Saturday, September 20, 2014

Now It’s Our Turn

“The media may have succeeded in creating Essex Man, but they would be hard pressed to resuscitate Wessex Woman.”
John Redwood MP, July 1992

If that is still the view of the Right Honourable Member for Wokingham, then Wessex Woman may wish to have a word with him.  (Just visualising the power bracelets and maybe a red-and-gold cape.)

We have all come a long way in terms of breaking the mould over the past 20 years.  Scotland’s decision to stay in the Union makes for yet more interesting times.  A ‘Yes’ vote could have concluded the constitutional debate, for now, having lanced the boil, with the consequences for England to be picked up later.  A ‘No’ vote not only ensures that it will run and run but that it will take in a lot more than Scotland.  We could – if no more than potentially – end up with a solution that in total is just as radical a change as Scottish independence but with its effects spread much more widely.

The closeness of the vote should keep Westminster’s fingers off the Scottish Parliament’s powers (Tam Dalyell notwithstanding) and may lead to further powers being devolved.  We cannot say for sure until we see what English MPs are willing to allow.  Alex Salmond is correct to say that the focus should not be on how far ‘Yes’ fell short but on how far it has travelled.  Momentum remains with the ‘Yes’ camp, with the rising generation enthusiastic about a Scottish future.  Many of those nostalgic for a British past will not be around to vote next time the question is put.  The promises of further devolution will surely be honoured only very reluctantly, if at all.  Scotland will take note and Scotland will remember.  The ‘No’ camp is already being branded as the ‘non-Yes’.  There is no such word as ‘No’.

So Salmond was also right to say that ‘Yes’ failed to make its case “at this stage”.  The issue now is what happens in the ‘inter-referendum’ period – however long that is – to change how politics is done in the UK.  David Cameron has, quite properly, raised the West Lothian Question but it will take real political genius to answer it satisfactorily.

William Hague has been tasked with finding answers but signalled yesterday that it was “unlikely” there would be proposals for “another layer of government”.  It seems he may not have fully grasped the argument yet.  The key figure is not the number of layers of government but the overall cost of government.  Inserting a regional tier saves money if it leads to better management of the budgets currently being spent/wasted in the region.  This is what will happen once we are able to set our own priorities – which will differ from London’s – and cull the Quango State in favour of direct democratic control through a properly integrated regional government.

Our Secretary-General David Robins has been busy making this case to the region’s media.  He started at just after 7:30 on Friday morning with BBC Radio Solent, joining a panel with John Denham MP.  Then it was on to BBC Radio Bristol and BBC Radio Berkshire, with time out to help the Daily Echo with words and pictures for a feature.  Today it was BBC Inside Out West who wanted an interview, for broadcast on Monday.

British politics in the 20th century followed a pattern.  It took the Labour Party just under 40 years to get a Westminster majority.  It took Plaid Cymru just over 40 years to win a seat in Parliament.  We are 40 this year: will political life in Wessex begin at 40 too?

Nudge Nudge, Wonk Wonk

The Conservative regime that came to power in 1979 – continuing without interruption through 13 years of ‘Labour’ rule – draws its political philosophy from economic theory.  A theory as deeply flawed as anything emanating from Marxist sources but far more of a challenge to anyone seeking to confront it.

In this theory, all individuals are calculating machines, motivated by economic self-interest alone.  This was never a serious account of economic behaviour – theoreticians assume the existence of ‘perfect markets’ that have never actually existed – but it has by degrees migrated into areas of politics that used to be detached from economics.  Areas indeed where independence from the undue influence of purely economic arguments was highly valued.  An example is the about-turn in planning, where a 65-year-old rule that barred financial considerations from being taken into account has now become a legal duty to weigh them in the balance.  In place of the principle that planning permission may not be bought or sold we now have ‘planning by auction’.  Because the Bankers’ Parliament of 2010 has made it so.

Democracy is an anomaly for the Thatcherites and their heirs, because it relies on individuals interacting and making decisions without the intervention of money as the means of exchange.  The regime’s aim therefore has been to squeeze democracy away, to isolate it into smaller and smaller patches of political habitat.  Through privatisation, centralisation and the replacement of politically accountable decision-making with ‘expert’ managerialism.

