Monday, March 31, 2014

Review of 2013

Every year when we submit our accounts to the Electoral Commission we are also required to provide a ‘Review of Political Activities’ covering the year just gone.

The 2013 Review has recently been agreed and here is what it says:

“The Eastleigh by-election in February provided an unplanned but welcome opportunity to raise the Party’s profile.  This was fully taken up, despite the attempts of pro-establishment groups such as 38 Degrees to deny us a legitimate share of the platform.  Our candidate, Colin Bex, canvassed voters, attended hustings and gave interviews, one of the highlights of the campaign being an appearance on BBC2’s Newsnight in which he exchanged jibes with Paddy Ashdown of the FibDems.

The wyvern flag of Wessex appeared in some shots and was given an added, official boost in May when the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, arranged for it to be flown outside his London headquarters to mark St Ealdhelm’s Day.  ‘Today,’ announced his press release, ‘the only way is Wessex’.  We agree, and look forward to these cultural concessions being backed up by solidly political ones.

Paradoxically, our vote at Eastleigh – the Thinking Thirty – was much less spectacular than the publicity.  Like all the smaller parties, we were squeezed by a well-oiled UKIP effort to mop up the protest vote.  In the long-term, the publicity gained will matter more, since media interest has been sustained through the course of the year that followed.  This has since borne fruit in the form of several interviews with the BBC, including two local radio stations, focused mainly on the implications for England of the Scottish referendum on independence.

There is a well-founded perception that ‘politics-as-usual’ is no longer an option in Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum.  The fact of holding the referendum has changed the nature of Scottish politics.  It has also begun a debate over whether other parts of the UK can also benefit from a tide that is now moving towards radical constitutional change.

For the first time in perhaps a decade, the national debate about England’s future is not just about the merits of an English Parliament.  With London’s wealth and influence continuing to massively outstrip those of the ‘provinces’, a self-governing England that lacks a regional tier is being exposed as an idea offering ‘more of the same’.  We expect the idea of regional assemblies to be revisited and will be doing all we can to prevent Labour once again imposing their ill-considered vision of an ‘Iron Curtain’ between eastern and western Wessex.

Colin Bex has continued to manage our London bureau, attending meetings on our behalf on matters such as the HS2 railway, which we oppose.  He has also raised concerns that London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, is seeking to pioneer repressive methods, such as the use of water cannon by the Metropolitan Police, that may then be extended to other areas.

Along with the Secretary-General, David Robins, Colin attended the Annual Conference of Mebyon Kernow – The Party for Cornwall, at Truro in November.  It is always good to be able to cheer on those further up the political ladder and learn from their achievements.  We have also continued to develop our online presence, with visits to our blog again breaking records.”

Love the Land, Live the Life

It would make such a great slogan for our Wessex.  It is in fact already taken, as the English-language slogan of the Normandy Tourist Board.

There is such a thing, based not in one of the great cities – Caen or Rouen – but in a much smaller place, Evreux.  It exists despite the fact that officially Normandy doesn’t exist.  Officially, it is two separate regions, Lower Normandy, based in Caen, and Upper Normandy, based in Rouen.

Although there is a long-standing campaign to re-unite the two half-Normandies, there are also deep-rooted Jacobin desires to magnify, not lessen the harm to regional identity.  Both half-Normandies live under the constant threat of reorganisation by a centralist State that regards regional geography as malleable in the interests of its own survival.  There is the recurrent possibility that one will be merged with its Celtic neighbour to the west and the other with the area round the national capital.  Sounds familiar?  Can we learn from Norman regionalist resistance to this?  The WR Secretary-General, David Robins, recently made a brief visit to investigate.

French vehicle registration plates are wonderfully colourful, including besides the actual number an area code for the département and the regional logo.  You can buy stick-on labels for the département and region of your choice.  And, for once in France, choice means choice.  At Carrefour in Ouistreham you can buy stickers with the Lower or Upper Normandy logos.  Or you can be a true Norman patriot and prefer a sticker that displays the ancient ducal banner of two gold leopards on red.

(You can even buy a sticker that has the number 44 – for Loire Atlantique – beneath the Breton ‘gwenn-ha-du’ flag.  Even though, in the eyes of France’s leaders, Loire Atlantique isn’t in Brittany, because they say it isn’t.  In Wessex terms, ‘région Bretagne’, without Loire Atlantique, is like ‘the South West’, without Hampshire, since in both cases the historic capital is excluded.)

That Norman flag gets everywhere.  In Ouistreham it flies over one of the largest hotels, and over the wartime German blockhouse that towers above the port.  Even where you don’t spot the flag, you see not-so-subtle references to it in red-and-gold colour schemes, on buildings, in furnishings and on road signs.

