Monday, August 31, 2015

X for Xylas

The WR Council met at Wokingham earlier this month.  A raft of new policies was agreed, about which readers may expect to hear over the coming weeks.  WR President Colin Bex reported on the election campaign in Witney and it was noted that page views on this blog almost reached 3,000 during April, double the number achieved during the Eastleigh by-election and roughly 20 times the figure for the 2010 campaign.  Regrettably, our core website has been down for some time following a catastrophic failure of the platform that hosted it, Zyweb.  A replacement is being sought and in the meantime we can still be contacted via email, and at our Facebook page.

Looking ahead, one of the key decisions we took was to endorse Nick Xylas as a WR candidate in next year’s elections to Bristol City Council.  Nick is a freelance writer and publisher who was raised in Patchway and currently lives in the Eastville ward, which he plans to contest on our behalf.  In between, he lived for six years in the USA with his American wife and so can speak authoritatively on the differences between there and here that we would do well to cherish.  His current publishing venture – Parthenia Comics – is a range of comics aimed at adult literacy and ESOL learners.   Previous jobs include 15 years in the civil service and three years in US state government.

Wessex has been one of Nick’s interests since childhood: both the ancient kingdom and what a contemporary revival will look like.  Throughout his adult life, Nick has demonstrated a commitment to public service and social justice.  Half-Greek, half-Wessaxon, Nick is also well-placed to represent the cultural diversity of Bristol’s inner suburbs.  We’ll endeavour to report further on the campaign as it develops.  If you can help with highlighting neglected local issues or in any other way then do get in touch.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Northern Lights?

One of the most intractable problems in British politics is voters’ perception that they should be enjoying a Scandinavian standard of public services while only paying American levels of tax.  No wonder governments get into debt as they struggle to balance the books.

The solution, of course, is to decentralise so that what voters get is a better match for what they’re prepared to fund.  Within Scandinavia itself though, decentralisation has not, so far, been as great a favourite with the major parties as it might.  At the heart of Scandi social democracy is the idea that everyone is equal.  And, therefore, the non sequitur follows that everything must be the same.  As in Jacobin France, all political templates are equal, but some are definitely more equal than others.

Sweden makes an interesting case study.  OECD statistics show that, in 2010, public spending was 34.8% of GDP in the UK and 45.5% in Sweden.  In the UK, locally raised taxes amounted to 1.7% of GDP and nationally raised taxes to 26.2%, while in Sweden the local figure was 16.1% and the national figure 23.7%.  (The balance is accounted for by social security funds like National Insurance.)  The lesson seems to be that if folk know that the money they pay to keep society from falling apart is raised and spent where they can see it being raised and spent then they’ll be more supportive of the idea.  Even in the USA, where public spending was only 24.8% of GDP, the local figure was 3.9%, more than double the figure in the UK.

In Sweden’s case the results of local spending are immediately evident to the visitor in a very well-kept environment.  There's a county-based public transport system (Swedish counties being of regional scale), delivered by private contractors but to the county’s specification and livery.  Besides buses, this can include regional railways, trams and ferries, with timed tickets interchangeable between modes.  Look out for the bus shelters changing to a different design and the buses turning a different colour and you’ll know you’ve crossed the county boundary.  In such small, symbolic ways, local identity is made manifest even in a globalised economy.

Nonetheless, there is something rotten in the state of Sweden.  The long shadow of half-a-century of social democratic rule has left it as perhaps the most totalitarian society in western Europe.  Stories abound of children seized by social services for parents’ minor infractions of the rules of political correctness.  Governments of the Left were still practising eugenics and forced sterilisation in the 1970s; in 1932 the Swedish State Institute of Race Biology at Uppsala was publishing studies of the Sami to proclaim how inferior they were and promote their sterilisation.

The Sami have had a hard time all round.  Centuries of persecution for being different, then patronising policies to ensure that ‘the Lapps will remain Lapps’, depriving them of the technological means to function politically in the modern world.  And at last some limited recognition with the creation in 1993 of Sweden’s Sami Parliament, a consultative body which also has equivalents in Norway and Finland, and then in 2000 official minority status for their language.

The Sami remain as a distinct people because of their relationship to the land and to the nomadic occupations it provides.  At this point, Sweden’s accommodating approach hits the rocks.  Folklore and costumes are fine – accurate or inaccurate – and good for tourism, but natural resources are the common property of all Swedes.  Development policies have introduced roads, railways, hydro-electric schemes and managed forestry that have all played havoc with reindeer herding.  The alternatives of fishing and hunting have been curtailed by the Swedish State’s confiscation of Sami land rights.  Demands that indigenous people provide proof of title to support their claims to State property turn reality on its head: the truth is that indigenous people belong to the land, not the other way round, but either way they’re a unit.

