Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another Europe is Possible

‘Believe in Britain’, they say.  And why not ‘Believe in Europe’?  Grassroots Out have taken to arguing that Brexit isn’t ‘anti-Europe’ at all, rather as if the SNP had presented independence as being pro-British.  Confused?  The underlying idea is that the EU is not just at present objectively anti-European – in its submissive attitude to others it clearly is – but that it’s also incapable of changing into anything better.  The UK can be improved, easily; the EU, never, so let’s not try.  That’s more than inconsistent with the facts.

Facts get selected and highlighted to inform perceptions of past and present, and future.  British unity is a historical fact, but so too are the Auld Alliance, the Danelaw and the Celtic languages of the Atlantic arc, all of which cut across it.  The British royal family is German, the royal motto is written in French, and all our talk of democracy and politics is down to the Greeks.  All of that suggests a need for flexibility of thought, but also of political institutions to match it.

Does that mean that there’s a European ‘demos’ in any meaningful sense?  If the answer is ‘No’, then the usual suspects are to blame for keeping things strictly inter-governmental and so preventing its formation.  Have they ensured that there can never be one?  That’s a very different question. 

Stresses build solidarity: there was never a time when everyone within the UK felt fine having a British identity but it was made to work by those who feared a worse alternative.  In Europe’s case it could be that its puny 19th century nation-states get picked off one by one by the new global players.  The demographic squeeze as Third World populations form an ever-expanding proportion of humanity will force closer co-operation because the alternative to Europeans thinking of themselves as one people may be that they cease to exist at all.  Always beware the illusion of permanence.

That’s something that also obscures the realisation that a successful campaign for Brexit would only launch in its wake a new campaign for Bre-entry.  ‘Remain’ is not as attractive an option as ‘Remain, but’.  The unattractive nature of ‘Leave’ is magnified by the fact that ‘Leave, but’ is ruled out.  But for how long, and on what humiliating terms might Brexit be reversed?

The UK and the US are two countries separated by a common language: politically the UK has more in common with the European social democracies.  Culturally, we perhaps under-estimate the Old World’s shared legacy of experiences like aristocracy, peasantry and buildings over 500 years old.  That happens only because we don’t share enough.  The more one reads in translation of mainland political theory the more obvious it becomes that importing the minimalist politics of the wild frontier and the big open spaces just because it’s in English can only be damaging to England.  The US is not Europe’s enemy but it does need to be understood as a commercial and ideological rival.  Are we going to stand up to it all on our own?

Wessex is a European region, as authentic as Normandy, Tuscany or Bavaria.  Europe is an idea in the making, despite its growing pains, and so is open to influence.  England and Britain are ideas that too often are used to curb our aspirations for self-government and not to nurture them.  They shouldn’t be mere glove-puppets for a London-focused regime, but that’s what they’re fast becoming as regional identity continues to be ridiculed and diminished.

Among our friends and allies in Celtic nationalist parties and in regionalist movements across Europe, the EU is given the benefit of the doubt not from any love of the big but from love of the small, and from the realisation that we cannot work together to cherish the small within a nation-state straitjacket.   The idea that we can have the regionalism we want nesting within a retained nation-state framework is refuted by recent history, in which nation-states have frequently done everything they can to destroy the regional identities from which they’re built.  Besides, for those whose region sees itself as a nation that cannot thrive under another nation’s yoke, only a European framework will do.

The idea of neat nesting is refuted too on many of Europe’s borders, where authentic regions straddle lines drawn through them by absolute monarchs, sustained by dictators, and enforced today by one-dimensional bullies.  France’s borders separate Flanders from Lille, its historic capital, German-speaking Alsace from the rest of Swabia, Savoy and Nice from the rest of Piedmont, Roussillon from the rest of Catalonia and three provinces of the Basque Country from the other four.  Not to mention Brittany from Cornwall.  Other examples are Tyrol (Austria/Italy), Pomerania (Germany/Poland) and Scania (Denmark/Sweden).  It’s by rubbing out those lines that we progress to allowing better choices.  If regionalism is about having the flexibility to do things regionally, intricate EU regulations are bad news.  But, for some, the news is not as bad as the olds that they’ve lived with for a very long time.

Regions require headroom, which a united Europe governed by subsidiarity provides, and thus there’s no contradiction in demanding both.  Our founder, Alexander Thynn, stood as a ‘Wessex Regionalist & European Federalist’ candidate in the first Euro-election in 1979, for the seat of ‘Wessex’ (in reality, not Wessex, just Dorset plus parts of Hants and Wilts).  His election leaflet offered a 24-point programme entitled ‘Wessex within a Federal Europe’.  In these days of negligible vision, it pays to be reminded of what it said:

“1:        The Parliament at Strasbourg should furnish a political platform where the voice of Wessex can be expressed as participating within a Europe of Regions, rather than a Europe of Nations.

2:         We should look forward to the emergence of a United Regions of Europe, that might be compared with the United States of America.  Wessex will be one of these Regional States.

3:         There should be a European Head of State: some much revered elder statesman, to be elected by the Parliament at Strasbourg.

4:         All decisions of the European Supreme Court of Justice should be upheld and implemented by the authority of the European Parliament.

5:         There should be a gradual transfer of sovereignty from Westminster to Strasbourg in three important spheres:
(a)               the control of the armed forces
(b)               the control of foreign policy decisions
(c)               the control of the economy.

6:         The supreme officers within the European High Command should be responsible to Strasbourg, with the entire British armed forces serving under this command.

7:         Strasbourg must debate the foreign policies of all Western European nations, so that they can be fully co-ordinated.

8:         There should be a European Foreign and Consular Service, responsible only to the Parliament at Strasbourg.  This will replace the present national system.

9:         Strasbourg must encourage European monetary union, with due regard to the transitional problems that this may involve for the weaker currencies.

