Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The War on Identity

“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.  Destroy its books, its culture, its history.  Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history.  Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.  The world around it will forget even faster.”
Milan HΓΌbl (1927-1989)

History is written by the victors.  Just now, it’s the centralists who are winning across much of Europe.  They have spied their opportunity and seized it.  But history hasn’t finished with them yet.

There are three reasons why we take an interest in regionalism on the mainland, and in the regions of France in particular.  One is that a Wessex-centred world must view Brittany and Normandy as a more meaningful ‘next-door’ than Northumbria or Scotland, separated from us by Mercia.  That’s an illustration of how seeing things from the perspective of the imperial states creates a bloc mentality that really does block out other aspects of geographical reality.  A second reason is practical solidarity, because the Jacobin mindset is something that gets passed around Europe like a virus, finding new strength from new victims.  When Alsatians, Catalans or Tyroleans suffer at the hands of control-freak states, we know very well that we could be next.  The third reason is ideological solidarity, because English regionalism can be part of a trans-European ideal, the Europe of a Hundred Flags.  If it fails to see itself in those terms, then it will fail to achieve its potential to engage and enthuse.

How fares the Europe of a Hundred Flags today?  Very poorly, as one imperial state after another starts to roll back the gains made since the Second World War.  Europe is being restructured in ways that threaten to undo all its achievements in terms of economic (and even political) democracy, social welfare, environmental protection and cultural autonomy.  All these things need to be defended on a secure territorial basis, the basis provided by regional identity.  Our assets.  Our institutions.  Our neighbours.  Our land.  Our way of life.  London parties not welcome.  Amazingly, the mainstream Left can’t even begin to understand the importance of this.  Labour puts up candidates against the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.  What good can possibly come of that?  Labour ekes out its existence as a parasite on the system, having no views on how to change it for the better.  In some ways, it’s set to make matters worse.  As its continental allies already are doing.

France has now definitively redrawn its regional map.  The partly German-speaking region of Alsace has come off worst, merged with two French-speaking regions to create ‘ALCA’ – Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardenne, an area bigger than Belgium.  It’s one of several such combinations, doomed to be known by their initials, just like, as one French MP put it, cattle-brands.  Alsace heads a long list of regions to be abolished as their number is reduced from 22 to 13.  Others include such historic names as Aquitaine, Auvergne, Burgundy, Limousin and Picardy.  The one group who can celebrate are the Mouvement Normand, since the re-unification of Normandy is one feature of the plan.  Wessex looks out at what will now be officially the coast of Brittany and Normandy; it’s only further inland that the chaos becomes evident!  They can, as always, look back at Cornwall, with Wessex waiting to take its place alongside.

So have the Normans been good garcons and filles?  It might seem so to the Alsatians and the Bretons.  These two peoples are ones whose loyalty to the French State has often been regarded as suspect, as if loyalty isn’t something that has to be earned.  Now they’re the two peoples most bitterly disappointed and with good reason to ask why they should remain part of a State that won’t even recognise their existence.  Brittany remains truncated, while Alsace will be wiped off the map.  A challenge has been launched in the Constitutional Council, alleging inadequate consultation, but for now the plan is to implement the cull on 1st January 2016.

During the debates it was made clear that the restoration of traditional provinces is not something that will be tolerated.  Sometimes, as in the case of Normandy, it happens by accident, but accidents do happen.  Reorganisation is about improving the efficient, functional operation of the French national territory, as viewed from Paris.  Substitute ‘English’ for ‘French’ and ‘London’ for ‘Paris’ and it becomes a familiar story.  Indeed, an article in The Regionalist in 1991 stated that “By introducing its own definition of Brittany, excluding Nantes, France has been able to sow confusion and to re-assure itself that Brittany is, after all, only a French region that France can make and unmake at will.”  Before long the phrase was taken up by Silesian autonomists arguing that the division of Poland into artificial voivodeships is likewise a project to supplant historic provinces with regions that Poland can make and unmake at will.  Napoleon is as much a hero to the Poles as to the French, having briefly liberated their country from the surrounding empires.  Yet in both France and Poland, notions of national liberty are built upon the ruins of regional identity.

Cross the Alps and we find that the ruling party in Italy has introduced a Bill to reorganise the Italian regions, a cut from 20 to 12, replacing historic names like Piedmont and Tuscany with Jacobin-style geographical labels – Regione Alpina, Regione Appenninica, Regione Adriatica.  The message is the same as in France, or England, or Poland: regions exist to help the centre manage its territory; they do not deserve to exist as something worthwhile in their own right or to be an inspiration to those challenging the centre’s monopoly of real power.