Yes, the road signs.  Tourists are welcome in Normandy and their needs aren’t neglected as they are in Wessex.  The authorities know what they’ve come to see and are pleased to remind them.  Drive along the main roads to and from Caen and you’ll see the signs.  Images from the Bayeux Tapestry or from Norman architecture, done in pastel shades of pink and yellow.  Pointing out Caen – the city of Guillaume le Conquérant, Falaise – the birthplace of Guillaume le Conquérant, Bayeux – the tapestry of Guillaume le Conquérant.

Now imagine something similar on the A34 or the A303 – Winchester, the city of Alfred the Great, Wantage – the birthplace of Alfred the Great, Athelney – the refuge of Alfred the Great.  You have to imagine them because they don’t exist.  We don’t want tourists to come to Wessex, because there’s nothing to see here, right?  Because there’s no such place.  There’s the London commuter belt, and beyond that there’s the deckchairs and donkey rides.  And nothing more.  A Wessex Tourist Board?  Perish the thought.  The next thing we know the locals will be saying they want to cast off the London yoke.  Queue for the Brittany Ferries service at Portsmouth and you can watch the attractions of Normandy unroll slickly on the big TV screen.  What do we offer our visitors queuing on the Ouistreham side?  ‘South West England’.  They’re not even there when they disembark, but in the other ‘region’ next door, ‘The South East’.

So what impressions remain of Normandy?  Devastated after D-Day, Caen today is largely a modern, practical city, with, like many cities of the European mainland, an entirely new tram system, opened in 2002.  Purists will call it an electrically-powered guided bus and it’s due to be replaced with a real light rail system rather shortly.  George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth last week.  He said he'd love to spend billions giving Bristol "a fantastic new tramway system" like the one in its sister city of Bordeaux – the regional capital of Aquitaine – but Bristol doesn't have that sort of money.  And why ever not?  Answer that one George and you could be on your way to becoming the first Wessex Regionalist mayor.

Then there’s Bayeux.  Which has a lot more to offer than just the Tapestry.  No reproduction of that can ever convey the impact of the original.  The final scenes are full of revealing detail, once you get up close to the stitching that shows the two wyvern standards, the first fallen, the second held up defiantly against the imminent victors.  The first is gold, the second is red with a gold underbelly.  And so the registered colours of the Wessex flag too are red and gold, echoing both the Tapestry and the chroniclers’ references to a golden dragon.

We share rather more than you might expect with the old enemy.  Just as Cornwall and Brittany share black and white as their flag colours, so we share red and gold with the Normans, as we share geology, climate, a love of apples and pork, cheese and cream (though our cooking lags a little behind), caution, and a justifiable distrust of the national capital’s intentions.  They invaded us once.  We invaded them many more times in return.

It’s a bit like Scots-and-English at times.  You emphasise the differences or the similarities according to the agenda.  For every unionist who reminds us of Britain’s shared cultural and political heritage there’ll be a nationalist reminder that Scots have a shared cultural and political heritage with France.  It’s one that’s arguably been much more important in defining Scottishness – in terms of distinctive architecture, law, a sense of being European that is still resisted in England, and so on.  In a European context, Wessex, bound by its ferry routes to the mainland, has at least as much reason to make common cause with Bretons and Normans as with Scots or Northumbrians hundreds of miles away, the other side of Mercia.

And Wessex has a lot to learn.  Ouistreham’s high street has a small shop devoted solely to all things Norman.  It sells flags, foods, drinks, books, badges… well, just explore the website.  It’s the sort of thing that might be found in Cardiff or Edinburgh, and these days possibly Truro too, commercially focused but with definitely a nationalist crust to the artisanal loaf.

Despite it all, despite the occasional insistence that Normans are not to be considered as French folk, Norman nationalism is not, yet, mainstream.  It may not need to be.  Reality could in fact run ahead of ideology if budgetary pressures upon France force Normandy’s re-unification.  If the broader-based regionalist campaign to achieve that goal succeeds, to whom does a Norman regional government then look for reciprocal arrangements on our side of the Channel?  Who will speak for Wessex?

If we want to 'think Wessex', we have to be willing to look beyond jingoistic Britain for issues that resonate in the context of an entirely Wessex-centred geography.  Today, while we’re all thinking our brains out about what Scottish independence might mean for us if it comes to pass, let us not forget the much older associations of Europe’s Atlantic and Channel facades that have shaped us too.  ‘Fog in Channel; Continent cut off’ is a misconception that can raise a smile; too often it seems a political fact of life that does us no good at all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Housing Whom?

Oxford professor Danny Dorling is the rising star of radical sociology.  Some of us heard him speak in Witney during the 2010 election campaign.  He has his critics, but he has an impressive grasp of statistics and deploys them with devastating effect.