In 2010, David Cameron set up the ‘nudge unit’ within the Cabinet Office.  A team of policy wonks tasked with using economics and psychology to change the public’s behaviour.  One of the fruits of this kind of thinking emerged onto the Government’s website this week.  The stated intention is to pay local folk not to object to development, a proposal entitled ‘development benefits’:

“The Government wants to reduce the extent to which development is blocked or delayed as a result of active opposition by local residents…  The aim of development benefits is therefore to reduce delays and blockages by providing a financial incentive directly to residents that would reduce the incentive for residents to actively oppose development and increase the likelihood of positive support…  We want to explore, including through research and the pilots, how financial incentives may impact the attitude and behaviour of residents towards housing developments in practice.”

How does it feel to be a rat in David Cameron’s behavioural economics lab?  Won’t it feel much better when we have a different system?  One in which we tell politicians what to think and not the other way round.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Taste of Wessex

Political fiction has a long and influential pedigree, from More’s Utopia to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  One of our aims is fun: to make politics relevant and enjoyable.  So here’s a brief glimpse into one possible Wessex of the future.  A very Happy Scottish Referendum Day tomorrow to all our readers: may all be inspired by the dream of freedom.

“’Ark ee all a-I.  Train now standen a’ Pla’vorm 3 be th’ 08:49 Wyvern Ways service gwain vrammards Bris’ol Temple Meads t’wards Bournemouth Central.  Thic train d’call at Nailsea an’ Backwell, Yatt’n, Winscombe, Cheddar, Wells, Shep’n Mallet, Evercreech Junction, Wincant’n, Templecombe, Stalbridge, Sturm’ster Newton, Blan’vord, Broads’one Junction, Poole an’ Bournemouth Central.  Jange at Yatt’n vor inbetwix stations to Templecombe.  Jange at Wells vor Glas’nb’ry an’ Street.  Jange at Evercreech Junction vor Yeovil an’ stations to Bath Green Park.  Jange at Templecombe vor inbetwix stations to Poole.  Jange at Broads’one Junction vor Swanage an’ Wimborne.  Jange at Poole vor Drakkar Verries sailens to Britt’ny an’ Norm’dy.”

Great to hear at least some of the old accent making a comeback, thought Edwin as he ran up the steps to the platform.  It’s not quite what it was, but so much of an improvement on that ghastly Estuarine whining that filled the airwaves when I were a dapper.  He paused to run an engineer’s perceptive eye over the elegant lines of the freshly delivered locomotive, resplendent in red with its name in gold lettering on the side.  Eric Pickles.  One of the new Alexander Thynn class, 30 electric locomotives named after individuals who played a pivotal role in the renewal of Wessex.  Eric Pickles – nicknamed The Fat Controller – finally had an engine to call his own.  Of course, it was his actions in support of the Wessex flag that had earned him a place in history and not his I-know-best attitude towards local autonomy.

Edwin settled down in his seat and opened his briefcase to take out his complimentary copy of The Times.  He could see by the headline why it was given away free these days: ‘Wessex show trials: confessions mount’.  It was such a shame the Marnen Post had sold out today; he always relied on that for accurate coverage of happenings outside what was left of London.  Show trials indeed.  Nobody was on trial.  These were simply the hearings of the Truth & Restitution Commission and all those who appeared before it did so voluntarily.

Ably chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, the Commission was at last uncovering what really went on in the last days of the London regime.  Former politicians from the London parties were queueing up to spill the beans.  A recurrent theme had been their sense of helplessness as they tried to run a ‘democratic’ form of politics in which property developers and financiers were the ones who really called the shots.  They seemed genuinely relieved now that all that was over and done with.  As for the restitution part, they were putting their names down for community and environmental work not just in their home areas but right across Wessex.  There was a waiting list for those wanting to go to Twyford Down to dig up the remains of the M3 motorway and help with the re-landscaping work.

Most of The Times was advertising, for things that didn’t interest Edwin.  The sports pages included some reasonable coverage from the English inter-regional competitions, in which Wessex was currently in second place, behind Northumbria but ahead of East Anglia.  Edwin folded the paper and reached for his briefcase again.  He checked his phone for messages.  Two.