Two proposed casualties are the small regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alte Adige, home to Italy’s French-speaking and German-speaking minorities respectively.  Both these areas have a special regional status that was introduced following the defeat of fascism, in recompense for persecution under Mussolini.  The German-speakers of south Tyrol feel particularly betrayed, with counter-demands now being made for greater autonomy, independence and/or re-union with the rest of Tyrol, from which this area south of the Brenner Pass was separated after the First World War.

With France and Italy deracinated, Spain can expect to be next.  One of the happy peculiarities of regionalisation there was that the boundaries were left largely to the locals to decide.  And one result of that was a relatively large number of single-province regions that saw no need to link up with their neighbours.  These account for 6 of the 15 mainland regions.  So while there are some large regions with a similar population to Wessex – Andalucia and Catalonia for example – there are others about the size of Cornwall – Cantabria and La Rioja.  Both these smaller regions are required in their devolution statutes to allow for the possibility of merger with their big neighbour Castilla-Leon and no doubt will come under pressure to do the deed.  It’s interesting that Spain is tightening up its anti-protest laws.  Clearly, those in charge are expecting trouble.

Across Europe, the 2008 financial crisis has spawned new, happy-clappy parties and movements of the Left.  Their leaders talk a lot about greater public ‘involvement’ in decision-making but are (un)surprisingly cagey about who will actually take the final, unappealable decisions.  Spain’s Podemos is an example, opposing Catalan independence in favour of having some undefined wider ‘influence’.  Moves to get the SNP into formal coalition with Labour are part of the same outflanking manoeuvre that tries to tempt with fleeting political concessions instead of agreeing the need for lasting constitutional changes.  (Though getting to look at the real UK accounts certainly WILL be tempting for Salmond and Sturgeon!)

Among the large continental states, that just leaves Germany, where the possibility of re-drawing regional boundaries has come to the surface several times since 1949.  So far, the democratic Germans have always put firm proposals to the vote and not since 1952 have the voters decided to agree a regional merger.  (Even that was largely about re-uniting an area that had been split by the zones of occupation.)  Germany is often quoted as the model for other continental countries.  In France the debate was driven – or poisoned – by the idea that France needs regions of ‘European scale’.  Yet Germany is actually marked by huge diversity.  There are regions like Bavaria, almost as big as Ireland, but also tiny city-states like Bremen and Hamburg.

So what is a region of ‘European scale’?  Does the EU have a view?  The EU, sensibly, doesn’t.  European statistics are kept on the basis of regional and local units that ultimately are determined by the Member States’ own legislation.  Sometimes that works in favour of identity, as when Cornwall obtained Objective 1 regional aid status, for which it would not have qualified as part of a slightly more prosperous Devonwall area.  Sometimes it can result in a kind of statistical apartheid.  Welsh local government is planned to be reorganised again (for the third time in 50 years).  The Williams Commission that looked into the matter disappointed any nationalist who might have longed for the reconstitution of Morgannwg or Gwent.  The reason?  That west-east split, linking depressed coalfield areas to their respective, wealthier coasts, would endanger European aid.  So the poor coalfield has to stick together, separate from the coast.  In terms of the infrastructure European aid might fund, it’s nonsense, as transport largely radiates from Cardiff and Newport, following the valleys from south to north.

So much for a Europe that works for its peoples.  Instead we have inflexible funding rules – the Europe of the figures – re-shaping our very constitution, for good or ill.  The most sensible boundaries – in terms of community geography – may be ruled out in favour of much less sensible arrangements in order to save the funding.

Who are the EU’s real masters then, if not us?  A generation ago there was the fervent hope that an alliance of europeanists and regionalists might be the twin millstones that would grind away the imperial states, dividing up their powers between them.  If the EU hasn’t been the most active of allies, it’s perhaps because the European ideal has been much more easily co-opted by the centralists, by those who wish to write the imperial-state idea wider still.  And that shouldn’t surprise us.  The EU is the creature of the treaties that establish it and those treaties are written by the Member States.  They may concede consultative institutions like the Committee of the Regions but they aren’t going to sign their own death warrant.  Rather than meet the financial crisis by cutting their own wasteful spending and devolving power, they look to save money by cutting out somebody else’s tier and centralising power instead.  Money has to be saved now, urgently, if the centre itself is to be saved.  Attacking any identity lucky enough to have been respected this far is the quickest win.  The promise in ‘The Vow’ to not abolish the Scottish Parliament some time down the road is significant not because it was said but because it was thought necessary to say it.

