Monday, April 7, 2014

Softly, Softly

Angus Macpherson is Police & Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire Police.  He recently told a business breakfast meeting that the police were now working as a region, taking in Gloucestershire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, but, he added, “We will not lose Wiltshire Police – neighbourhood members of the police, working and living in local communities.  It will be a collaboration of services, but based in Wiltshire.”  He said that 29 people had been taken out of the management structure by co-operating on a regional basis.

Regional co-operation over policing was only to be expected.  The fire service already has a control room network in place that is shared between four of the brigades serving southern and central Wessex, stretching from Plymouth to Aldershot.  The ambulance service, run for the past 40 years as part of a centralised NHS and therefore immune from democratic local input, has been almost wholly regionalised.

The paradox for the Coalition is that they want to save money but don’t want to admit that one way to do this is to share certain services on a regional basis.  This service-sharing is not widely publicised, because it undermines the repeated claims that England doesn’t need regionalism.  The risk is that England goes on pragmatically building a regional tier of administration while dogmatically rejecting a regional tier of government.  In other words, that the regional tier goes on being managerialist instead of democratic, that it goes on existing outside formal, accountable structures.  It would be better if everyone owned up; then we could start putting in place arrangements to make regions like Wessex a political reality and not just a series of deals in the shadows.

Modern local government was created to join up and make sense of a host of overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions; regional government is needed to do the same at the wider scale.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Berlin Wall II

Aye or nae, Scotland’s debate over its future is laying bare the fundamental structure of the UK in ways that no academic study could have begun to contemplate.  There’s nothing like demanding answers to questions that were always thought too fanciful to ask but have suddenly become part of an urgent reality.

We know what the SNP’s vision is for Scotland.  The rest of the UK is left looking rather smug in that there is no widely shared vision for how it might be changed for the better.  Is it really that perfect?  Shouldn’t the UK minus Scotland be thinking harder about its future?  And what if the ‘No’ camp wins?  There is no consensus over what that means, just a vague expectation of some sort of devo-max to calm everyone down again.  Or maybe not.  Certainly the vacuum is one that benefits the separatist cause, highlighting it as dynamic and aligned with the next chapter of history.

Advocates of small-State nationalism in Europe have come up with a variety of ways to describe their goal, such as ‘internal enlargement’ of the EU.  At a seminar held this week at the European Parliament, Dr Alan Sandry of Swansea University came up with another:

“We will see what will happen in the next ten years, it’s as if a new Berlin wall is coming down.  New states are emerging and Europe should prepare for that reality.  In the UK federalism is gradually being discussed as a topic, but that topic is over, it's 15 years too late.”

Indeed.  Did the opportunity for a federal Britain come and go without us even noticing?  Probably not, since there was always going to be a contradiction between federalism – everyone moving forward at the same speed – and the reality of a multi-speed Britain.  Anyone with a sense of history should have spotted that even at the beginning of the current process we were well beyond the beginning, since most of Ireland left decades ago, an event long obliterated from political and media memory.  Equally the end – an independent England with the last of its empire cast off – is not the end either, since it raises the question of what kind of England that can be.  Centralist – more of the same – or regionalist – radically empowering communities throughout the land?  A federal Britain is dead: long live a federal England?

It’s not just the timing that was wrong.  The English question is routinely under-estimated because it lurks far below the surface.  No-one much cares politically for England, as England, if it can dominate the whole UK, but start to challenge the assumptions of the union and England suddenly matters again.  England is then revealed as the spanner in the works that makes a federal Britain impossible to sustain.  Re-imagine the UK as a federation of four or five nations and England’s vastly greater size dooms the project to fail.  Attempt to equalise the constituent parts by replacing England with regions and the ship of state will sink somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis.

On the one side there is the national problem: that denying England any expression of national identity but cherishing those of the other home nations is simply unfair.  Why should England disappear for Britain’s sake?  On the other side there is the regional problem: that regions can be built up, slowly but surely, from their historic roots, but identities cannot be ordered into existence from Whitehall to match the timetable for Celtic devolution.  Imposed boundaries, for impractical areas, with empty names, will alienate even the staunchest supporters of a decentralised England.

