The first assumption is that confederation is the politics of the present. And that it’s working.
It’s that the UK, or maybe the British Isles grouping, is moving towards a confederal model and that political parties need to organise to reflect this. There are indeed some institutions arising mainly out of the Good Friday Agreement that appear to be quasi-confederal. There’s the British-Irish Council, based in Edinburgh, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, based in Belfast, the North/South Ministerial Council, based in Armagh, and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which moves around.
The British-Irish Council meets twice a year. Would it be missed if it didn’t? Probably not. It’s a nice day out of the office but it does nothing that couldn’t be done by email. Guernsey might want to align its marine energy policy with Scotland’s, but alignment with Brittany and Normandy seems a more practical proposition. It’s the perfect example of what’s wrong with that form of confederalism. It starts with the idea that we need an institution to co-ordinate things, and then looks for things for it to co-ordinate, instead of asking what needs to be done and how.
If anything, a confederal Britain is the politics of the past. It comes in any number of models but they all draw a line round the British Isles to keep them together and to exclude the rest of Europe. Often there’s a confederal capital envisaged as neatly placed on the Isle of Man. It might well have worked, circa 1910, but this is a boat that sailed with Irish independence. Areas with a shared history or language don’t always make for a good confederation. Especially when some were forced by others to share their history and language whether they liked it or not. At the expense of other links they could have made, such as a Celtic grouping. So that just leaves a shared geography, like old television weather maps that ignored the very existence of the European mainland. Fog in Channel: Continent isolated. That isolation is not wholly irrelevant – it keeps migrants in Calais who’d rather be in Dover – but the moat defensive is a poor basis for common security in the era of global powers. The unification of the British Isles was driven by a series of military necessities that have now passed and need not dominate our politics today.
The second assumption is that confederation is the politics of the future. Or could be, if we all work at it.
This seems highly unlikely. Those who urge a confederal organisation upon us fail to take into account that the various movements within the British Isles have existed for different periods of time, have established themselves electorally to strikingly different degrees, and have very different ideas about the constitutional solution they’re working towards. You won’t be seeing Nicola Sturgeon sitting down to chair a coalition of cripples that in Plaid’s case cannot get beyond four MPs and in the case of the rest are still struggling to get into Parliament. The SNP’s openness towards regionalism in the north of England is a really interesting development but it has to be seen for what it is: Scottish foreign policy in formation. If the result is a better-governed England then that’s a result for everyone, but a better-governed England, or Wales, or Cornwall is, rightly, not the SNP’s primary concern. What motivates a territorial party isn’t the rightness of self-government for all, even though solidarity helps share many things. What motivates a territorial party is the rightness of self-government for us, regardless of what others may think.
The assumption is that we’ll be better-placed to engage with Westminster politics if we pool resources. A single press office. A single lobbying machine. Never mind the complexity of ever agreeing on anything, this gives Westminster a respect it doesn’t deserve. It only sucks us in and turns us into a supplicant pressure group. The lesson we should learn from the SNP is that success comes to those who go it alone. In the film Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera is given the line, ‘We defeat the British Empire by ignoring it.’ The quote attributed to Gandhi about being the change you wish to see is another way of expressing the same idea. Never under-estimate the opposition, that’s true, but never under-estimate yourself either. The Wessex Regionalists have a London Bureau but it won’t be in London that we make our breakthrough. It could be in Bristol. It could be in Winchester. It could be in any one of our urban or rural communities. We guarantee that it won’t be in London, however helpful a London branch might be. If the metropolitan chattering classes like the idea of a free Wessex then let them spread the idea. Either way, we don’t need their permission to exist.
A further problem inherent in the idea of pooling resources is that to pool is to mutually recognise. Three overlapping regionalist groups in Northumbria and at least two in Mercia require some careful judgment. We shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners on others’ turf but that’s what’s demanded by any co-operation that goes beyond maintaining contact and exchanging experiences. We could sit down and agree the map with others and feel really good about that, until some new group springs up, refuses to be bound by discussions to which it was not party, and starts the whole thing up again.
The third assumption is that confederation is an idea whose time has come.
Why has English regionalism failed to take root? One answer is because it fails to nurture those roots. Every generation comes to regionalism thinking that it invented it. That no-one had ever thought of it before. But there is a genealogy of ideas and it’s as fascinating as any family tree. Among Celtic nationalists, there’s a longer continuity of organisation that enables stories of the earlier stages of the struggle to be conserved and passed on. They stand on the shoulders of giants, they know it, and they can name them. They have national libraries, where the pioneers’ papers are preserved, and academics who will treat them as a subject worthy of serious study.
We are the oldest regionalist party in England, launched in 1974 and formally constituted as an organisation in 1980. Yet we’re still discovering things about those who argued before us for a contemporary Wessex. Charles Kingsley, William Barnes, Thomas Hardy, Rolf Gardiner. Amnesia sets in early. Kingsley and Barnes were both writing in the 1860s about a contemporary Wessex, yet a decade later Hardy introduced the concept into his novels and went on to tell the world it was all his own work.
Unless we work harder at developing a collective memory, this is the sort of thing that will go on happening. It happens today because too few English regionalists are fully committed to their regions, viewing regionalism as just one of a host of good political causes, some of which align with regionalism while others cut across it. Some genuinely fear a descent into ‘narrow’ nationalism, to such an extent that they can’t even see the sense of putting their own region’s interests first. In fact, such a fear is unfounded: we have a common interest with the north of England in keeping their economy alive so that their population doesn’t drift south and destroy our countryside. The London regime, supposedly looking after the common national interest, has betrayed us both.