There’s talk of expanding the Sami Parliament’s role to include land management but for radicals it’s not enough to be allowed to manage a heritage they’re not allowed to own.  For some Sami, a Swedish identity – or a Norwegian, Finnish or Russian one – is something to cling to, a second string to the bow.  For others, the battle to preserve the Sami language in the face of past attempts to suppress it remains a painful memory, ‘the Sami sore’, and for those who regard that history as reason enough to mistrust Stockholm nothing less than a separate Sameland will do.

The treatment of the Sami shows how repressive the parties of the Left can be when everything lines up for them.  Unbroken rule for 40 years.  Under a doctrine of national unity – folkhemmet (‘the people’s home’) – that embodied a real enough sense of community but allowed for no differentiation.  And all set in a country that used to be one of the most aggressive on earth.  Sweden’s glory days ended in the early 18th century when the cost of an all-conquering army could no longer be sustained.  In the previous century it dominated the Baltic and northern Germany and even had a colony in North America: New Sweden, today’s Delaware and Pennsylvania.  For all the protests about laid-back Swedes, such a legacy is bound to linger.

Psychologically, there’s probably nowhere else in Europe that provides such an instructive parallel to the UK, as the UK continues its own transition into post-imperial self-justification.  Last at war in 1814, and so never forced fundamentally to modernise its self-image, Sweden also shares with the UK a tendency to refer to the heartland of Europe as ‘the continent’, something from which both consider themselves detached.

The similarity shows too in the absence of a regional dimension to Sweden’s constitution, though as in the UK there have been moves to regionalise, badly, ignoring readily available historical precedents.  Sweden has been attempting to negotiate the merger of its 21 counties into 6 or 9 regions, following the pattern of a similar centralisation implemented in Denmark in 2007.  Since 1999 three Swedish counties have been designated as regions on a trial basis, with additional powers devolved to them.  Since it’s only a trial, they’re assured of nothing.

Nationalists and regionalists should note that bureaucracies under pressure always centralise, even if letting go would produce better outcomes.  (In Denmark, the county councils raised their own taxes; the regions that have replaced them do not, being largely funded centrally.)  It’s a process that can be seen at work in Scotland and Wales at present and in the creation of unitary counties and metro mayors; it’s also a process we need to denounce where it runs unreasonably against the grain of the decentralisation we seek.

Some of Sweden’s counties can be fiercely independent in spirit.  Dalarna is famous for its small, painted wooden horses that have become a national symbol, but that fact only shows how effortlessly Sweden has dealt with local identity – by nationalising it, absorbing it and disarming it.  What’s Dalarna’s is everybody’s.  Only in the southern tip of Sweden has an identity of regional scale resulted in a questioning of Swedishness itself.

The region of Scania or Skåneland – the three counties of Blekinge, Halland and Skåne (along with the Danish island of Bornholm) – was historically as separate as Scotland.  (It’s also where the Old English poem Beowulf is thought to be set and where the Normans originated.)  Sweden’s royal arms – three gold crowns on a blue shield – are thought to represent the three kingdoms ruled over by King Magnus Eriksson, who died in 1364.  That is to say, Norway, Sweden and Scania.  For most of its recorded history down to 1658, Scania was one of the three provinces of Denmark, though always protective of its autonomy.  Its landscape and architecture remain much more Danish than Swedish.

The Treaty of Roskilde that transferred it definitively to Sweden in 1658 included all the usual promises about respecting traditional privileges, soon laughed away.  The Scanians’ parliament was illegally abolished and a cultural war was set in motion to Swedify everything from the language to clerical dress.  Yet Scanians still speak differently.  Written down, Danish and Swedish are separate languages, but Sweden is a large country: Danes can understand southern Swedes and vice-versa, while northern Swedes do need the subtitles for Danish films.  Especially since the Øresund Bridge opened in 2000, Malmö has become in effect a suburb of Copenhagen (as viewers of The Bridge will be aware).  A Scanian regionalist party ought to be able to undo a historic injustice and allow the pivotal point of the Baltic to look both ways, to be almost Danish, and not quite as Swedish as others.

It ought to, yes, but what has happened?  The irony is that if Scania has provided one-third of royal Sweden’s identity, and a name and historic logo for some internationally renowned trucks, that’s as far as it goes.  Labels in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum repeatedly fall over the fact of Scania, telling visitors that the custom is this in southern Sweden and that in the rest of the country, or that particular traditions in painting and weaving are unique to the south.  It’s all reminiscent of the days when Scotland was just ‘North Britain’ and Cornwall was part of the ‘West Country’.  There had to be a reckoning.

