Friday, October 30, 2015

The Price of Wealth

Poor things.  All in it together?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Letting London Go

Wastemonster has often voted for evil.  And now for EVEL – English Votes for English Laws.  Quite right too, as far as that goes.  Which is not very far.  The Daily Express, predictably, took it way too far, with a blustering piece by Leo McKinstry today about the great, tax-oppressed nation of England, paying for the Scots to have socialism.

It never gets through to armchair English nationalists that Scotland and Wales have devolution because they have nationalist parties prepared to run the London parties out of town if they don’t deliver.  Where’s this one-size-fits-all England then, getting on its high horse about uppity Celts?  Who organises it to get up out of its armchair and do something about it all?  Anyone but the Tories?  Do the voters of Surrey really care what happens in Devon or Durham?  Or is it just a pretence, this ‘England first’ attitude forever conveniently forgetting that half the country even exists?

At least a regional identity is something that can be built around common interests, even if it takes persistent hard work to do so in the face of media hostility.  Across most of England it isn’t hard to see what that common interest is once you think about it.  We all have a common interest in seeing London’s near-monopoly on power, wealth and talent broken up and our regions restored in its place.  The great scroungers of British politics aren’t in Scotland: they’re in London and EVEL doesn’t touch them.

Some years back, we had a discussion within the party over whether Wessex demanding home rule was proper form.  If Britain’s union with Ireland is dissolved, then Scotland’s with England, England’s union with Wales must follow and then an admission that it never had one with Cornwall.  In which case, if the same logic continues, Wessex must let go of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia.  And Londonia or whatever else pulls itself together in the south-east corner.  Then, and only then, will Wessex itself be free, free of a burden it took upon itself 11 centuries ago, a burden that has crushed it and empowered its opposite.

That’s what it’s all about.  Letting London go.

There are three stages to resistance.  The first is emotional: the anger and bewilderment that comes with realising how far the system has betrayed the promises it made to us.  Then there is the intellectual response.  What can I do, as an individual?  What goods or countries can I boycott?  Where can I invest ethically?  What petitions can I sign?  Then there is the response that really makes a difference, the action of working collectively to transform the way we do things, to build a new physical reality, new places and links, where dependence on London has gone.  It’s the only way.  Let it go.  Replace it with something better.

We’re assured that the City is the great engine of national success in a world of free and fair trade.  Is that so?  Do our crops grow faster every time Tarquin closes a deal?  One of the things that sets WR apart from the London parties is that we view the City as it actually is.  As a cesspit of speculation and ‘socially useless activity’ parasitical upon the real economy that has to foot the bill every time hubris takes over.  If all the debt it keeps pumping out were simply cancelled by law, would anyone actually suffer?  Let’s imagine a world without it.  Let’s imagine Great Fire II.

It’s a baking hot, dry, summer’s evening, the kind so common with climate change.  There’s a national drought, made worse by over-development in the south-east exhausting the region’s aquifers, and water is currently rationed.  A fire breaks out in Pudding Lane, EC3.  Firefighters struggle in vain to contain it as water pressure drops.  Burning refuse is swirled along by the wind into the open windows of half-empty offices whose workers are preparing to go home.  Blowing up buildings to create firebreaks just isn’t practical, the buildings now being so tall.  After three days the wind changes but by then the firestorm has consumed the whole of the financial district.  The banks, the insurance companies, the hedge funds, the investment trusts, the advertising agencies, the corporate law firms, the media consultancies.  Would it matter one bit, or would the real world just breathe a sigh of relief?

One of the lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London is that rebuilding was paid for by increasing the tax on coal.  So it was principally the poor mining folk of Tyneside and Wearside who met the cost through a reduced standard of living.  The 2008 banking crisis likewise saw the burdens of ‘free enterprise’ in distress shifted to the taxpayer and thence to those at the bottom of society.  Voters remain too scared to punish the political class responsible lest ‘the markets’ inflict still more pain.  This is a vicious circle, because their fear arises from a belief, broadly correct, that politicians are gutless enough to allow ‘the markets’ to do whatever they like.  The fact that the UK is one unit, with top-down government from London, makes it as easy for financiers to pull the political strings today as in 1666.