More recently, the EU bureaucracy itself has realised the importance of keeping its national paymasters sweet.  Barroso could have opened up a debate on internal enlargement, about the further treaty changes needed to avoid any ambiguity over what happens when part of a Member State secedes.  His neutrality was just too Pilate-like for the EU’s own good.  It came across not as neutrality but as change-weariness.  Not more treaty negotiations.  Just to please the Scots and the Catalans.  Do they really think their national freedom should matter that much?  Juncker has already set the tone of his presidency, sceptical about environmental and social protections that hinder Europe’s bid to join the race to the bottom.  His warning to Greek voters about the kind of government they should or shouldn’t elect is further proof that the ‘post-democratic’ Europe advocated by Peter Mandelson is firmly taking shape.

Regionalists have always been wary of Europhile claims, while equally distancing ourselves from Eurosceptic adoration of the imperial states.  There is a genuinely third way that is not about those states, nor about a Jacobin map of Europe where identity is to be erased as a barrier to ever closer union.  Actions produce reactions and the current war on identity will produce a renewed determination to resist.  A determinaton to build a different Europe, the Europe of a Hundred Flags, in place of the worthless regimes in London, Paris, Rome and Madrid – and of their Brussels puppet.  (That so many assume Brussels to be the puppet-master just shows how well the imperial states know their work.)

We should increasingly expect to see nationalist and regionalist parties succeed at the polls, making inroads into the dead thinking of Europe’s indistinguishably conservative / socialist establishment, while seeing off those equally indistinguishable challengers who are just more of the same.

It’s been said, and not wholly in jest, that a nationalist is a regionalist who means it.  One who isn’t fooled by the Labour Party or the Parti Socialiste into backing change that isn’t really there.  Many regionalists, who’ve been deliberately moderate to win concessions from the centre that are now being torn up in scorn and suspicion, will be asking whether separatism is such a dirty word after all.  States with a more authoritarian tradition will be turning up the heat.  States with a less authoritarian tradition will be trading clunking old chains for sleek new wires.  Either way, advocates of autonomy will need to be careful who and what they trust.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Crackers

In the run-up to the festive season, all three main London parties set out their stalls on English devolution.  On the whole, they’re rather against it.

Labour were first, with a promise to devolve power to ‘city regions’ and ‘county regions’.  Anything but region regions.  These areas appear to correspond to those of the Local Enterprise Partnerships, business-led quangos that have never faced the electorate before and won’t be facing it in the future.  Is Labour’s plan to hand big business control of our money on a plate and pretend it’s what we, the people, want?  The lack of detail on governance arrangements could imply pretty much anything.  What is clear is that powers will not be devolved to directly elected councils: if that was the plan, Labour would have said so.

Labour have seen in Scotland what happens if you devolve real power to substantial areas and they want no more of that.  Having concluded that even the pseudo-regionalism of the Prescott zones constitutes too big a threat, they are now into ‘area-ism’, dividing England into clumps of counties.  The Environment Agency’s new areas – it abolished its regions in favour of areas in April – could provide clues as to where Labour may be heading.

The Siamese twins followed on Tuesday last week, with a glowing end-of-term report they wrote themselves about how they’ve decentralised power.  Can’t say we’ve noticed actually.  Then appended to it are the respective party positions of the Tories and FibDems.

For the Tories, English devolution is primarily about strengthening the all-England dimension – devolution from the centre to the centre – through English votes for English laws.  True to their feudal roots, they reject entirely the idea of regions in favour of local self-government, strictly limited and deferential, under the watchful, absolute authority of a Norman-style parliament supervising the children at play.  As with Labour, their plans involve concentrating power as much as possible in the hands of celebrity mayors with the charisma to shut down any inconvenient debate.  And, of course, they want to have another go at breaking the link between local identity and parliamentary constituencies.  The paper makes no reference to Cornwall, the Cornish or national minority rights, but does mention all the other home nations by name.