10:       The Parliament at Strasbourg must furnish Europe with a uniform tax structure (involving income tax, super tax and capital gains tax) applicable at the same levels within all European nations.  This will not preclude the right of national or regional governments to raise taxes by additional methods, if they so choose.

11:       Wessex and all other regions should receive a substantial tax rebate from such taxation revenue, apportioned in accordance with their per capita and per hectare rating as European Regions.  This rebate should be spent as the regional assemblies see fit.

12:       Another large portion of all federal taxation revenue should be paid annually into the regional fund at Strasbourg, with a view to effecting a gradual redistribution of capital and social resources over Western Europe at large.

13:       A further portion of the federal taxation revenue should go into a European redevelopment fund, with a view to assisting those nations such as Britain with peculiar transitional problems, or generally assisting towards the cost of unifying the nations of our continent.

14:       Applications should be made to the European Parliament to shoulder the cost (from out of this redevelopment fund) for changing the British road system from left to right.

15:       The cost of linking Britain to France by several bridges and tunnels should also be financed from this fund.

16:       The Common Agricultural Policy should be modified so as to ensure efficiency in farming, without destroying the idea that Europe should become agriculturally self-sufficient.

17:       The representatives from Wessex should seek to ally themselves with the representatives of those European regions where farming is practised efficiently, asserting our mutual interests against regions where farming is practised inefficiently, or where the interests of agriculture as a whole are subordinated to industrial interests.

18:       Strasbourg must co-ordinate and control the scientific and technological research of its member nations, so as to attain maximum efficiency and co-operation.

19:       The operation of multinational companies in Europe should be carefully monitored, so as to avoid any upsurge of their influence to a degree that cannot be safely controlled by the elected representatives of the people.

20:       Strasbourg must take charge of energy policy within Europe, which should be carefully planned to allow for the situation that will arise after our oil supplies have run out, involving heavy investment in alternative energy research.

21:       Strasbourg must take general charge of environment policy, to ensure that national standards are consistently high.

22:       The standardisation of weights and measurements according to the European metric system should be pressed forward to its conclusion.

23:       A uniform electoral system of proportional representation, with single transferable vote, should be adopted by the Parliament at Strasbourg before the next Euro-elections.

24:       Research should be undertaken at Strasbourg for a computerised voting system, for future adoption, whereby the voting strength of each delegate from a regional state is registered automatically within the European Parliament in direct relation to the number of people that the delegate’s party can be shown to represent.”

As with earlier radical causes like Chartism, readers will be able to judge for themselves how much has been achieved, how much would now be modified or discarded, and how much, sadly, remains undone.

The case for regionalism would be the same even if the European mainland wasn’t there.  Government that serves us all means getting power, wealth and talent out of London.  Set that case in the context of a Europe of regions though and it starts to become a reality, however clunkingly, and however unimaginatively the eurocracy is forced by its Member States to react.  Deny that framework and it’s not that the argument dies: it’s that it reverts to being a nice idea that’s obviously right but which London, triumphantly unchallenged by any wider view, will simply never allow to happen.  Because the anti-Brussels rhetoric has a clear beneficiary.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Empty Space?

The second issue of Wessex Citizen, edited by Keith Southwell and Rick Heyse, is now online.  Many thanks to all who contributed.  Earlier this month we mentioned the current – seventy-second – issue of MK’s equivalent, Cornish Nation, which this time gave us a brief mention.  Joanie Willett, reporting back on the General Assembly of the European Free Alliance recently held in Corsica, wrote:

“One of the Parties that MK members became acquainted with was Yorkshire First.  We have much that we can learn from each other, and it would be a really interesting exercise to have some sort of group meeting or conference of all the regionalist parties in mainland UK, including the North East Party and the Wessex Regionalists, to see how we can combine our voices in our campaigns for better, stronger, and more people-led devolution in the UK.”

That might be so, and the WR Council has resolved to make enquiries, though as we’ve noted, it’s been done before.  More than once.  Perhaps every generation has to give it a try and there’s certainly no shame in emulating success.  WR is different though, mainly because of how far official recognition of our regional identity lags behind.

Cornwall is not just home to a distinct nation.  It’s also (apart from the Isles of Scilly, who have their own council) a single unit of local government.  The complaint isn’t that Cornwall is unrecognised; it’s that it’s not recognised enough, or in the right way.  Cornwall Council has broadly the same powers as a London borough, even though Cornwall’s geographical isolation would allow it to do far more for itself, without treading on any of its neighbours’ toes.  It’s treated as an English county when it’s actually something more that just happens to be same size as an English county.  The motto ‘One and All’ sums it up.  The argument that ‘there’s no such place as Cornwall’ isn’t heard though, because it’s not conceivable.

Up north, the North East Party and Yorkshire First both operate within the boundaries of their respective Prescott zones, boundaries still widely recognised by the public and voluntary sectors and used for everything from Euro-elections to the English Heritage handbook.  This is part of the legacy of the Blairite ‘big push’ for top-down regionalisation that has never fully gone away.

(Interestingly, the National Trust used also to be loyal to Prescottism but this year’s handbook departs from it.  Apart from South Humberside, now placed with the rest of Lincolnshire, the basic Prescott geography is respected everywhere except the South West and South East, where the Trust has introduced five new groupings of its own invention, plus a separate Cornwall.  If the NT now has so much property in Wessex that its presentation needs to be this fragmented, maybe Wessex needs a National Trust all of its own?)

There is, of course, another definition of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire of the ridings rather than the one of a map drawn in London, but any attempt to restore this is fraught with difficulties.  The biggest risk, revealed in the work of the Banham Commission in the 1990s, is of tokenistic proposals emerging to appease sentiment rather than to accommodate it, new ridings with old names but the wrong boundaries, which make things worse rather than better.

Until this year, a different approach was evidenced by the Northern Party, voice of the historic North of England – Northumbria – with a united claim to all three northern Prescott zones.  South Humberside apart though, this was still a claim that worked with rather than against the Prescott geography.