But London is gone.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s nothing but burnt paper, melted hardware, and frantic emails to the cloud for back-up data.  So how would we get by?  As we’ve discussed before, Wessex has a long tradition of local and regional banking, repeatedly decapitated by London-led takeovers.  Our history provides all the precedents for renewing it, through credit unions, local currencies, ethical banking or whatever.  Local councils are more than capable of running their own city or county banks once the laws that prevent this are revoked.  Birmingham ran a municipal savings bank very successfully for 60 years.  It also offered mortgages, on properties in Birmingham and the surrounding counties.  Council mortgages were not uncommon before the 1980s.  We had a world of very varied opportunities before the centralisers and the privatisers destroyed it.  It can be rebuilt.  In places, it’s a process that’s already started.

How about insurance?  That was a prime example of a regionally-based industry, of which the Norwich Union in East Anglia was perhaps the last survivor.  With a familiar fate: it demutualised in 1997 and is now the London-based Aviva.  Wessex in the 19th century had its own equivalent, the Exeter-based West of England Fire & Life Insurance Company, which had a figure of King Alfred as its badge.  When local councils sought to enter the fire insurance market in the early 1900s, they were denied the powers by Westminster.  Yet it makes perfect sense for the fire brigade to offer insurance because it provides a real incentive to prevent and extinguish fires and keeps local the financial benefits of doing so.  At least it should be a local decision, not one made by know-it-alls in London.

With proper preparation, Wessex and every other English region could manage very well without London and its spivs.  Will we get the chance?  That depends.  If no-one voted for the London parties, they wouldn’t exist.  If no-one placed their savings with an institution that does business in London, the City wouldn’t exist either.  Our world is defined by those we choose to act on our behalf.  Every time we vote for them, every time we invest with them, we ask to be oppressed.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

History Made Here

G K Chesterton is often misquoted as saying that those who argue that 'you can’t put the clock back’ obviously know nothing about clocks.  It’s near enough to what he did write – that time only moves forwards but principles needn’t – to let stand.  What’s more, we’re seeing plenty of evidence of it just now.

At Bristol Temple Meads, the 1870s extension to Brunel’s original 1841 train-shed is to be brought back into use for the new electric trains to Paddington.  Maybe FirstGroup, one of our two Scottish rail-lords, will have a bloke in a stovepipe hat to wander about when it opens.  If so, he’s unlikely to admit how badly planned it’s all been, both track and trains.  The old train-shed has to be re-opened because the new carriages are too long (a means of economising on wheels) to fit the curved platforms of the current Temple Meads without scraping the sides.  No wonder the bold plans of the reckless engineer are proving to be a more inspiring legacy than anything that came between him and now.

Last month’s rebranding of First Great Western as Great Western Railway creates the opportunity to board a GWR train for the first time in 68 years.  (That’s not counting in this context the heritage experience of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.)  It is, according to FirstGroup, “using our history to create history”, capitalising on the past even as a major programme of investment for the future gets underway.  Nothing wrong with that, as an idea.  The SNP want to bring back an independent Scotland, last seen 308 years ago.  We want to bring back an autonomous Wessex, even after 949 years.

There’s plenty wrong though with the investment priorities.  Anyone riding in the standing-room-only sardine cans on the Wessex Main Line will know that if you’re not going to London you really don’t count.  Bristol could have a proper underground metro system for much less than the £25bn cost of London’s Crossrail 2 scheme, but it chooses not to.  The Somerset & Dorset line could be re-opened, re-connecting those counties’ centres to our two coasts, for a fraction of the £80bn being spent on HS2.  (In Scotland, thanks to the Scottish Parliament, the 35-mile Borders Railway was re-opened last month for £300 million and passenger numbers are already one-fifth of the predicted annual total.)  Instead, disused trackbed and station sites in Wessex are still being short-sightedly built over, to meet London’s inflated estimates of ‘housing need’.