A few phrases stand out.  There would be a presumption in favour of devolution, but checks in place would aim to ensure powers were not granted inappropriately.”  Oh dear.  The powers that Whitehall decides it’s ‘inappropriate’ to devolve are exactly the ones worth having.  We have to build the political movement that will force these creatures to acknowledge that subsidiarity means we decide what it’s appropriate to centralise, not the other way round.

Then there’s local growth.  The report launches straight into a discussion of how decentralisation can accelerate growth.  Hold on.  Let’s first decide whether growth is appropriate for our area, shall we?  Not according to the London parties.  EVERY initiative to regionalise power in England has been about the economy.  Not ONE has been about democratic choice.  In the 1940s we had Regional Boards for Industry.  In the 1960s we had Regional Economic Planning Councils.  In the 2000s we had Regional Development Agencies.  All applying an answer to a question we never heard asked.  Namely how the ‘provinces’ can best contribute to enriching the City of London / HM Treasury.  Absolutely not how the regions can set their own agenda.  Every time they try that, the regional institutions are abolished faster than you can say ‘distinctive sense of identity’.

According to the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, last week, “Localism means a choice over how the needs of communities are best met, not whether they are met.”  Or even being allowed to say what they are.  Lewis was responding to an adjournment debate initiated by Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset, whose trenchant criticism of the Government and its Whitehall machine might surprise those who remember him being part of it just three years ago.  Come April he’ll be telling everyone how breathtakingly wonderful it’s all been.  Hansard records that his neighbour, the Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare, may have similar concerns but, being still on the Government payroll, is barred from voicing them.  A jolly jape is this ghastly game of ‘Parliamentary representation’, where one’s adoring constituents are but meat to the procedural grinder.

All the parties continue to pick at the idea of a constitutional convention.  Either as a way to come up with some workable fix (forget it) or as a way to send everyone to sleep.  We’ve been telling everyone the most fundamental answer to the West Lothian question for decades now.  Why keep asking it?

Of the three parties, the FibDems say the most encouraging things about regional devolution, quite pointlessly since they remain bound to work with one of two larger parties that hate the very idea.

The fact remains that all the countries of the United Kingdom are conquered countries.  Scotland was (and still is) conquered with bribes.  The others were all conquered by unimaginably violent means.  Those who sit in London and fine-tune the unwritten constitution are all accessories after the fact.  They are not our friends.  They laugh at the aspiration to be free of London rule.  And they seriously expect us to see the joke.  Go on, pull the other one.

Losing Direction

Last week, plans were announced for a Bucks / Oxon / Northants combined authority, a move that raises important questions of local and regional identity.  We’re assured that this is just a practical measure of co-operation that won’t affect day-to-day services but these things have a habit of acquiring their own momentum.

The case for a combined authority is that it might unlock billions of pounds of public spending.  It can make the case for new infrastructure, such as an Oxford-Cambridge expressway or completion of the East-West Rail Link.  But can’t the councils already do that?  For better or for worse, it could open up for development those relatively sparsely-populated areas that form Oxfordshire’s historic boundaries with its eastern and northern neighbours.  These are areas that have remained undeveloped because they’ve been on the edge, although the edge may be where they’re comfortable being.

One danger of the realignment is that past investment in infrastructure will be under-valued, with Oxford’s strategic position in the Upper Thames Valley ignored.  With its M4, M40 and A34 links and its close connections with Swindon, Newbury and Reading, Oxford sits far more naturally within a Wessex region looking west to Bristol and south to the Solent.  For starters, consider where the Environment Agency, the BBC or the NHS ambulance service place it.  Whatever happened to joined-up government?

There’s no doubt that combined authorities are in favour with Whitehall right now – and on a cross-party basis – but that ought to set alarm bells ringing.  Not being directly elected, their mandate is at one remove from voters.  And if what they do is ‘unlock’ money from Whitehall, how did the money come to be locked up in the first place?

It’s our money, paid in taxes to London.  We shouldn’t need begging-bowl consortia of councils to make the case for having it drip-fed back to us.  A proper, directly elected regional assembly – such as the one Wessex Regionalists demand, and Wessex is 8 million strong – would keep our region’s taxes as of right and spend them on the priorities that matter to us, not the ones handed down from Whitehall.

Too remote?  Not as remote as Whitehall, while the ‘headroom’ above county councils would ensure their continued existence as local bodies directly accountable for their decisions.  Something that ad hoc groupings cannot.  Refusing to think on a truly regional basis is a fault that will come back to bite local government badly.

