotland wants devo-max?  Fine, but only if the UK’s English majority agrees.  A written constitution, just like federalism, is more likely to fan the fires of separatism than leaving well alone.  It will make what could be an amicable dissolution into a bitter and even violent break-up if one part of the UK seeks to thwart the ambitions of another for self-government.  Those who advocate it have learnt nothing from Irish Home Rule save how to repeat the process in as horrible a manner as possible.

A charter of UK rights?  Yawn.  Just like a written constitution, this is a device to kick the debate into the long grass.  Who, honestly, is going to spend years sifting through all the citizens’ tweets of what they’d like included?  We can be sure that community rights to self-government won’t be allowed through.  The London regime is obsessed with individual rights and nothing else because it is local communities, united in indignation, that pose a threat to its dominance.  Individuals are no threat at all.  They can be repeatedly assured of how valued they are, even as everything they value around them is torn apart for profit.  (And, in law, private corporations, remember, are people too, with the same inhuman rights as everyone else but with bigger legal teams to enforce them.)  Eliminating every intermediate identity between the State and the individual is the essence of the still-dominant Jacobin worldview.  But there is more to the project even than that.  It isn’t just a device to avoid discussing the realities of property and power in a London-dominated island, and maybe entrench them further.  It’s also a device to avoid questioning what’s so special about the UK that it has to be the fundamental focus of that project.

The Coalition has wasted considerable resources on setting up a commission to look into a UK Bill of Rights and has received some interesting rebuffs.  One is to ask why the devolved areas can’t have their own.  Scotland has its own legal system, one very different from English common law.  Wales has its language issue.  Northern Ireland lives with sectarian nuances that may suggest different requirements from a charter that will succeed in keeping the peace there.  And if the UK is too big to be meaningful as the maker of rights, might it also be too small?  If we must have rights above the level of the basic nation, why not have rights that are European or universal?  What is it that the UK dimension adds?  What is it that we are supposed to all have in common that separates us from the rest of humanity?  What is the tradition appealed to in defining a ‘UK right’, ‘British values’, or whatever other piece of chauvinistic nonsense happens to be doing the rounds?

One such tradition could be that stodgy constitutionalism that is forever looking around for ways to make the ruling class do what is theoretically their job instead of ways to abolish them.  England, in particular, is awash with wannabe Wat Tylers waving Magna Carta and demanding the redress of grievances instead of questioning the basis of central authority itself.  Constitutional rights are the enemy of democratic choice.  In placing certain things beyond normal debate they fossilise into a dictatorship of the dead.  Though all dressed up as ‘de-politicising’ the issue, it’s actually all about de-democratising it.  Labour seem particularly keen on this as a means of retaining power even when out of power.  We don’t need ‘rights’, by definition limited.  We need freedom, bounded only by the freedom of others.  Should we respect the accumulated mess that is the constitutional status quo and further sanctify it, simply because we are assured that where we are is broadly speaking a good place to be?  Do we not know that starting from where we are assured that we are (even when we are not) is the surest way of being persuaded essentially to stay put?

Professor Colley offers no immediate answers to any of these questions.  Nor can anyone among the MCCs.  For all their accumulated qualifications, they simply cannot see that the London-based system of decision-making is not benign, never has been and cannot be made to be.  Their belief in the self-evident goodness of the UK, of the micro-management of Wessex towns and villages from London, is so entrenched that they will do everything in their power to suffocate any other way of debating the issues.  Instead, we must discuss how to make everyone British again, deferential to London, respectful of the wisdom and thankful for the gifts coming to Wessex from the mighty east.  Sorry to spoil your dinner party, chaps and chapettes, but that record is well and truly broken.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tarzan’s Monkey Cage

Localism.  What does it mean?  It seems to mean that local communities can decide whatever they like but if they ever make the wrong decision, as judged from London, they will be severely punished for doing so.  And will know that they jolly well deserve it too.

Who’s a naughty community then?  George Osborne announced yesterday – see 2.209 in the Autumn Statement – some changes to the New Homes Bonus.  That’s the bribe, paid by London, paid for out of all our taxes, paid to local councils for the number of new homes built each year in their area.  Until now, the bribe has been paid even where the homes are approved not by the council but on appeal by the London regime.  How was that loophole missed?  Never mind, now the bribe will not be paid where the London regime itself gave the permission, in the teeth of local opposition.  It will keep the money (which ultimately, remember, is our money).

The community, who may have spent thousands fighting the appeal to save some treasured local environment, will now gain no financial benefit from the houses imposed upon them.  On the contrary, they will have to pay all the more from their own resources for the extra services required to meet needs generated by the new development.  Councillors will have to think twice, then twice again, before turning down proposals, even where the case for refusal is strong, because appeal decisions are entirely unpredictable.  Everything hinges on how the Planning Inspector handling the appeal is feeling.

In Margaret Thatcher’s first Cabinet, the post of Environment Secretary was held by Michael Heseltine, nicknamed ‘Tarzan’ on account of his trademark mane of blond hair.  Today aged 80, Lord Heseltine is still making waves.

In a series of speeches to local leaders this year he has argued that “We must not wait for ‘what London wants us to do’… we need a peasants' revolt and we need local people to argue their case and fight the dominance of London…  If you want your power back you are in a battle and you don’t win battles by cosying up to the enemy”, warning that there is a “war going on in government about this whole localism agenda”:

“There's an inevitable battle going on in Whitehall.  There are those trying to protect their own interests.  So frankly, you'd better start protecting yours.  Lobby your MPs, and use the local and national media to drive your campaign.  This is not about giving in gently, which local communities have done for far too long.  You have to go out there and fight for it.

Whenever Heseltine speaks or writes, there’s always a very firm agenda, evident or hidden.  Elected mayors.  City regions.  HS2.  It could be anything, and it isn’t always an agenda we’d endorse.  But it’s not impossible that Heseltine is sincere in believing that many more decisions could be made locally and regionally instead of centrally.  He may not entirely have lost touch with the idea that such decisions should be democratic ones, though that is not something he appears willing to champion.  As an ex-minister, he certainly knows what he’s dealing with in taking on the centre:

“If you let those monkeys loose they will cock it up – that’s what they [the Government] think.”

Less than a century ago, women were denied representation in Parliament.  It was argued that their brains weren’t up to handling complex political issues.  In other parts of the world, a franchise restricted by skin colour was the norm until even more recently.  Today these viewpoints are considered barbarous and indefensible by most of the world.

Yet the London regime is still able to over-ride democratically expressed local opinion just because it feels like it.  Just because it deems the locals incapable of making the right decisions on what their community needs and how to go about providing it.  Just because the decisions made don’t suit the whims of maxed-out growth junkies in London.  In a hundred years from now, the question will surely be why we put up with it for so long.  Why did we tolerate civil servants coming to our towns and villages to inquire into local decisions and reverse them?  Why didn’t we just toss the blighters onto the nearest muckheap like a free folk with any lingering self-respect would have done?

Not only didn’t we do it.  We did much less than that.  We actually voted for the London parties to carry on treating us as monkeys.  We went on chattering politely to them instead of recognising them as the deadly enemy they really are.  We fondly imagined that the bars of the cage were there to protect us when all they did was deny us the freedom to shape the future of our communities for ourselves.