Transport is one policy area where views set down by our founder, Alexander Thynn, in the 1979 ‘12-point programme’ as revised in 1992, remain as relevant as ever.  “Provision of a Wessex-orientated transport system to link our principal cities without having to depend largely on routes directed towards London, and with special emphasis on providing a satisfactory system of public transport”.  That’s what we said then and there can be no doubt that the coming decades will see ever-increasing expenditure on public transport as climate change and peak oil drive a transport revolution.  Away from the private car and back to a familiar model from the last century, less flexible but more sustainable and therefore the only viable option.  But if we don’t fight for Wessex and other regions to gain our fair share of that money, the London regime will as usual take much more than the lion’s share.

There’s more than one reason why FirstGroup would choose to bring back the Great Western.

One appears on the face of it to be simply fashion – there’s a 30-year cycle of centralist uniformity versus decentralist diversity that keeps on playing out in post-war public transport in the UK.  Is it just the preferences of successive generations of senior management and their marketing advisers, or something related to the investment cycle?  Either way, it’s not restricted to trains: some of FirstGroup’s bus interests now operate as ‘The Buses of Somerset’, and like the GWR there’s a new (and locally specific) green livery to replace the garish corporate one mocked as ‘Barbie’.

On the other hand, this could be a more permanent trend, like the worldwide revulsion against privatisation and corporate power.  Corporate transport conglomerates have a problem: the public doesn’t support them, with polls showing majority support for public ownership of trains, even among Conservative voters.  Going local and regional can be a logical corporate response to that, to build public support for NOT reversing Thatcherism and resuming the leftful course of history.  At the very heart of that is being allowed to bid for ever-longer franchises, frustrating any move towards rolling renationalisation.

Building brand loyalty therefore is an urgent defensive measure.  FirstGroup’s rebranding exercise aims to position the GWR as something bigger than an individual franchisee and something therefore to be cherished as an opportunity to do things differently.  Scotland provides a precedent.  The Scottish Government has decided that ScotRail is a publicly-owned brand, to be merely borrowed by the successful bidder that gets to run it for a limited time.  It’s a model with wider application, one that preserves a specific territorial identity against pressures for uniformity, whether they issue from corporate spin-doctors or from an Old Labour government.  It doesn’t necessarily prevent either pressure triumphing but digging-in is corporate rail’s best chance of remaining involved (though a publicly owned rail network doesn’t have to be uniform: the British Railways of the 1950s wasn’t).

Where this strategy fails to inspire is in its assumption that Brunel’s GWR makes a sensible area for purposes other than getting folk to and from London.  It’s no criticism of Brunel’s genius as an engineer to say that this shouldn’t be the basis for defining our regional identity, now and in the future.  Posters telling passengers of the plan to ‘give the west its railway back’ and build our ‘great western region’ may make sense in Bristol but they mean much less in south Wales.  North-south journeys within Wessex, or north-west to south-east, will remain a low priority.  South Wales and ‘Western’ Wessex, instead of better integration with north Wales and ‘Southern’ Wessex respectively, will continue to draw together into some Greater Severnside.  The Welsh Assembly won’t go gentle into that scenario, and neither should we.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Wrapped in Golden Chains

“There's been a lot of pressure to highlight human rights abuses but the Chinese haven't mentioned the DWP once.”
Tory Comedians on Facebook

Questioned in London this week on his country’s human rights record, Xi Jinping responded with the kind of explanation that would have appealed to Deng Xiaoping back in the 80s.  Something along the lines of ‘human rights, with Chinese characteristics’.  Universal, but to be applied only as it suits us.

WR Council member Douglas Stuckey was in London too, joining others in drawing attention to China’s chronic oppression of Tibet and reporting that:

“I was with the Tibetans to view the arrival of the Chinese dictator.  The Chinese showed scant courtesy in dumping boxes of kit all over – baseball caps, red flags, etc – and ordering students and others to line the route.  We should oppose Hinkley Point on grounds of security, technology, finance and humanity.  After all, we should be first to say: ‘once you pay the Danegeld’.”

Earlier this year the Dalai Lama, perhaps the greatest regionalist of all, was another visitor to Britain, and specifically to Wessex.  He was invited on-stage at the Glastonbury Festival (despite the usual foot-stamping warnings from the Chinese) before addressing a rally at Aldershot Town FC that Douglas also attended.  Tibet matters absolutely.  The involuntary loss beyond redemption of an insightful culture that took centuries to form is no less a crime against the world than the mass extinction of species demanded as the price of economic growth.  Tibet also matters relatively.  The media silence is deafening.  Just why destructive events in east Asia matter less than those in west Asia is one of the sad mysteries of the British media malaise.  Are the Tibetans not setting off enough bombs to be interesting?