There’s a saying about the fall of Communism in eastern Europe.  In Poland it took 10 years, in Hungary it took 10 months, in East Germany it took 10 weeks, in Czechoslovakia it took 10 days.  We should expect Berlin Wall II to follow the same pattern, with the more confident small nations leading the way for others whose identities have been more drastically eroded.  But the Europe of a Hundred Flags is composed as much of historic regions as of small nations and we should expect them to follow too in due course.  Not into formal independence, but into a degree of self-government that allows them to interact with their small-nation neighbours on terms of practical equality that do not require every question of importance to be referred to London, Paris or Madrid.  Some regions will lead the way; others will follow once they see the benefits.  Wessex has every reason to aspire to be near the front.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lesser Lands?: A Postscript

“Universal peace will be impossible, so long as the present centralised states exist.  We must desire their destruction in order that, on the ruins of these forced unions organised from above by right of authority and conquest, there may arise free unions organised from below by the free federations of localities into provinces, of provinces into nations, and of nations into the United States of Europe.”
Mikhail Bakunin: address to the Congress for Peace and Freedom, Geneva, 1867

As previously discussed, we reject the idea that our shires are in any way expendable in the regional interest.  The English shires are the building blocks of the English regions, just as they are themselves composed of towns and parishes whose autonomy deserves to be respected and cherished.

From time to time, we find ourselves arguing against those who demand that shire boundaries be disregarded in pursuit of more ‘sensible’ regional areas.  We’re told that we’re over-ambitious to include as Wessex the east of Berkshire or the north of Gloucestershire.  Such reasoning ignores the associations of the word ‘shire’, with ‘share’ and ‘shear’, denoting a portioning of something larger.  A shire cannot have divided loyalties; it cannot be partly in one region and partly in another yet retain its unity, otherwise what is it a shire of?

This is not to say that shire boundaries cannot, and therefore do not, change.  History shows that they do.  Real subsidiarity must allow for whole shires to change region or nation, and equally for their constituent towns and parishes to change shire, if that is the local will.  (Among other things, this argues for the return of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Scotland, it being the original county town of Berwickshire and quite attracted right now by the thought of restored rule from Edinburgh.)

Those who today view themselves as living in occupied north Berkshire, or who reject their supposed legislative transformation from Hampshire hogs to Dorset dogs, may take comfort in the restoration of the Cornish border that occurred on 1st April 1966.  Professor W.G. Hoskins, in Devon, his monumental history of his home county, set out the story down to 1954:

“The western boundary of Devon has a curious history.  If we begin at its southern end, we follow the Tamar for half its length, to a point just north-east of Launceston.  Here a great tongue of Devon, two or three miles wide and seven miles long, thrusts deep into Cornwall; but three miles farther upstream the river becomes the boundary again and continues (except for negligible breaks) to within a few yards of its source near the north coast.  From this point a direct four-mile line down a steep, wooded combe brings one westwards to the Atlantic coast at Marsland Mouth.

The great tongue of land of which we have spoken covers some nineteen square miles and consists of the two large parishes of North Petherwin and Werrington.  These parishes have always been included in the archdeaconry of Cornwall for ecclesiastical purposes, but are still in Devon for all other purposes.  They were already included in Devon in 1086 and as they were entirely owned by the Devonshire monastic house of Tavistock it has been suggested that the abbot saw to it, when the boundary was drawn, that the whole monastic endowment on both sides of the Tamar was conveniently included in the one county.  But until 1066, or shortly afterwards, this large estate had been included in the Cornish hundred of Stratton and was a part of the royal demesne which descended to Gytha, the wife of earl Godwin.  Some time between 1066 and 1068, when Gytha left England for ever, she had transferred the estate to Tavistock abbey.  There is evidence that it was still reckoned to be in Cornwall as late as 1084, but by 1086, when Domesday Book was compiled, the abbey had been deprived of it and it was included under Devon, where it has remained ever since.

It is almost certain that the Tamar had been the original boundary along its whole length, except for the parish of Maker at its mouth, and that the transfer of these nineteen square miles from Cornwall to Devon took place silently when Baldwin de Brionne, sheriff of Devon, held the farm of Harold’s and Gytha’s lands in Devon.  As Werrington (the political name of this territory) was Gytha’s only considerable Cornish estate, it too fell under his administration.  Such an arrangement suited the sheriff of Devon financially, for he paid an inclusive rent for the farm of the Devon lands and should have paid a further rent if Werrington had been officially known to be in Cornwall; and since the Exon Domesday returns were drawn up at Exeter under his supervision he had the opportunity also to set the official seal upon a deliberate fraud of the exchequer.  The estate was therefore described under Devon in the final Domesday return, and as recently as 1929 a Cornish bill to restore the status quo of 1066 was defeated in a committee of the House of Lords.”