That Figures

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is good at collecting statistics.  It may be no more than a gnat on the side of the development elephant but at least it knows how to document the scale of the deception being practised upon us by the London regime.  However, there is rather more to the data than a first glance suggests.

Localism, we were promised.  Figures published by CPRE – in a pamphlet optimistically called A Landmark Year for the Countryside – show that in the last accounting year (2013/14), Whitehall overruled 67% of the major housing refusals by local councils.  In 2008/09 it overruled just 31%.  That’s a measure not so much of which party is in power or of philosophical attitudes to localism but of how far the easy solutions have been used up, leaving the controversial ones to follow.  There are currently plans to build 700,000 homes in the countryside, including 200,000 on Green Belt land. 

Government figures estimate that previously developed – 'brownfield' – land could accommodate 1.5 million homes, but 1.5 million isn’t enough for the population growth that the London parties favour.  And CPRE must know this, even if it won't admit it: assuming 2 persons per home, the current net immigration rate of 250,000 a year, and even that no homes are sold to the existing population as it spreads out or re-locates, 1.5 million homes is only 12 years supply.  Besides, brownfield land is more expensive to develop, leading housebuilders to claim that in order to make a profit they'd have to charge housebuyers more.  Or reduce their contributions to local infrastructure.  Not only that, but some "brownfield" land is beautiful parkland, such as that surrounding Victorian asylums.  Some is deep in the countryside, such as disused airfields that might more rationally be dug up and returned to farmland.

There's another statistical deception that also goes unnoticed.  It's said that the supply of brownfield land is continually being renewed as old uses are abandoned, leaving factories, warehouses, hospitals and the like to be redeveloped.  That's true, but if the uses are relocating to greenfield sites – which they often are – then countryside is lost just as if it had gone for housing.  We just don't get so worked up about the figures because they aren't presented in the same high-profile way.  It's also assumed that non-housing uses have more of a 'right' to expand into the countryside, being socially or economically 'essential' and with less flexibility over where to locate.  It's all part of the prejudice that measures development as 'progress' but is selective about measuring the loss to those rural environments into which development is progressing.  Successive governments – though not this one – have had targets for the proportion of housing built on brownfield sites.  None has dared have a target for any of the other uses.  And so no-one grasps the overall picture.  Politically, no-one wants to.  There's something inherently negative about measuring the total loss of farmland rather than the increase of goodies that take its place.  Folk might even panic about where their future food will come from.  As well they might.

CPRE is a fine example of a safety valve, ‘moderately’ and deferentially expressing what needs to be uncompromising rage if it’s to be effective.  Its stance only serves to perpetuate the myth that planning decisions are essentially ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’, rather than bought by the development lobby through party donations aimed at changing national policy.  CPRE naively supports HS2, thinking it might reduce the building of new roads and runways.  It won’t.  You’ll have those too.  Its pamphlet congratulates its Northumberland branch for ensuring that 70% of new homes in and around Newcastle will be on brownfield sites.  So 30% will be on farmland?  Is that sustainable development?  If that’s the best that can be achieved on Tyneside – a depressed area if ever there was one – what chance does the Wessex countryside have?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Choosing to be Beggars

Last week, an environmental coalition – Butterfly Conservation, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Mammal Society, the Ramblers, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts – held a ‘Rally for Nature’ at the Palace of Westminster.  Why?  To lobby MPs ahead of the next election, reminding them of how important nature is.

MPs need reminding.  Because across Wessex, wildlife is under siege.  In Alton, for example, there’s currently a campaign to save its wildflower meadows from housebuilders.  This area is a beautiful example of Hampshire countryside and a haven for butterflies.  Spearheading development at Alton is the Homes & Communities Agency, a central government quango.  Yes, it’s our own taxes that are paying for our destruction.

Any campaign against imposed development has our support.  Wessex is, for us, a community of communities, every one of which must be truly free to decide its own future, without interference from those in London who think they know best. 

But how effective are these isolated actions?  The rallies.  The petitions.  The implorings?  Not very.  Look at Winchester.  At Twyford Down, the Department of Transport carved the M3 through one of the most heavily ‘protected’ landscapes in England.  Nearby, the battle for Barton Farm was lost, due to the winning combination of Winchester College as landowner, a dogged developer, and a government that spectacularly failed to deliver on localism.