Wessex is different because faced with that geography our response is that we wouldn’t have started from here.  We devoted most of The Case for Wessex to explaining why Wessex is, to quote Thomas Hardy, a ‘practical provincial definition’.  Much more so than a South West that runs from the Scillies to the Cotswolds and a South East that wraps round two-thirds of London and whose extremities can only communicate with each other by passing through a national capital that forms a separate region.

If Wessex is a practical province, and not just a romantic image of myth and legend that doesn’t even merit its own official tourist board, why isn’t it shown more on maps?  We must note that briefly and for specific purposes it does come into being, as with the Army’s Wessex Brigade or the short-lived Wessex Trains franchise.  The London regime always realises its mistake and pulls back from taking things further.  Then busily covers up the evidence while encouraging others to do likewise.

Alternatively, it hides behind forms of official recognition that don’t require Wessex to be defined.  Like recognising St Ealdhelm as our patron saint or the Wyvern as our flag (and even allowing it to be flown from public buildings, something several county and unitary councils are doing today).  Another example would be awarding our earldom to the Queen’s youngest son.  The re-use of the title for Prince Edward in 1999 launched a tsunami of sneering from the London press, ranging from massive pride in not knowing where Wessex is to asking whether the brand isn’t damaged for eternity, given that Wessex Water was once owned by Enron.  When in 2011 Prince William became Duke of Cambridge, the reaction was more like ‘how nice’.  The Wessexes are one way of acknowledging that Wessex exists but, like the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, they can be a convenient device when needed for ensuring loyalty to the London regime among the grovelling classes.  Their full potential for obstructing self-government has yet to be tested.

Yet another trick is to use ‘Wessex’ as the name for something smaller than Wessex, like Wessex Water, or the Wessex Regional Health Authority.  Another still is to associate aspects of Wessexness, like cider or the dialect, with a vague area that won’t match county boundaries, but simply not to notice how these things form bundles that add up to an identity.  There are lots of words for folk from Wessex – Wessaxon, Wessexer, Wessexian, or – best of all – Wurzel, but probably none that would be acknowledged outside Wessex because if you don’t look and listen you won’t find.

In all these respects, Wessex is less comparable with other movements for autonomy within the UK and more with mainland movements in the likes of Alsace, Brittany, Moravia or Scania.  These are likewise places that exist in the heart but have been truncated, partitioned or even obliterated for purposes of governance, by centralist states jealous of any rival for the people’s affections.

Some regions have their capital city at their centre.  The central geographical feature of Wessex is the empty expanse of Salisbury Plain.  (Our big cities are round the edge, places of exchange with a wider world.)  That sense of a hollow centre is often how it feels politically.  We’re told that we’re campaigning for a region that most of its residents don’t recognise.  Yet that’s a throw-away line; it just avoids the need for any further thinking.  Thinking about how and why the London regime controls the space within which a Wessex identity could flourish, and controls it with the deliberate intention of ensuring that it doesn’t.  Thinking about the ruling class of Wessex, MPs and councillors sitting for the London parties, media hacks, academics, in many cases with anything but the good of Wessex as their motivation.  Thinking too about the opportunities we now have to build a radical Wessex movement from the bottom up.

It’s easy for critics to present the Wessex Regionalists as rather like one of those bands that were big in the 80s and are still trying to make a comeback, playing the occasional gig in obscure places like Witney.  The fact is that the raising of the election deposit in 1985 – it was more than trebled – was a huge blow that stopped us in our tracks.  We had until then been ramping up the number of candidates at each election.  Instead, we were kept out of electioneering for over a decade, times when it looked as if we might not survive.  The Tories claimed that raising the deposit was necessary to deter ‘frivolous’ candidates.  It didn’t.  All it did was deter serious candidates without the Tories’ access to loads of money.

And it shows how worried they were, as well they ought to be.  Devolution for peripheral areas is one thing; devolution for the area that encapsulates the deepest memories of statehood is an existential challenge the UK is ill-equipped to weather.  So if the current set-up is designed to deny us our identity, culturally and politically, then we should feel honoured rather than surprised.  Let’s get on with re-awakening it for ourselves.  That means, above all, not trying to influence those who have power but rather to do everything in our power to sweep them aside.

Happy St Ealdhelm’s Day

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wider Still and Wider?

Leaflets for this year’s Royal Bath & West Show are starting to drop through letterboxes.  Far be it from us to suggest that the show is run by a far Right clique but the leaflets are easily confused with party literature for UKIP or the BNP, draped in more Union Jacks than you can shake a halyard at.  Far be it from us to suggest either that the organisers aren’t aware that they run the premier agricultural show in Wessex: the Countess of Wessex was Show President in 2010 and 2011 and since then has been Vice-Patron.  The B&W is one of the few longstanding organisations that have served both ‘the West’ and ‘the South’ within Wessex: its full name for many years was the Bath & West and Southern Counties Society, the result of a merger in 1868.  Before the permanent showground at Shepton Mallet was established in 1965 the show was held all over Wessex, with occasional forays as far as Swansea and Maidstone (and on two occasions even Nottingham).

But here we are: the ‘Great British Festival of Agriculture, Entertainment, Food & Drink’.  In fact, for visitor numbers the B&W is well behind both the Royal Welsh and the Royal Highland.  On the inside pages, we’re told about ‘England’s biggest celebration of rural life’, words incongruously accompanied by yet another Union Jack.  Numerically, this is contestable.  Yorkshire has a perfectly good county show which styles itself ‘England’s premier agricultural event’ and its attendance figures lie in a similar range.  There’s no mention of Wessex at all in the leaflet: even the ‘West Country’ only just slips in on the back page, which tells us about traders exhibiting in the West Country for the first time.  All in all, it sounds like a lost opportunity for showcasing the region’s produce rather than somebody else’s.