Now we know that 37 years later the boundary was restored to its proper place, with the consent of every council affected.  It pays to take the long view.  We act in the belief that England more generally can be the kind of place where local boundaries are determined by what local folk agree upon and are not something to be imposed by self-proclaimed experts in London.  And what goes for local boundaries may also go for regional ones.  If Cornwall can get justice after some 900 years, then so too can Wessex.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lesser Lands?

Still, after all these years, we get comments to the effect that regionalists don't understand the English love of the shires and therefore the instinctive resistance that is provoked by regionalism.

It’s a straw man argument, based on what may have been said by the Labour Party about phasing out county councils.  We have always been clear that the shires of Wessex are part of our heritage, to be carried forward into our future, and that their identity needs to be not just protected but massively strengthened.  In this, we go beyond what is promised by any of the main London parties, all of whom are content to see traditional identities eroded.  We are particularly proud of our shires in Wessex, which is where the whole idea started.  Shires may have existed here as early as King Ine’s reign (688-726); their names were familiar to Ælfred and as England became a single kingdom during the 10th century they were rolled out across Mercia and Northumbria.  Not at the expense of regional government though, which survived until the Norman Conquest, when it was eliminated as too great a challenge to the tyrannical royal power we still experience in its modern, parliamentary form.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of a local government reorganisation widely believed to have changed the boundaries of many traditional shires, including all but two of those in Wessex.  In fact, a Government statement made at the time and published in The Times – and reiterated since – claimed boldly that this was not the plan:

"The new county boundaries are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties.”

That isn’t what happened.  We were robbed.  Everything from the maps on the television news to the names of local newspapers quickly fell into line, and stayed that way.  A number of us were drawn to regionalism precisely because of the outrage we felt.  Others long ago retreated into nostalgia, deciding that arguments about optimum administration under modern conditions of life were not for them.  Others again retreated into paranoia, deciding that Englishness had been singled out for destruction by the Communists or the Eurocrats, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  We have always been the ones to ask more searching questions.

Foremost among those questions is what alternatives were considered.  Could we not have kept the counties and county boroughs as they were, and had some other means of dealing with issues that spill across urban boundaries?  We could, and that is progressively where we’ve all been heading since the 1990s, when cities and larger towns like Bristol, Plymouth, Bournemouth and Reading regained their civic independence.  But if disputes with their neighbours are no longer referred to County Hall, where do they go?  They go to London, or to its regional offices.  They don’t go to the regional assemblies that have often been mooted as part of any rational system of government but have always been rejected.

They have been rejected largely through an unholy alliance between the Town Hall and Whitehall, presenting them as unnecessary interference in local affairs and an undermining of London’s responsibility to rule for the benefit of the whole nation.  (That would be quite funny if it weren’t so sick.)

Municipal leaders who go along with this will find themselves supping with the devil.  In always favouring a weak rather than strong assembly – unelected rather than democratic, advisory rather than executive, legislative or tax-gathering – they fulfil their own prophecies.  An assembly with no actual services to deliver will inevitably try to intervene in those run by others, because that is how it will interpret its co-ordinating brief.  Give it enough to do and it will be delighted to leave local government alone, especially if subsidiarity is enforced by making it dependent financially on the local councils themselves.

By opposing strong regionalism, local leaders hand power instead to London, and via London to global financial elites.  The only question then left for ‘normal’ politics to grapple with is whether that power is exercised via regional offices and agencies at finger’s-length, the repeated Labour solution, or directly by ministers and civil servants in London, the solution currently favoured.

We would never argue that our cities and counties are lesser lands, to be subjugated to the wider will of Wessex.  What we want for them are the kinds of constitutional guarantee that have always been unthinkable under a Westminster Parliament that greedily guards its sovereignty.

In return, we invite them to consider what powers are beyond them, but not beyond the capabilities of a Wessex Witan.  Health, higher education, tourism, transport and the utilities, the regional framework for sustainable agriculture, energy and housing, crisis management, the research and strategic thinking needed to get us through the 21st century.  Scotland and Wales provide some pointers, as do the practices of other European countries that are no strangers to letting folk get on with deciding their own futures.  Regionalism is no big ask.  It just means the London regime getting out of the way.