The system can be beaten.  Occasionally, a developer goes away empty-handed.  But such cases are all too rare.  They serve mainly as ammunition for those who claim that the system works and that it can be beaten, with reasoned argument, and that therefore there’s no cause to change it.  Most folk don’t engage with the system until it impinges on them, and so they fail to see the bigger picture, the campaigners in neighbouring shires facing the same developers, the same arguments, the same strategies aimed at defeating them.  They place their faith in non-party pressure groups like County Wildlife Trusts or the Campaign to Protect Rural England.  More hardened campaigners refer to them as the ‘fluffies’, those who are simply too nice to win.

They really are their own worst enemies.  They lose because even when they do think politically they do not act politically.  Development is being imposed on Wessex by a Tory/FibDem coalition.  So what does Wessex do?  It votes Tory or FibDem.  Alton has a Tory MP (with 57% of the vote).  Its district council, East Hampshire, is 100% Tory/FibDem.  Hampshire County Council is 79% Tory/FibDem.  You get the lies you voted for.  These are folk from whom you cannot expect anything better.  And you chose them to represent your views.  Do they not represent your views?  Then why do you keep voting for them?

How do they get away with it?  ALL London-party politicians play pass-the-parcel.  MPs will insist that planning decisions are for local councils to make and nothing to do with them.  But councillors will point out that as decisions can be overturned by Whitehall they are never truly masters in their own house.  Some of them undoubtedly enjoy putting the blame on the faceless mandarins, knowing that voting loyalties are too tribal for this to make any difference at all come polling day.

Because who would you vote for if the Tories and FibDems disgust you?  The argument goes that there’s only one realistic alternative – the Labour bogeyman – and that ‘socialist’ Labour would be so much worse.  That’s widely believed because it happens to be widely true.  (Except for the socialism, transformed long ago into the petty spitefulness of political correctness, which, being obsessed with individual reward and punishment, is everything but social.)  Labour are the party of Big Growth.  But no more so than the other London parties.  Labour are worse because, as an urban party, they aren’t shy about destroying the countryside.  For them, protecting countryside is the hobby of the well-heeled who want to keep house prices up.

Maybe, but the butterflies have committed no crime.  Those who defend them may well be sincere in believing that a better England is not the overcrowded concrete jungle it’s becoming.  The problem for the Tories and FibDems is that the outrage is bound to grow as ever-more-sensitive sites reach the top of the ‘to build on’ list.  That’s when a belief in the free market reaches revulsion point.  Labour meanwhile, accustomed to State intervention as a means to facilitate growth, not to reverse it, are left hopelessly unable to respond to that opportunity.  Grand analysis gives way to marginal differences.  Should we build more flats in villages?  Or convert old Dutch barns in the middle of nowhere?  Would using floodplains for housing be fine if we just raised defences?  What’s the cleverest way to undermine support for the Green Belt?

No wonder UKIP are rejoicing.  UKIP can expect to pick up votes from three sources.  There are the true believers, those who think that to be really cynical is to be really cool.  Then there are the protest votes, finding a home, any home, that gives vent to their anger and frustration.  Finally, there are those who are easily fooled into thinking that UKIP is them.  Those who believe, for example, that UKIP is an anti-immigration party when it has made clear that it’s nothing of the kind.  It’s pro-immigration, but on the UK’s own terms.

And so it goes: Third World immigrants might work for less than eastern Europeans.  Don’t mention the argument that filling a glut of vacancies by stripping developing countries of their most skilled workers is far from fraternal.  Or ask what it is that made those countries so relatively unattractive.  Above all, keep folk well-confused and focused on immigration – THEM – instead of on population, which is them AND us.  UKIP is yet another economically libertarian party, whose main gripe is that the EU, unlike little Britain, might just conceivably stand up for sovereignty and tell the globalists and the growth junkies where to go.

A vote for UKIP is not good, but neither is it bad.  In the long view, anything that breaks up the hereditary, class-based tribalism of British politics has to be a positive development.  The more fragmented the vote becomes, the less credible it will be to continue with first-past-the-post or with a media focus on just the ‘top three’.  Those who have left the Tories behind will have shown that it’s possible to move on.  And beyond UKIP, or maybe the Greens (enthusiasts for ‘green growth’, so hardly sound), lies what?  Territorial parties like ours have a vital role to play in the 21st century.  The long-term limitation of UKIP is that it isn’t actually interested in the territory of the UK, in the way that, for example, the nationalist parties are interested in the territory of Scotland, Wales or Cornwall.  For UKIP, the UK is just Airstrip One.  Any hint to the contrary in its 2010 manifesto need not be taken seriously, since its own leader condemned it as ‘drivel’.