It came in 1979 with the launch of Skånepartiet, the Scania Party.  Scanian regionalism ranges from grumbling about Stockholm getting everything to demands for full independence.  The party’s populist policies called for the abolition in Scania of Sweden’s State-owned off-licence monopoly, Systembolaget, and the creation of a Scanian commercial television channel.  But Skånepartiet also decided to play the anti-immigration (and especially anti-Islam) card, a calculation that worked well enough in Malmö in the mid-80s.  Then its fortunes took a turn for the worse, its number of elected representatives dwindling until 2006, since when it has had none.

Its place has been taken by the Sweden Democrats, a Swedish version of UKIP or the Front National that emerged first in Scania and has since spread across central Sweden.  Like its French and UK equivalents, the party wants a single, uniform national culture.  It has no time for minorities, however many thousands of years they can claim to have been in the country.  It wants to abolish the Sami Parliament, claiming that the parliament’s existence discriminates against those in Sameland who are not Sami and do not rely on the traditional way of life.  It’s curious how happy far Right parties are to rant about colonists coming in and changing how we live but never recognise themselves in the description.  ‘They’ are immigrants; ‘we’ are ex-pats.

In the 2014 elections, the Sweden Democrats stormed to 12.9%, and 49 seats in the Riksdag.  They’re one of a group of far Right parties now making headway in each of the Nordic countries.  That’s bad news for regionalists; Skånepartiet may be rueing their choice of strategy.  To play the anti-immigrant card when an influx of immigrants into your region is one of its distinctive characteristics may look attractive; once that influx extends nationwide it’s nationwide parties that will pick up the resulting protest vote.  The Swedish Right have also been able to dig deep into the votes of the Swedish Left.  The Left have moved on to new fields of political correctness, leaving their traditional folkhemmet power base behind.  Meanwhile, the tensions resulting from mass immigration are calling into question the very survival of the Scandinavian welfare model.  A party that will defend the legacy of folkhemmet when its creators will not, a party that prioritises Swedes in Sweden, is bound to do well.

Then, this month, two gruesome murders in an IKEA store in Västerås, near Stockholm, carried out by an Eritrean migrant, shocked the nation.  The latest YouGov poll indicates that the Sweden Democrats are now the top political party in Sweden.  Polling at 25.2%, they beat the ruling Social Democrats, on 23.4%.  Watch Sweden closely and you’ll see the tide on the turn.  It won’t be a pretty sight; Game of Thrones fans might care to note that Västerås is pronounced rather like ‘Westeros’.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Crown Jewels for Sale

One of the contentious issues between Westminster and Holyrood of late has been the future of the Crown Estate in Scotland.  UK-wide, the portfolio of property and other investments brings in £285m a year to HM Treasury and pays for HM herself and any hangers-on who, unlike the Duke of Cornwall, aren’t funded from other public assets.  Control of the Crown Estate is vital to a government like that of Nicola Sturgeon that wants to tap the potential of offshore renewables, because it’s the Crown Estate that owns most of the seabed and takes the rents from the use of it.

If the Crown Estate has now become something of a devolutionary football, there’s a clear way out for a Treasury that doesn’t want to see its share of the cash cut.  That’s to sell anything territorial and re-invest the cash somewhere safer, like London.  If the money’s left your area, it’s no longer your government’s to demand.  That’s a principle that can be applied in anticipation of any similar devolution of power to the English regions.  Sure enough, the Crown Estate Commissioners have started to sell off the rural portfolio, turfing out the tenants without a second thought.

The 4,700-acre Bryanston Estate in north Dorset has just been offloaded to Viscount Rothermere, non-dom owner of Blackshirt-backing rag the Daily Mail.  Private Eye reported last month that its 14 farms class it as a “working” country estate, meaning it can be passed on entirely tax-free.  No wonder “working” estates are going for record prices, in this case a rumoured £65m.  Meanwhile, ownership of the Portman Hunt Kennels will add an open door into rural high society.

The Crown Estate Commissioners manage that part of Crown property held for investment purposes but much more is held for operational purposes by Government departments.  And they’re under constant pressure to sell.  The last administration made a number of attempts to sell the Forestry Commission but failed to take public opinion with it.  The present administration may feel it’s safe to ignore that now.

Last month it was the Ministry of Defence’s turn in the spotlight.  There’s talk of selling surplus land for housing, especially in the south-east of England where housing demand outstrips supply.  (Because successive governments have put money into developing London’s economy at the expense of everyone else’s.)  There’s nothing new about releasing land for housing though.  The MoD has huge holdings around Aldershot that have been picked at for years.  According to the MoD, work continues to scope opportunities to significantly reduce its estate by up to 30% over the next 10-15 years, which would seem to signal some major facility closures.

