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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

More, or Less? You Choose

Yes, you do.  Because just when you think that London, after all it’s had so far, can’t get greedier yet, along comes Crossrail 2.

The ‘National’ Infrastructure Commission last week recommended that the scheme – a north-south rail link across the capital – should be funded at once, “as a priority”, so it can open in 2033.  Its Chairman, Lord Adonis, said that London needs Crossrail 2 “as quickly as possible” to relieve congestion on Tubes and trains.  “Crossrail 2 will help keep London moving… we should get on with it right away”.  The smart money is on funding being announced as soon as Wednesday’s budget.

Now, it’s arguable that Crossrail 2 is an excellent scheme that will indeed deliver the benefits promised.  But so too are many others.  Wessex cities don’t have congestion on their underground metro systems because we’re still waiting for them to be built.  Many of our market towns could do with their trains back: many have mushroomed in size since the trains were lost through dodgy accounting under the Beeching axe.

The initial east-west Crossrail cost £14.8 billion.  Crossrail 2 will cost between £27 billion and £32 billion, at 2014 prices.  Adonis’ Commission recommends that London should contribute more than half the money.  Why not all of it, since it’s of no benefit whatsoever to us?  What about getting us moving too?  Why not a moratorium on any new national funding for infrastructure in London until the rest of the ‘United’ Kingdom has caught up?  For how long?  About 100 years should do it.

Why does this happen?  London’s MPs don’t form a Commons majority.  In fact, 89% of MPs represent constituencies outside London.  Even adding in London’s commuter belt doesn’t take us anywhere near a majority.  So why do our MPs so submissively vote for our taxes to be poured into this bottomless pit?  Why do they soak up the lies from ‘experts’ that this is a good investment from which we all benefit in the end, even as we look around us at our shrivelling community landscape?  It’s time our politics – so good at pretending to represent social class divisions – grew a geographical dimension to match.  The SNP have shown how it’s done.  The revolt needs to come south.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Ourselves Alone

One of the most persistent demands made of us by non-members is that we should work to set up a confederation of decentralist parties, on an all-England or all-Britain basis.  It’s a course of action fraught with difficulties, rather like trying to get the cart to go before the horse.  So let’s take it apart, piece by piece.  Get set for some iconoclasm.

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.