Essentially, the smaller the territorial focus of politics, the better the chances of defeating Big Growth, because the closer the connection between those who make decisions and those who live with the consequences.  That might suggest localism rather than regionalism, let alone europeanism, but there’s no contradiction so long as subsidiarity is observed.  Wider solidarity can avoid one area being set against another for a third party’s benefit.  Regions, properly designed from below (not the Prescott zones imposed from above) can be a shield for local democracy, not its negation.

We want a self-governing Wessex because we want a completely different kind of politics, taking for granted changes like proportional representation to break the hold of the old parties here.  Instead of admiring Switzerland, with its self-governing cantons, citizen initiatives and binding referenda, why not imitate it?  What are we waiting for?  Why would we rather choose to be beggars before the lords and members of a despotic and self-obsessed Parliament, the guardians of an English democratic tradition that objective observers might judge to be no better than tyranny?  We should talk politics with our neighbours, because they are part of our ability to change whatever we choose, not with our MPs, who exist only to abuse the power we lend them.

In 1992, we issued a pamphlet entitled Your Region Needs You!  Its ever-more-relevant conclusion is as follows:

“Wessex is for its people West-Saxon or not, native or settler who cherish it for what it could be and should be.  But what of its future without regionalisation?  The answer is disaster! – The remedy in your hands…?”

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Extravagance of Austerity

Good chancellor, bad chancellor.  George Osborne played a little double act with himself this week.  It started with lots of spending announcements.  A whopping £15.1 billion on roads and £2.3 billion on flood defences.  Oh, and Bicester is to be a new town.

Then there was the Autumn Statement, seized on with the claim that public spending as a share of GDP could be heading back to the levels of 80 years ago.  A golden age as far as the Tories are concerned.  Grinding poverty, plus all-round militarism.  The Jarrow March and the Blackshirts.  Plus the Greenshirts having a go at the bankers: sounds familiar?

How do we reconcile spend, spend, spend with a policy of downsizing that has no end in sight?

The spending announcements are real, but not all new.  Some just firm up details of spending already announced.  And at Bicester, many of the houses have already been built.  Smoke and mirrors then.  Just what you’d expect from a government with a former PR man at the helm.

The roads programme can be unpicked from many angles.  One is to point out that an opportunity to rebalance the national economy away from over-reliance on London has been under-played.  The self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘invest in success’ has triumphed again, with £250 million re-pledged for yet another Lower Thames Crossing near Dartford.  At least development at the estuary would take some of the pressure off the environment (and house prices) in eastern Wessex.  But not a lot.

Wessex gets at least £500 million for two miles of tunnel to by-pass Stonehenge.  Cornwall and Devon have been agitating for years to put the environment of Somerset and Wiltshire at their service, speeding up access to the London market.  Why is the London market so much more important than any other?  That’s where the money is.  And why do we allow that to happen?  Turning the A303 into a motorway in all but name won’t just increase accessibility to London.  It will increase accessibility FROM London, cutting precious minutes off the drive to the weekend cottage in Salcombe.

But for how long?  The strategic vision for roads spending does not include the words ‘Peak Oil’.  Instead it reassures us as follows:

“In the short to medium term, as domestic production declines, our dependence on imported oil and gas will grow and we will become increasingly exposed to the pressures and risks of global markets. Over the same period, global energy consumption is anticipated to increase significantly, implying increasing competition for available resources. Despite this, fuel costs are not projected to rise significantly over this time period.”

Apparently, that’s all down to increased fuel efficiency.  And wishful thinking.  And beyond the short to medium term?  Infrastructure is for the long term.  Are we planning for the next five years, or the next fifty?  Are we buying the wrong kind of infrastructure because no-one will admit to the necessity of a radical re-think?  We aren’t building a resilient future, because we can’t accept that the comfortable present is just an illusion.

So the spending plans are all part of hiding the harsh facts.  The real state of public finances ought to give real cause for concern.  An analysis of the background to the Autumn Statement done by The Independent (a London newspaper) shows that the plan to boost growth relies on boosting borrowing by the general public:

“According to the small print in the latest report from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the public is forecast to add to its pile of unsecured lending, which includes credit card debt and bank overdrafts, by £360bn over the next five years.  If the public fails to spend, then growth would collapse and the Government’s deficit would be likely to start increasing again.  The £360bn figure represents a £41bn increase on the OBR’s forecasts just nine months ago and would take households’ unsecured lending, as a share of total household incomes, to a record 55 per cent by 2020.  That would be well above even the pre-financial crisis unsecured debt ratio of 44 per cent.”