Until 2008, the UK maintained its long-standing view that China’s relationship to Tibet was one of suzerainty, not sovereignty.  Gordon Brown was the first PM to kowtow on that point.  And clearly not the last.  China’s detailed interest in Tibet arguably began as a defensive move, to keep the British out.  Today, that’s as meaningless an argument as a Union Jack in Dublin now that France and Spain are our allies.  Chinese attitudes to Tibetan nationalism are ones not simply of arrogant opposition Beijing knows best but of old-fashioned outrage that self-evident truths are being challenged.  For Chinese diplomats, the right of nations to self-determination applies to existing states only, and if it does apply to aspiring nations then it is one that must not be exercised.  The State defines the People.  The People do not define the State.

How different things are in Europe!  Well, watch carefully.  The facts are that democratic change here would be ‘destabilising’ too and we just can’t have it.  It might spook the markets.

The Catalans, denied by Madrid the right to hold a referendum on independence, voted for it anyway through elections to the regional parliament.  Alex Salmond, interviewed for Catalan television recently, observed that Scotland had the process without the result, while Catalonia had the result without the process.  Madrid, not content with prosecuting the Catalan leadership for being over-democratic, is now hinting that Catalonia’s existing autonomy might be revoked.  Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allows it to do this, in defence of the national interest.  The last person who revoked Catalonia’s autonomy was General Franco: that’s how bad things are.  West along the Pyrenees, in the region of Navarre, NATO is preparing its biggest troop exercise since the Cold War.  Wonder why?

Further north, the French Parliament struggles to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  Not because to do so would make French any less important, but only because it would deny French a monopoly in those historic territories where French is a foreign language.  The Chinese, the Spanish and the French all have the same world view: THEIR rights to self-importance must be protected against any interference in their internal affairs, but the internal affairs of those they occupy are there to be trampled upon.  It makes you feel so good to be British.  At least we allow an independence referendum to be held, albeit with every institution of the status quo briefing against.  But no, there’s no cause for self-congratulation here either.  Consider ‘guided localism’ and all the other sinister phrases the Coalition inspired and the majority Tory government doesn’t even need to repeat.  All these regimes regard autonomy as something they wind out on a string; not one sees it as a reflection of power rising from below, the only direction compatible with a vital democracy.

These are interesting times for Europe because Europe is losing the plot, demographically, economically and politically.  The price is one to be paid in freedom.  We don’t criticise the Arabs over sharia law and the funding of terrorism: we need their oil.  We don’t criticise the Chinese over Tibet or human rights generally: we need their investment.  Even if it’s a desperately bad deal for us, pursued for ideological reasons.  And even if it means handing over the keys to our infrastructure, against sound military advice.

It can only get worse.  The UK is becoming a Cornwall writ large, a place whose heavy industry has been destroyed by changing global markets, leaving only speculation and tourism to fill the gap.  Cameron swims beside Xi like a minnow beside a whale.  It's the pretence of mattering, in a world where even a united Europe looks lightweight and confused.  Who benefits more from the UK becoming China’s new best friend, as the USA’s star sets in the west?  The Chinese have views on trade unions and the work ethic that will fit nicely in Cameron’s Britain, but revenge for the Opium Wars will be sweeter.

The Left, wracked with post-colonial guilt, find it hard to offer an alternative.  China’s economic success is a good news story to them, but if China now has surplus cash to invest abroad then China’s success has clearly been overdone.  As for giving our power and wealth away to those elsewhere in the world who do not share our values, it’s a fair question whether this won’t increasingly lead to the undermining of those values at home.  It’s a debate to which the Left have nothing constructive to contribute.  They’re much too busy attacking free speech, and sawing off the branch that sustains them.