It seems that under its new Chief Executive the B&W, instead of remaining what it is, and being good at it, is determined to be what it’s not, another national festival that happens to be located in Wessex.  A bit like Glastonbury (and, yes, Michael Eavis, this year’s President, is credited with sourcing the live music).  In that case, it needs even more visitors to fill the site and pay for it all.  Now just short of its 240th birthday, the B&W has survived by moving with the times but we hope it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew.  The fate of Stoneleigh is a solemn reminder of the risks ag show organisers must now constantly face.  We’d like to say, go and support it while you still can, but if it’s no more distinctive than many of the others, where would be the point?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Post-Truth Politics

Is an Eton education good value for money?  From the public’s point of view, it seems not, given Boris Johnson’s underwhelming analysis of European history.  He lit up the weekend with his dire warning that the EU is little better than a Fourth Reich.  For others, it’s the EUSSR, but we’ve learnt to recognise that political consistency is no barrier when conspiracy theories are in town.  The string-pullers can also be variously identified as Saudi Arabia, the CIA, Mossad, the Vatican…

BoJo was backed by a fellow Old Etonian, Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told the media thatPhilip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon and Hitler all wanted to create a single European power.  What Boris has said is the EU is following the footsteps of these historic figures but using different means."  Not so fast, Jacob: an Oxford history graduate should be rather more precise.  Philip wanted a more powerful Spain, headed by himself.  Louis and Napoleon each wanted a more powerful France, headed by himself.  Hitler wanted a more powerful Germany, headed by himself.  Not one of these rulers wanted a powerful Europe, an association in which all countries are regarded as equals, a Europe designed to clip the wings of imperial ambition on the part of unfettered autocrats.  In fact, the most appropriate equal of all of them could be none other than BoJo, who wants a more powerful Britain, headed by himself and up to who knows what mischief in the world.  Those advocating a united Europe have done so chiefly with the aim of ending centuries of internal strife through challenging or breaking up the great powers: the Duc de Sully’s Grand Design (1630), William Penn’s European Diet (1693), Auguste Comte’s Occidental Republic (1852) and Mikhail Bakunin’s United States of Europe (1867) were all schemes with this end in mind.

The fawning media remind us that BoJo is a ‘classical scholar’, as if knowledge of the Roman Empire is really that much help.  The entity most consciously modelled on it was the British Empire, the Pax Britannica, greatly admired by Hitler, largely for that reason.  BoJo was quite right to say that pan-European thinking does sometimes draw on the Imperium Romanum as a model.  Does he think that re-creating the Roman province of Britannia out of its post-Roman nations was something different?  Perhaps drawing on the legacy of Rome is OK if we do it?  BoJo is also quite right that there’s little deep loyalty to a common European identity.  Nor will there be if he and other nation-state grandstanders succeed in blocking its emergence.  The question is whether Europe in 2050 will be better off if Europeans stop working together, as Europeans.

The EU referendum debate ought to matter but instead it’s been reduced to a willy-waving contest among overgrown schoolboys over who gets to lead the Conservative Party.  What should be a debate about an uncertain future has been reduced to which unpleasant bit of history is judged most likely to repeat itself, in altogether different circumstances.  Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian (the ex-Manchester London newspaper) on Friday, highlighted the alternate reality of ‘post-truth politicians’, buffoons who aren’t.  These are the folk who form the Government.  If we voted for them then the bigger fools are us.

As usual, what’s never injected into the debate is any criticism of the UK and how it’s governed.  From a regionalist perspective, the European issue comes down to whether ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ is more likely to deliver regional parliaments in England powerful enough to end London dominance forever.  None of the big players will be asked that question by the media and so we won’t get an answer.  We’d just like to point out that if the EU is undemocratic, unaccountable, bureaucratic and corrupt, what's the UK?  How is a multi-national structure alleged to have been put together by banks and big business worse than a union that well suited investors in the Bank of England, the Honourable East India Company and Lloyds of London?  Who will defend, with any sincerity, the further entrenching of a subsidiarity-free constitution involving huge over-centralisation of power, wealth and talent in one small corner of the country, an electoral system in which the vast majority of votes are thrown away as worthless, and a Parliament that since 1571 has been firmly under the City of London’s thumb?  The frying-pan, however hot, is still a safer place than the fire.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Stacking Up

Libraries news tends to be bad news.  Closures mainly, accompanied by the snarling of those who think that in the Internet age all books should be burned, as useless relics of a barbarous past.  Little thought is given to the social role of libraries as places to meet and share, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, or their educational role in actively promoting literacy.

Some good news comes from the LibrariesWest consortium, which links Somerset and the four unitary authorities in what used to be Avon.  The public library services of Dorset and Poole will be joining the consortium in June.  As a result, users will be able to access over 150 libraries ‘coast to coast’, from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, using a single library card.  Items can be reserved, borrowed, renewed and returned at any LibrariesWest library regardless of where borrowed from.  LibrariesWest is also introducing a shared computer system to manage loans and stock, offering online searches of a unified catalogue of 2.5 million items.

The London regime’s expectation is that councils will increasingly work together to reduce costs, including through pooling their buying power.  Financial pressures and technical changes mean that it’s happening across a wide range of services, from police and fire to archives and museums to smaller councils pooling back-office functions like audit, payroll, procurement and IT.

Costs could be reduced and effectiveness improved much more rapidly, and with much less pain, if Wessex had an elected assembly to co-ordinate all these ad hoc efforts.  For example, the Welsh Government’s National Procurement Service has led the commissioning of a single library management system for all 22 public library authorities in Wales.  This is but one of its many initiatives, designed to empower local economies as well as cut costs across the whole public sector.  An assembly in Wessex would have its own ‘invest-to-save’ budget to spend on driving forward regional priorities, which could be very different from those that London thinks best for us.  Wessex needs to be free of interference from Whitehall departments that, by imposing ideological solutions through institutional silos, only gets in the way of sensible answers to challenging questions.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Thursday last week saw a plethora of different elections across the UK and among these polls was a referendum in St Ives.  Local folk voted by 83% to 17% in favour of a policy to ban the building of new second homes.  Faced with a housing market described as ‘financial cleansing’ of the locals, that’s no surprise, though of course it does nothing to ease the pressure on houses already built.