Add-in secured lending, like mortgages, and total household debt is projected to rise from £1.7trn to £2.6trn by the end of the decade.  With that figure rising faster than incomes, the ratio of total household debt to household incomes will rise from 169% to a new high of 184%.  But this has to happen if public spending is to be cut, because economies are sustained by spending and if the Government is unable or unwilling to run a big budget deficit, then someone else has to.  (Even though governments, as a lower risk, can borrow more cheaply than anyone else.)  Like all Ponzi schemes, it’s about using an imagined future to sustain the actual present.  And it’s a trick that only works so long as the population continues to grow and natural resources continue to come on-stream to support it.

One of the easiest ways to grow the economy, here and worldwide, is to spend more on armaments, things created for the sole purpose of being destroyed.  Civilian expenditure meets human needs, which are finite.  Military expenditure is not subject to any such limit.  At September’s NATO summit in Newport, the UK successfully lobbied for defence spending to be raised to 2% of GDP across the alliance.  Military budgets ought to have some relationship to expected outcomes but a budget expressed in terms of inputs – a percentage share of GDP – looks very suspicious.  A 2% share doesn’t automatically translate into a given level of security, not least because it fluctuates with the size of the economy.  All it does for sure is sustain or increase NATO orders placed with the arms trade.  DO panic, because panic is good for business.

With the NHS, schools and overseas aid budgets protected, defence now set to be protected too, and pensions politically unassailable, the Chancellor has little room for manoeuvre.  Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said this week that voters would be justified in asking whether Osborne was planning “a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state”.

Others are planning a fundamental reimagining of the state too.  Not so much in terms of its role as in terms of its territory.  Scotland and perhaps Wales may yet see a future outside the UK as more attractive than one within.  England will not be so lucky.  Our political establishment is so entwined with the City financial establishment that we can only break free by reimagining both our constitution and our economy, dispersing power and wealth to the regions.  And on a scale beyond what it’s acceptable to contemplate in London. 

It has to be, because the cost of maintaining the status quo is unsustainable and this cannot be admitted.  If power is to remain centralised it cannot remain even nominally democratic because that would cost too much, and if it’s to become truly democratic it cannot remain centralised because that would cost too much as well.  The really big savings come from letting go, from setting areas free to do their own thing, precisely what the likes of Michael Gove or Eric Pickles, or any other champions of ‘British values’ handed down from above, are in politics to prevent.

Those who wish the grip to tighten really need no identification.  Those who wish it to end are to be found among nationalist and regionalist movements across Europe, each one sparklingly particular, but linked in solidarity against centralism.  The politics of change today is territorial.  The choice is between non-government – in the sense of a state whose will to intervene has shrunk back to defending the property of a global elite – and self-government – in the sense of a society organised for the benefit of the community.

The Labour Party sits uneasily between these two visions.  Miliband – with his call for ‘responsible capitalism’ – is as determined as Cameron to outsource the job of government but thinks asking for things nicely might help.  Having ditched Clause 4, what remains of Labour cannot be other than fraudulent, all sound-bites and cheesy grins.  The public appetite for taking back the commanding heights of the economy is huge but Labour no longer knows how to tell that story.  In the Celtic nations it’s losing ground to those who can.  The English regions will follow.

One of the lies that Thatcher got away with all too easily was that the State doesn’t have any money.  All the money it has is money taken from taxpayers.  Not true.  That’s the kind of state that has sold off or given away every other source of revenue, from land, from minerals, from trading services and from sovereign monopolies.  And done so because it’s clear to the politicians responsible that a state dependent solely on taxation will be a precarious state.  It’s a state left without those assets that could have given it a high degree of practical independence (and which therefore now need to be repossessed).  The Thatcherite State, designed to be economically crippled, cannot avoid becoming politically crippled.  It’s a state with a death-wish, clinging to an exalted imperial vision it can no longer fund, digging an ever deeper hole for itself.

If that’s truly the state of the UK, then we need to imagine its replacements and work to bring them into being.  We must defend our local services, and link them regionally.  If the London regime won’t do these things for us then we need to do them ourselves.  Or it will take us down with it.