Those who are new to regionalism and can’t understand why there isn’t a national body – co-ordinating, directing and generally bossing the regional parties about – do so probably because they’re unaware of what’s already been tried. The newcomer’s voice often pipes up that ‘that was then, this is now, we can make it work today’. In fact, so long as the issues are no different the outcomes will be no different. If this isn’t grasped intuitively, it just has to be learnt the hard way.
In 1980, Anthony Mockler, on behalf of the Wessex Regionalists, convened a seminar in Oxford to which he invited all the civic nationalist and regionalist movements then active within the UK. The result was the Declaration of Oxford: “We, the signatories of this Declaration, representing various movements for autonomy, declare that we are joined together in determined support for the right to self-government of communities and nations within Britain and against the centralism of the Westminster Government.” The signatories besides ourselves were Cowethas Flamank and Mebyon Kernow (both from Cornwall), the Orkney Movement, the Shetland Movement and the Campaign for the North. Plaid Cymru maintained a semi-detached interest. The SNP remained aloof.
Having met, it was agreed to be useful to keep in touch. The Oxford seminar was the first of 14 held between 1980 and 1994, from Durham to St Austell and Bristol to Norwich. There was an absolute consensus that links were good, at most a network, but not an organisation that risked replicating the very centralism we opposed. Paul Temperton, Director of the Campaign for the North, warned against anything that would evolve into some kind of British Regionalist Association with its headquarters, inevitably, in London.
One thing that did emerge from the seminar series was a magazine, The Regionalist, which ran from 1982 to 1992. Each issue included a feature article about a small nation or historic region and by the time of the last issue every part of the British Isles had been covered, along with Brittany and Normandy. The seminars and the magazine were seen as a way to involve new people who weren’t members of any existing organisation. Three attempts were made to get an East Anglian regionalist group off the ground, but apart from some regional flag-flying the East still dozes to this day.
By the mid-90s the original impetus had been lost, though contacts lasted informally into the 21st century. The usual thing happened: people took their eye off the region. We had discussions about whether there were different kinds of devolution, cultural, and economic, as well as political, and whether they ought to join up or be kept apart for the sake of balance. This was about as far removed from the integrated vision of Wessex Regionalism as it’s possible to get. And we said so. We had a longstanding debate too about general decentralism. Should we involve the Greens, or limit ourselves to movements with a specific territorial basis? That debate still hasn’t gone away, with the SNP and Plaid backing the English Greens in last year’s election. They could at least have pointed out that in Cornwall and some parts of England there’s another choice, one that doesn’t involve a party who in Scotland and Wales are the nationalists’ rivals.
Meanwhile, in 1999, we helped to establish a new focus of joint activity, all-English this time rather than all-British. The Confederation for Regional England also included groups from Kent, Mercia and Northumbria, all signed-up to yet another high-sounding document, the Stourbridge Declaration. We left after three years, alarmed at the time and expense involved in national meetings that offered us nothing and only diverted energy from the regional campaigning that alone can make regionalism work. Worse still was the pressure to agree a unified English regionalist position on policy issues. We struggled to get across the point that if one size fits all, you don’t need regionalism.
The Confederation proved to be one of those luxury items that it’s nice to have but isn’t necessary, or indeed helpful if its role is undefined. Using it to try to plug gaps in the regional map is a noble idea, except in so far as this can become a case of ‘prompting the witness’ as to what regions there should be. A better way to generate allies in currently unorganised areas would be to set the example of a strong movement in Wessex for them to emulate, rather than through national co-operation between existing movements all of which currently are relatively weak. Especially if all are constrained to proceed at the pace of the weakest.
The fourth assumption is that confederation is a good reflection of where we wish to be. So that, regardless of whether or not the UK is perceptibly moving towards confederalism, this is the solution we ought to favour.
In some ways, this is a repetition of the second assumption and is flawed to the same extent, namely that it perpetuates a discourse about the good governance of the UK that is increasingly alien to those who reject the UK. And what can be said of the UK can also be said of England. The idea of confederation is a kind of comfort-blanket for those who aren’t really ready for regionalism. It reassures them that there’s some safety-net, some mechanism for enforcing the common good, for reining-in those who actually do want to set their own priorities. For those who aren’t convinced of the Scottish nationalist case, it holds out the hope that the UK can survive in some ghostly form that continues to exert influence from beyond independence.
A region-centred view of the world isn’t bound by past alliances. Yes, there may be cultural issues on which a free Wessex would wish to work with other English regions – as well as English-speaking areas elsewhere or areas with related languages, like Frisian. Yes, there are geographical issues on which a free Wessex would wish to work with others throughout Great Britain, such as transport links. But neither England nor Britain defines a Wessex-centred world.
Wessex has a number of neighbours. They don’t include the Scots. As well as the Londoners to our east there are the Welsh and Mercians to our north, the Cornish and Irish to our west and the Bretons and Normans to our south. Which of these should we refuse to work with because they don’t neatly fit the priorities of Westminster politics?
In a Europe of regions, our friends could come from even further afield. Our founder, Alexander Thynn, proposed that Wessex should be promoted “as the political and economic ally of all other agricultural regions within Europe, to operate in defending common interests against their transformation by those regions which are more highly industrialised”. He also highlighted the interests of coastal regions as contrasting with those of the continental interior. Nor are our links as a region confined to Fortress Europe: Wessex has important cultural connections with Newfoundland, Massachusetts and Virginia, among others.
Those who urge upon us the necessity of formal co-operation do so with the best of motives. Experience and reflection show that it can be not a springboard to success but a straitjacket that curbs the aspirations of any authentically regional group. We’ll cheer-on our neighbours but we can’t do their job for them. Any more than they can do ours for us. While remaining ever-aware of our surroundings, we need to reach deeper, not wider, to grasp the essence of Wessex.