Reactions ranged from great interest, among towns and villages elsewhere, including western Wessex, to threats of judicial review by appalled developers.  Wessex already has an example of this type of policy, in the Lynton and Lynmouth Neighbourhood Plan in Devon, but this could be argued as an exception because of its location within the Exmoor National Park.  What happens when exceptions become the new rule?

Ministers in Lunnon insist that this is the sort of thing up with which they will not put.  The law will be changed to curb these uppity yokels.  Cornwall is surely somewhere that only comes into existence during the holiday season and switches itself off afterwards.  Localism?  Oh, we really are having a laugh.

The current issue of the MK magazine Cornish Nation highlights the raw deal that Cornwall is increasingly getting.  A cross-border Devonwall Parliamentary constituency is looming, regardless of token recognition of the Cornish as a national minority.  (If approved, this will make it impossible for MK candidates to represent Cornwall and only Cornwall, just as it will make it impossible for us to represent Wessex and only Wessex.)  Last month, a paltry £150,000 a year grant to support the Cornish language – equivalent to about three MPs’ expenses claims – was peremptorily withdrawn, to widespread dismay.  Cornwall’s Grand Bard described this spiteful act, so damaging to the tourism offer, as “an ideological decision based on indifference and not a financial one based on fiscal responsibility”.

Last year’s ‘Cornwall Devolution Deal’ was so feeble as to be an abuse of the word ‘devolution’, so limited in scope that it did not merit legislation or even a Commons debate.  The key areas of housing and planning are excluded from the deal.  Instead, the centralist inspection regime has imposed on Cornwall a much higher housebuilding target than that deemed appropriate by the majority of local residents and also re-written the council’s affordable housing policies to undermine their effectiveness.

As if to pour petrol on the flames, the Court of Appeal yesterday ruled it lawful for the London regime to prevent councils seeking contributions to affordable housing from sites of 10 homes or fewer, overturning a previous ruling obtained by Reading and West Berkshire councils.  These small windfall sites, often redevelopment sites, are the sort that can make a significant – and generally uncontroversial – contribution to housing development in our towns and villages.  Excluding them means that councils are ever more reliant on the volume housebuilders to deliver their one affordable for every two market houses.

This in turn puts ever more pressure on councils to allow more market houses than are actually needed by the local population, leading to yet more second homes and an influx of retired folk whose social care costs later in life are met from local taxation, not from national taxation or by the areas in which they paid taxes when working.  Meanwhile, as the Revenue Support Grant is being squeezed out of existence its place is being taken by the New Homes Bonus, a shameless bribe to councils to build or lose out.

This all began in the 1980s when we largely stopped building council houses and loaded the cost of social housing onto homebuyers, who themselves are often struggling to afford the prices.  Landowners do nicely though, with three attempts since 1945 at capturing their heightened development value through taxation or public ownership overturned by the Tories and no fourth attempt in sight.

The point we have to hammer home is that you really do get what you vote for.  Cornwall elected the full set of six Tory MPs last year.  What did it expect to get in return?  Little victories like St Ives mean nothing if the one lot can still count on your vote ‘to keep the other lot out’.  Tory, Labour, LibDem.  All centralist and all rotten to the core.  So forget ‘the other lot’.  Be your own lot and deny them all the power to do your community lasting harm.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Road to 2020

Nick Xylas polled 62 votes in Eastville on Thursday, a sound base from which to expand at Bristol’s next election in four years’ time.  In 2020 we’ll have a General Election to fight as well, so planning needs to start straightaway.  For Nick’s own reactions to the result, see the Eastville blog.

It was clear at the count that voters in this two-member ward are not so tribal as might have been supposed, with many splitting their choice between two candidates from rival parties.  The point needs to be made to voters whose first loyalty is to a party with only one candidate – the Greens and TUSC in this case – that giving the second vote to WR is a reasonable option.  It also means that a negative campaign would be counter-productive, though this is true of many places in Bristol given its genuinely multi-party profile.

The result wasn’t bad for a first go – across the city, one Tory and four FibDem candidates managed less than double this and at 0.849% of the poll it was in percentage terms our third best ever.  Second place goes to our founder, then known as Viscount Weymouth, who polled 0.855% when he stood in the first Parliamentary contest at Westbury in 1974.  First place goes to Tom Thatcher, who took 3% at Westbury in 1979.  Tom was a popular local farmer, active in the community, and so, naturally, we can’t agree that any similarity of name with the then Leader of the Opposition could have influenced the outcome.  Wessex voters are too smart for that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Choice At Last

Our President Colin Bex and Secretary-General David Robins were in Bristol at the weekend to help our candidate for the Eastville Ward, Nick Xylas, with his campaign there.  All three are shown here at an impromptu stall set up in Eastville Park.

Nick unexpectedly had the chance to move to a new flat that same weekend, leaving him, equally unexpectedly, to rely on others to do much of the leafleting.  Fortunately, Nick had the process well-organised, with lists of addresses prepared for each polling district.  A surprising number of addresses were not on the electoral register at all, which may be down simply to folk moving house or possibly to the recent changeover to individual rather than household registration, which may have cost the unwary their right to vote this time round.  As we keep saying, the Victorians thought through electoral law very carefully and it’s suffered heavily from ignorant meddling over the past two decades, postal vote fraud on an industrial scale being the worst consequence revealed so far.  And what else is currently kept under wraps?  No wonder some question what, in the absence of real reform, is the point in voting.