A fundamental aim of the Wessex Regionalists is to contribute to the creation of a sustainable and equitable global economy in which the health, security and liberty of all is paramount, regardless of race or creed.  There’s no better place and time to start building that world than right here, right now.  Do we still have the self-respect as Europeans to do that?  We face a bleak future if we don’t.  So far, all the signs point towards Thatcher’s poisonous legacy that everything has its price and that any exceptions to the rule must therefore be more cosmetic than real.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Izzy, Whizzy, Let’s Get Bizzy

Or maybe 'Ozzy, Wheezy'.  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  George Osborne ought to know, following his announcement this week that business rates will be ‘devolved’ to local councils, along with the one-directional power to lower them.  Osborne’s understanding of devolution is that it’s that degree of autonomy that allows others to take the same decisions as the London regime would take anyway, given the opportunity.  And nothing more.  Devolution in an era of spending cuts is in effect an invitation to self-mutilation if associated radical changes are all ruled out.  Labour, of course, are happy to do what it takes to preserve their hereditary power.  And will surely agree that local government shouldn’t be allowed to have policies that central government disagrees with.

Osborne described the move as “the biggest transfer of power to our local government in living memory".  So it is, for those whose memory extends no further back than 1990, when the Thatcher government, as part of its poll tax legislation, nationalised business rates, before which they had been set locally for centuries.  For Thatcher, this counter-revolution against democracy was entirely justified, to prevent representatives elected locally raising the money locally to do locally what they’d been elected to do.  To say that hard-Left Labour councils weren’t as democratic as they claimed to be was a fair point, but one that could easily have been corrected by moving to proportional representation.  Now that would have been a radical change.  One that would have permanently denied the Tories a majority at Westminster level too.

Not that the Tories have ever been that keen on local democracy, given that collective decision-making is prima facie socialist.  But just fine if it involves awarding public sector contracts to national or global business chains with no long-term commitment to the area.  When council services do fail, the answer should be to let elections sort things out, as we do when promises made nationally are broken.  Not for the Tories, who’d rather undermine, then seize and privatise.  Very localist that.  With that kind of encouragement, don’t be at all surprised if the calibre of local councillors isn’t what it was.

There’s a theme developing.  Labour offered ‘regionalism’ that was nothing of the sort.  The Tories offered ‘localism’ that was nothing of the sort.  And now we have ‘devolution’.  Which is…?  Well, usually understood as involving directly elected national or regional assemblies, able to take over whole swaths of Whitehall power, leaving most of Osborne’s Cabinet colleagues redundant.  Not the creation of a condition of national amnesia in which the return of recently stolen powers, with strings attached, can be hailed as ground-breaking generosity.  That’s quite some conjuring trick and the sad fact is that so many supposedly intelligent and well-read folk will fall for it.  The proof of that is that they continue to vote for the London parties that all offer only marginally different versions of the same sleight of hand.

The law of the political jungle being to define or be defined, it’s only natural that the London regime should wish to colonise the language of its enemies.  Words like ‘regionalism’ and ‘localism’ can be chewed up and spat out, but only if we deferentially accept the regime’s right to define them for us.

When John Prescott made a mess of regionalism, there were those urging us to find new conceptual ground, untainted by failure.  ‘Provincialism’, perhaps, or maybe ‘areaism’.  It’s an easy thing to do and the wrong thing.  Those who retreat in the face of adversity show only their unfitness for public office.  Those who see only a debate about the internal administrative nomenclature of England don’t see that the Europe of regions is about bigger issues in an unstable world.  (‘Provincialism’ doesn’t work in that context, where provinces are the county-sized units into which Belgian, Italian and Spanish regions are sub-divided.)  Those who think that a little local set-back in the North East referendum of 2004 marks the end of the road don’t see the historical timescale over which devolutionary issues unfold, and have always unfolded.  Generations come and go but the battle over power’s location continues.

So when Osborne attempts to present his nannying of local democracy as a ‘devolution revolution’ we don’t just have the right to say ‘hands off a word that means much more than you can imagine’.  We have the duty to do so too.  The current issue of Plaid Cymru’s magazine, The Welsh Nation, describes Welsh political life today as ‘post-nationalist’.  Did we miss something?  Enough of this nonsense!  Let’s not vote for parties who don’t know what they stand for and therefore can’t be trusted to stick to it.  Let’s leave the conjuring tricks to the Blairites and supplant a dishonest past that’s over-run its allotted hour.