A review of his latest book, All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster, appeared in Metro last week.  Did you know that in 2012 one in every four new jobs in Britain went to a new estate agent?

What’s that?  Yes, someone’s definitely doing alright.  And those who aren’t still hope to.  Dorling wants to challenge the idea of a home as something for which we incur titanic debts in the hope of profiting from buyers even more desperate than us further down the line.  For him, as for any sane person, homes are shelter first and assets second.  Yet we seem to have lost sight of the idea that they are something basic, like education or healthcare, whose provision public policy could address.  The loudest complaints are not about homelessness but about being unable to get on to the ‘property ladder’.  The London parties have no answer because they too are wrapped up in the idea that the job of government is to enrich competing individuals and families, rather than to enrich society and so spare them the trouble.

For Dorling, the solution isn’t to build more houses everywhere, at the expense of the environment and primarily for the benefit of landowners, developers and the banks.  His claim is that Britain has plenty of housing but doesn’t use it efficiently.  It’s a bold claim, undoubtedly over-stated given that the population really is growing and really is spreading out, with average household size declining.  But let’s examine his solution, which could make some inroads into the problem, however big it happens to be overall.

The answer isn’t the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ but heavier taxes on multiple properties.  Why is that politically a non-starter?  Dorling’s claim, reasonably enough, is that MPs won’t vote against practices that benefit them – and, we might add, benefit them probably more than any other group.  He brings up an interview in which David Cameron appeared to forget just how many homes he owned.  (Regional government, allowing almost all legislators to live within commuting distance of their assembly, would be a very much better bargain for the taxpayer than Westminster.)

The social problems caused by multiple home ownership don’t correlate with economic and political power, do they?  Where are the holiday second homes?  Largely on the peripheries: Cornwall, Wales, the Lake District, coastal East Anglia, and some parts of Wessex (the south coast, Exmoor and the Cotswolds).  And where do their owners live?  Largely in the south-eastern quadrant, we suggest.  The power certainly isn’t where the homes are, nor where the desperate, badly housed locals are.  So we need to take it back through meaningful devolution and start putting people before property.

As well as the homes that are empty for most of the time, there are the homes that are empty the whole of the time, the long-term vacant properties, some of which in Wessex have been empty for 30 years.  Why?  To free market theorists, such a waste of assets is inexplicable.  Their economics textbooks say it can’t happen.  The reasons why it happens are complex.  One can be that the owner has died and their estate hasn’t been sorted out, or there are family disagreements or joint ownerships where the owners no longer speak to each other.  The owner may be in prison.  Or aged or in poor health and just not bothered.  Sometimes there may be negative equity, and so difficulty in funding any necessary improvements.  Yet these are assets that could be providing shelter, without damaging the environment.  Why is more not done to fill the empties?  Why are we so tolerant, equally of so many wasted opportunities AND of the wholly needless destruction of farmland that results?

Taxation is a relatively benign way of rebalancing the housing market in favour of local need.  It falls short of the outright confiscation that might appeal to some of the market’s most scarred victims.  But it would give them enough hope not to reach for the petrol can and the matches to make their views felt.  Dorling suggests removing the limit on council tax banding so that the wealthiest pay in line with the value of their multiple properties.  A land tax would address a whole range of problems, while higher inheritance tax would do something to tackle the huge accumulation of unearned wealth in London and its suburbs.

The next question is what to do with the money raised.  If local communities need affordable housing, why not provide some?  Not necessarily by building new houses, which often come at an environmental cost, remember.  But by buying up existing ones and letting them out to the sons and daughters of the parish.  It’s not beyond the wit of lawyers to devise a system of lettings, leases, covenants or parish council consent to guarantee that the recycling of such housing always prioritises those with a local connection.  Through such means it would be possible to build up a two-tier housing market of the kind that helps keep the Channel Islands as they are, relatively undeveloped, with enough housing for the locals, plus a few to spare, in their case for rich tax exiles.

Instead of doing what’s right for us in the round, we currently provide affordable homes by imposing them as a requirement on housebuilders.  And to sweeten the pill we let them build two market houses for every affordable one.  We need a new model that allows the affordable ones to be built, if suitable sites exist, without the market ones coming along as the ball-and-chain.  We could let local councils build them, and call them ‘council houses’.  That way, housing misery need never be a source of private profit ever again.  Which, of course, is exactly why a solution as obvious as that enjoys no mainstream political support.

It’s through formulating such policies that we can begin to envisage the ‘reconquest’ of Wessex assets from the London and global interests that have failed us.  We need to take back our housing, our water, our electricity, our trains, our land, in short, our future.  Can this be done without devolution, given the legal and financial screws that the London regime continually places on local expenditure?  No.  That is why we need devolution.