Bad weather didn’t help us and it now seems highly unlikely that full coverage of the ward will be achieved ahead of polling day tomorrow.  The best we can hope for is that by targeting key locations within the ward we do our bit to ensure that news will pass around by word of mouth or electronic media.  Nick takes the long-term view that 2016 is primarily about learning how best to do a local election campaign, with the idea already in mind that 2020 and the run-up to it offer the opportunity to do the thing really well.  One suggestion is a regular ward newsletter – the Eastville Wyvern perhaps?

This is the first time that voters at a local election anywhere have had a Wessex Regionalist on the ballot paper, so we as much as they can make our mark.  Nick is the first WR candidate to contest a seat wholly located in historic Gloucestershire (the Wansdyke Parliamentary constituency, contested in 1983, included some Gloucestershire wards but was predominantly in Somerset).  With this election therefore we can claim to have raised our standard in every one of our eight historic shires.  And – who knows? – we may yet be pleasantly surprised when the results are declared on Sunday.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Wessexit

Of all the reasons for remaining in the EU the most compelling arises from quietly contemplating the alternative.  Being marooned on a small island run by Gove, Johnson and IDS is a chilling prospect.  It also smacks of betrayal of those elsewhere working for a better Europe.  The Danes in particular fear isolation without their sceptical British friends.  What needs testing – and testing hard – this month and next is the idea that Brexit would unleash a decentralist wave upon whose crest regionalists as much as eurosceptics will surf smoothly to success.

That was the idea dismissed this week in a front-page report in the Western Boring Views.  Mark Berrisford-Smith, head of economics for HSBC UK Commercial Banking, told regional business leaders in Plymouth that negotiations over Brexit, and associated economic uncertainties, could pre-occupy Government for years, delaying other decisions, with the decentralisation agenda being one item moved to the back burner.

Of course, ministers could clear their desks of unnecessary distractions by pressing ahead with that agenda right now, but that sort of trust has never existed between central and local government and no amount of crisis will create it.  Our diagnosis is that the sickness goes to the heart of the relationship.  Earning central government’s trust should be no part of local government’s job; central government should exist solely as the obedient servant of the localities that elect it and if it fails them it should expect to be abolished forthwith.  Wessexit.

So let’s not get too excited by the idea of devolution, Osborne-style.  It’s not what we’ve campaigned for all these years.  The Municipal Journal last week allowed Cllr George Nobbs, Leader of Norfolk County Council a page to share his frustration.  Beneath a photo of the East Anglian flag and the headline ‘Killing off devolution’, he wrote:

“There is no more enthusiastic proponent of regional devolution than myself.  I have supported the idea of moving powers from Whitehall to East Anglia all my adult life.  When on Budget day the Chancellor announced a draft deal for East Anglia I nailed my colours to the mast in the most literal way, flying the flag of East Anglia from Norfolk County Hall.  However, remarkably, the institutional arrogance of central government seems set to give us a deal that cannot be sold locally.  As it stands not one of the three counties that make up the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ look likely to be able to sell the current deal to members or residents…

The current ‘devolution deal’ was the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the Scottish referendum result and bears no resemblance to any other form of devolution in the UK, other than the insistence on the office of a London-style mayor for rural England…

The office of elected mayor is fine for London but universally opposed in shire county England.  Senior government ministers have said time and time again that in the past devolution has failed because it was top-down.  They had learned, they said.  This would be bottom-up.  We could design our own deal.  We would be in the driving seat, they said.  When we urged them to consider any alternative to an elected mayor (because we couldn’t sell it to our citizens) they said it was non-negotiable.  ‘No mayor no deal’ was the answer.  They were not even prepared to consider changing the one word mayor for another title.”

First it was Prescott, now it’s Osborne.  You can have any colour of devolution you want as long as it’s black.  So black you can’t see what’s going on.  The mayoral model is non-negotiable because it’s part of a London-party consensus that values opaqueness above all.  The democratic model, taking decisions openly, in full view of the press and public, and transparently, subject to the forensic examination of political debate in council chamber or legislative assembly, is judged not fit for purpose.  End all the politics, we’re told.  Actions, not words.  But efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things, and without continual accountability it’s very easy both to do things wrong and to do the wrong things.

Next month, we’re told, we need to reject the unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy in favour of, well, what?  How is accountability unfolding here?  We need to put our own, British values first, apparently.  Values like privatising our schools and our NHS, transforming them into profit centres far beyond any hope of democratic redress.

We’ve been told many times that the dissolution of English political unity would be too high a price to pay for the benefits regionalism brings, even if the regions reflect deep-rooted identities like Wessex and East Anglia.  Yet the displacement of our historic shires by ‘Greater Lincolnshire’, ‘North Midlands’, ‘Tees Valley’ and other mayored innovations isn’t viewed as a problem.  (Nor is it viewed as part of the ‘euro-plot’, as would any attempt to give England the regional governments now standard across all large west European countries.)  As Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, also writing in the Municipal Journal, noted, “The new rash of elected mayors for improbable geographies face some real challenges in getting noticed in any way at all.”   That’s just it though.  They’re not there to be noticed.  A revolution in how England is governed is now underway as secret deals are lined up for sign-off.  Personality mayors and commissioners for made-up areas will preside as local services are handed wholesale to global financial interests.

Do the public care?  According to Ben Page’s data they do.  Around half (49%) support the principle of decentralising local decision-making powers, with only 17% opposed.  There are two main worries that are shared by 58% of those who don’t support devolution.

One is the spectre of ‘postcode lottery’ – the fear that services would start to vary between areas to an unacceptable degree (though it’s surprisingly acceptable for the Irish or the French to have different standards).  Keeping the number of English regions well below double figures is one way to minimise this fear: the present hotch-potch of ‘improbable geographies’ is going to have to be sorted out sooner or later and the sooner the better.  Another way is to make devolution real, so that regional politicians cannot blame Whitehall if they fail to match the standards of the best.