Will a series of sales at the margin be ambitious enough for Osborne and his chums?  It’s unlikely.  His ‘Productivity Plan’ envisages Government property being put on a commercial basis, handed to one or more new bodies that will charge departments the market rate for it.  But if you’re going to ‘go commercial’, why not ‘go private’?  HMRC have already sold their offices, to a company based in a tax haven.  (You couldn’t make this up.)  Osborne’s plan recalls the former Property Services Agency – which even earlier was the Office of Works – that used to do facilities management for central government.  Since the PSA’s break-up and privatisation, many government departments have taken back management of their own property, presumably at higher cost than when the PSA provided an integrated service.  Such is the price of ideology.

Generations of governments have promoted owner-occupation – first of farms, then of homes – because it’s paid for by loans that enrich the financial services industry, based in the City of London.  Now Government is volunteering to return itself to tenancy because rental income benefits, well, well, the financial services industry.  Find the pattern, spot the inconsistency, then follow the trail and you’ll discover who really rules Britain.  Paid-for freeholds are dead property – nobody else can make money out of them and that’s why they’re under attack.  And the best time to offload them is at the start of the economic cycle, so that private owners can maximise the uplift in value in a rising market.

Sale-and-leaseback comes at a cost in terms of lost flexibility – it was one of the reasons given for the collapse of the Woolworths Group, which had tied itself into a deal with its new landlord that looked good enough at the time.  And how do you – or rather, how do highly paid consultants – value some of the land uses the Government operates, for which there is no market equivalent?  Military activity might look like one of those but in fact not all MoD land is freehold.  Three-quarters of the Dartmoor Training Area, much used by the Royal Marines, is held under licence from Devon’s largest landowner, the Duchy of Cornwall.  Salisbury Plain Training Area – one-ninth of Wiltshire and as big as the Isle of Wight – is mostly MoD freehold but for how much longer?  What might Arab or Chinese investors offer for it?

The ground is shifting beneath our feet.  Not literally, but certainly in the sense that Wessex is changing hands.  With cash-strapped local authorities selling off smallholdings and other property, more and more of Wessex is being turned into opportunities for new money made in London to sink itself into the countryside and settle-in to a post-democratic new feudalism.

Osborne’s challenge to the public is to ‘re-imagine the State’, although only imaginings in a downward direction will be accepted.  Nothing new here though; it’s part of a process of progressive plunder that’s gone on regardless of party colour for the past 36 years.  It comes down to whether there’s nothing left but the coercive core – armed forces, police and judiciary – or whether anything more attractive is added, and why.  Note well that a smaller State does NOT imply lower public spending, just the routing of more of it through the plunderers’ hands in the form of one subsidy or another, from agriculture to housing to railways.  Taxes certainly won’t fall if governments sell off productive assets that provide an alternative revenue stream.

Selling assets to pay debts is false economics if the economy itself depends on the existence of debt as its driving force.  Banks will force governments into debt over and over again, so long as governments fail to govern.  It’s when there are no more assets to sell that the full force of austerity comes to be applied.  New Labour, the bankers’ friend, was taken for a merry old ride over privatisation, with John Prescott quoting Aneurin Bevan – ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’ – to justify the sale of municipal enterprises.  Selling productive assets to finance non-productive expenditure is more accurately the language of the madhouse.

What isn’t often appreciated is that to shrink the British State is to shrink Britishness itself.  As fewer folk have a stake in it, so it becomes less worth defending.  The contrast with Scotland and Wales is striking.  There the democratic sector has been defended, innovative ways round EU rules have been found and some privatisations have even been reversed.  While Scotland and Wales have a will to survive against the forces of globalised plunder, the UK – and therefore England – has only a death-wish, a will to liquidate itself and disperse the proceeds to the super-rich.

An example of this is the desire to pull down the BBC, ‘because the BBC is doing too much’.  (Rupert Murdoch’s empire, naturally, isn’t, though it could hardly do a worse job of airing the views of parties critical of the BBC’s vision of Britain.)  The BBC reduces opportunities for the private sector, which is obviously a Bad Thing.  Except that it isn’t.  In a democracy, there should be no presumption that the job of Government is to create private money-making opportunities out of public services.  That’s the issue that goes to the heart of the demolition job.  It’s not about efficiency or inefficiency, because no investor will buy an asset and no entrepreneur will offer to take over a public service unless the deal is structured in such a way as to make money for them.  They call the shots.  We end up paying.  And by the time we figure out that we didn’t get what we were promised it’s too late to go back.

It’s not about efficiency.  It’s about democracy.  That’s where the Left has let us all down.  It has failed to defend public ownership and operation on democratic grounds, because too much of its thinking is managerialist and so fundamentally hostile to any real democracy, political or economic.  Radical politics is democratic politics and it’s up to radicals to make the case for more democracy, not less.  Freedom to do your own thing is laudable; making off with the common wealth is not.  We all need to be clear about the difference.