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.