The second worry is that politicians in the provinces aren’t up to the job and so can’t be trusted with real power.  That’s hardly surprising: real talent isn’t going to be attracted to run an ever-shrinking range of services subject to ever more intrusive interference from ministers and their civil servants anxious about poor performance.  Breaking that vicious circle is easy.  Tolerate responsibility through the ballot box, open up the opportunities and the talent will come.  Or, to be more accurate, it will stay exactly where it is and not be lured to London.

If being locked indoors with the Tories is the best reason for opposing Brexit then a good second is that the debate has been framed in terms of sovereignty instead of subsidiarity and on those terms Brexit poses an unacceptable risk.  That risk is that sovereignty regained will be sovereignty hoarded.  All Europe needs a debate on what can be done closer to the people than it is today.  Even if that means identifying things that are done too close to be done well – because there are some activities that can now only be effective on a scale beyond that of the classical nation-state.

It needs to be a European debate, not a British or English one, because only in the idea of a Europe of a Hundred Flags can small nations and historic regions achieve the recognition the nation-states are determined to deny us.  We hear a lot about how the EU is a malignant conspiracy to destroy those nation-states and their historic identities long-forged in good old-fashioned lethal conflict.  Michael Gove looks forward to ‘patriotic renewal’, while Jacques Attali fears another Franco-German war before the century is out.  Meanwhile, the British State for which we’re supposed to boldly patrify shows how much it really cares about our identity, turning our ancient shires, the roots of our democracy, into clone-zones of the metropolis and topping each with its own little Caesar.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

Bristol City Council is still weathering the storm it brought down upon itself for not marking St George’s Day this year, having argued that the city is ‘too multicultural’ for such an event.  Lack of interest might have been a plausible excuse, but not that all cultures are valued except one.

Others do things differently.  Professor John Denham is Director of Winchester University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics.  Interviewed by Wessex Society for its magazine The Wessex Chronicle, he recalled the situation in Southampton during his time as a Labour MP there:

“I helped organise St George’s Day in Southampton and Southampton’s a very diverse city – so how do you have a St George’s Day which can involve everybody and yet is still an English festival?  The story we tell is that Southampton is a great English city, that’s been there throughout English history, and it’s always been made up of all the people who’ve lived there, which because it’s a port city has always been people from all over the world.  People can understand that you can be both English and very diverse, through your history and everybody that’s come together to make the city.  A couple of years ago I was working on this with a young Sikh woman councillor, born in Southampton, and we discovered that we both had had relatives in the British forces serving in the Far East during the Second World War.  That’s an example of how family and local histories can be inter-twined as part of a common story.”

The difference then is that Southampton projects the primacy of territory, locally and nationally – loyalty to place rather than to race – whereas Bristol appears scared of any continuity with its foundational past.  Curiously, when it comes to Wessex and the marking of St Ealdhelm’s Day, the roles are reversed.  Bristol is happy to fly the Wyvern outside the Council House (or ‘City Hall’, for the Anti-Mayor and his fellow deniers of distinctiveness); Southampton still sits in stony silence, unmoved by calls to fly.  Perhaps this will be the year Southampton sees sense?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review of 2015

Every year when we submit our accounts to the Electoral Commission we are also required to provide a 'Review of Political Activities' covering the year just gone.

The 2015 Review has recently been forwarded to the Commission and here is what it says:

“The major event of the year was the General Election, which saw our President, Colin Bex return to Oxfordshire to again challenge David Cameron for the safe Tory seat of Witney.  The overall result was no surprise but Colin was pleased to see a 77% increase in his own vote and a midway ranking among the candidates, concluding that if voters remain willing to keep their options open this bodes well for the future.  Indeed, it was our best result since 2001.  The first-past-the-post voting system continues to disadvantage smaller parties; it creates presumptions about who is worth hearing that prevent a minor party candidate even putting forward an alternative point of view.  This was again the case at Witney, where Colin and other minor party candidates were barred from even attending the hustings.  Local press coverage was seriously incompetent, even to the point of publishing inexcusable untruths, though full colour feature articles in both editions of the Wall Street Journal ensured global awareness of the Wessex cause.

The importance of online activities was underlined by a sharp spike in viewing figures for the Party’s blog during the campaign.  In April, there were nearly 3,000 page-views, nearly double the peak of interest during the Eastleigh by-election in 2013.  In May, the Party was left without a core website following the catastrophic failure of the Zyweb platform that hosted it.  Thanks to Rick Heyse, a new Full Member with the requisite skills, the Party now has a new site – www.wessexregionalists.info – to which are gradually being added the range of features increasingly expected of a party website in the 21st century.  Colin Bex has been an active ambassador for the Party, attending conferences on climate change, in Paris, and democracy, in Brussels, and the June march in London against austerity.  On the march, he spoke with Jeremy Corbyn, soon to be the Labour Leader, about the need for regionalism.

A wholly Conservative Government took office in May with some two-thirds of the electorate either not supporting or actively opposing it.  It has demonstrated a deep hostility towards regionalism and local democracy, even as financial pressures compel public services to re-organise on a regional basis.  It continues to advance the view – shared with Labour – that the imposition of unwanted elected mayors is a preferable substitute for substantial devolution to democratic regional assemblies.  In the second half of 2015 our attention shifted to the May 2016 local elections.  Nick Xylas was endorsed as the Party’s candidate for Bristol City Council, Eastville Ward and much activity has focused on developing a framework for that campaign.

Policies adopted during the year have emphasised our radical difference from the current mainstream.  The Party now explicitly supports a confederal ‘Europe of a Hundred Flags’, more democratic governance of public limited companies and a referendum on the future of the monarchy, while opposing child genital mutilation, ritual slaughter and the renewal of Trident.  We continue to benefit from the ‘Scotland effect’ as the SNP consolidates its hold and voters in England also look around for alternatives to the failed London parties.  The level of justifiable optimism within the Party is higher than for many, many years.”

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Keeping It Under Your Hat

With 11.5 million documents to read through, we’ve not heard the last of the revelations from the Panama Papers.  David Cameron is on the defensive, though Jeremy Corbyn’s attacks are blunted by the fact that his party was once led by one half of the Blair couple, now rumoured to be worth a cool £60 million.  If Labour’s a party with the interests of the common man at heart, it certainly hasn’t acted like one.

Equally revealing is the information that Cameron blocked EU plans for greater transparency over trusts.  It brings into sharp relief what’s at stake in the EU referendum because the issue presented as pro- or anti-Brussels can in fact be reversed and presented as pro- or anti-London.  Brexit won’t deliver regionalism but it could very easily produce a London regime on steroids.  Johnson as Prime Minister, ousting the fatally discredited thinking of the Cameron / Osborne axis, but even more in thrall to City backers.  Massive deregulation paving the way for active promotion of the UK as the place for the globally corrupt to do business.  London helping itself to still more of the national wealth while denying other parts of the UK still more of the powers needed to turn themselves around.  Openly, the fight for Brexit is being fought in the name of democracy, and on that score sound points can be made, but, behind the scenes, kleptocracy would be the real winner.

A clear pointer to the direction of travel appeared this week when Dominic Grieve highlighted that tax-dodging is an industry that provides a great many much-needed jobs.  In places like the British Virgin Islands that matter so much to all of us, if we can just remember where they are.  It does indeed provide jobs, socially useless ones, just as it destroys socially useful jobs by denying the public purse the funds with which to sustain them.  Such is the mentally sick, insecure society that Thatcherism has spawned, ferreting around for whatever bits of work are on offer from a parasite class to whom caps must forever be doffed.  Dismantling the tax havens is technically a very easy thing to do; it’s just politically impossible to pass the necessary legislation because of a longstanding Wesm’ster consensus against it.

George Osborne’s plan to nationalise all local authority schools, and then privatise them – a bit like the Dissolution of the Monasteries – is another pointer to the direction of travel.  Academies don’t have to teach the national curriculum, so it will presumably disappear, along with parent governors and any other vestige of democracy that might give children the wrong idea about how our society can be run.  Why would you need a national curriculum, written down and open to challenge, when it can simply be ‘understood’ by the chief executives of the big McSchool academy chains?  Understood, that is, to mean teaching that a fraudster is just a better entrepreneur than the competition, that tax-dodging is wealth creation and that the only thing the law-abiding individual need ever fear is the over-mighty State?  Dis-education and mis-education are the new battleground because what you don’t know can’t hurt you, can it?

Englishness is many things but one of the most cherished is a love of secrecy, or privacy as it’s usually termed, a pathological distrust of the other that underpins the rejection of any potential for collective action.  It’s why we prefer houses, even in city centres, to the flats that those on the mainland regard as a far more rational use of land.  Across most of Scandinavia, tax returns are public documents: folk don’t have hang-ups about what they earn or the tax they pay on it.  Perhaps they believe they really have earned it: so many of our top ‘earners’ know deep down that their salaries are out of all proportion to their real social value.  English society, obsessed with covering up the truth in order to protect a ruling class who aren’t worth their privileges, is a society at war with itself.  The rulers keep winning by setting each serf against all the rest and presenting themselves as the good guys.  It’s been like that for 950 years.

The system was imposed from outside, from Normandy.  Can it be overthrown from within, or will it take some major help from Brussels to achieve our liberation?  The history of those 950 years furnishes one very clear answer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Devo Min

There are quite a few bright spots for Wessex folk to cheer about in today’s budget – and not just a freeze on cider duty – but look beyond the headlines.  It’s good to see money for children’s A&E in Southampton, but isn’t the rest of the NHS on life support?  A “more resilient train line in the South West” (in other words, dealing with Dawlish) is backed, though this actually only extends to a feasibility study that’s currently stalled.  We mustn’t forget the £20 million to help young families onto the housing ladder in the South West”, funded from the 3% stamp duty surcharge on additional properties.  Osborne says that’s a reward for good behaviour – “proof that when the South West votes blue, their voice is heard loud in Westminster” – but if we controlled our own resources and made our own decisions the cynical bribes wouldn’t be necessary.  With MPs in the South West still being urged to rebel over HS2, it seems they could do with more than a little regionalist help in turning up the volume.

We’ll be studying the financial detail before commenting further on those aspects that naturally fall within the Chancellor’s brief.  Meanwhile, we can comment at once on those that don’t but are there anyway.  ‘Devolution’, so called, can’t be taken seriously so long as it’s viewed as part of some national productivity campaign, no more than a footnote in the Government’s spending plans.  Constitutional change should be about democratic renewal, not the further empowerment of unaccountable business interests.  Are we happy too with the theft of our publicly funded schools in their entirety?  Theft it is, to nationalise the powers of a tier of government closer to the people, without its consent.  Where’s the referendum on that?

That’s why the devolution deals announced today are so pitiful.  If the local councils agree, there’ll be a Mayor for ‘Avon, Mk. II’, on top of the one Bristol already has, and despite the one Bath has just rejected.  Other parts of Wessex are still trying to line up their bids for more of the same.  In East Anglia, councils willing, there’ll be a Mayor too, heading the first region-wide elected administration in East Anglian history.  Like it or not, there won’t be a Mayor of Wessex.  Which is just as well.  We demand the open, transparent debate of a legislative assembly, like Wales or Scotland, not a behind-the-scenes fixer placed beyond accountability for a full four-year term.  The whole mayoral obsession is part of a failure to understand that London’s dominance over England is about the inter-regional distribution of political power, not the fact that it has a Boris and we don’t.

As with the North East referendum in 2004, what’s currently on offer may end up rejected locally as too little to bother with for the democratic and financial costs attached.  We’ve maintained a bold alternative that’s been rejected by all the London parties, essentially for the mortal sin of being ambitious in what we propose for Wessex.  All we need say in response is, where’s your vision then?  End the excuses, start rolling out REAL regional devolution, and do it now.