Tilly Hibbs, Development Manager at Wyvern Ways in Exeter, wanted to discuss the energy implications of some ongoing schemes.  Phase II of the repair workshops at Yeovil.  Was Edwin being unreasonable to demand a bigger contribution from on-site renewables?  He didn’t think so, if the alternative was a major upgrade to the local distribution network.  Electrification west of Okehampton.  Could he support the use of surplus power from Cornwall?  On a small scale perhaps, if a continuing supply could be guaranteed and if the imports could be offset against exports to Mercia.  He’d phone her once he reached Poole and wasn’t constrained by the ‘noise-free’ rule on trains.

The other message was from LAMMAS, the Land & Marine Management Advisory Service in Southampton, confirming the date and time of a video conference call early next month.  It would be a link-up with all the Wessex county councils to discuss the balance between food crops and fuel crops in their areas.  Afforestation was moving up the political agenda again, after the recent heavy flooding.  Edwin would insist that everyone think long-term, planning for needs 100 or 200 years ahead.

A steward entered the carriage, pushing a refreshment trolley.  Edwin asked if there was any coffee today.  No such luck.  Tea and coffee, once everyday items, had reverted to the luxuries they’d been a couple of centuries ago.  Africans didn’t grow crops for the European market now.  They had their own millions to feed.  As well as those of their Chinese masters.  Yet the English still had ‘tea-time’, even without their tea.  One of the functions of language is to reassure us that things haven’t changed all that much, even as meaning imperceptibly shifts.

Edwin settled for an apple juice and a sandwich.  Cheddar cheese and Wiltshire ham.  At least there were some things you could always rely on in Wessex, always provided that London wasn’t allowed to mess it up again.

Spetisbury.  The station nameboard flashed past as the train raced for the Dorset coast.  The Bristol to Bournemouth service – often jokingly referred to as the Spine Express – linked two of the main urban areas in Wessex without having to rely on routes directed towards London.  Its very existence would have been laughed at in the days when London ruled Wessex.  Back then, regionalists had been used to hearing themselves described as dangerous men and women, plotting constitutional experiments unprecedented in modern times, dabbling in ideas that could undermine the priceless nonsense of national cohesion.  ‘Unity’ is such a pleasant-sounding word, when you live in London and expect your lead to be followed without argument.

Edwin was reading through his speech, making final adjustments.  At Poole he would catch the ferry to Cherbourg, where his Norman hosts would collect him.  He hoped they’d forgive his French; Norman was now the official language of Normandy.  French was despised there, as in most of France, as the favoured tongue of the Jacobin oppressor.  Norman was now an option in Wessex schools, along with Welsh, Cornish and Breton, but those of an older generation were disadvantaged by speaking only the languages of the former imperial capitals.  Edwin consoled himself with the thought that at least everyone at his level would understand Latin, even if their accents differed wildly.

Tonight there would be a buffet reception at the hotel and then the conference tomorrow.  Having decided to decommission the nuclear power plants they’d inherited from the defunct French State, the Normans were keen to compare the approaches to renewable energy embraced by different regions across Europe.  Edwin was the star attraction.

‘Tidal power and the Severn Estuary: challenges and solutions’.  That would define the subject nicely.  By Edwin Brimble, Director of Strategy, Wessex Energy.  Edwin thought about Trydan Cymru and the work they were doing on their side of the estuary.  He ought to acknowledge them.  Perhaps a brief mention, after the discussion of why a Severn barrage was a bad idea, compared to alternative technologies with less impact on wildlife, navigation and national/regional identity.  He could refer to the joint meeting in Gloucester of the Welsh Senedd and the Mercian and Wessex Witans that had agreed the way forward.  Should he mention Project Olympus as well?  His audience would be familiar with the plan to strengthen the Europe-wide interconnector network and develop pumped storage, to even out the peaks and troughs that inevitably came with reliance on intermittent sources of supply.  Then finally a word or two about some of the major users of the power generated.  The railways and tramways in Wessex and Mercia, without which he would have had great difficulty in being where he now was.  The Wessex canal system, even after the recent re-openings, was much smaller than Mercia’s and, like the cycleway network, it wasn’t the way to travel any great distance in a hurry.

The speech read fine but there was something missing.  Perhaps he’d said too much about the technical issues and failed to mention the frame of mind that was crucial to addressing them.

First of all, the holistic management of resources and infrastructure in Wessex, wary of what’s lost by compartmentalising specialisms.  Transport depended on electricity, which came from renewable sources, with water a crucial contributor to generation and storage.  Joined-up thinking was what Wessex did best.  Partly this was because so many environmental organisations and their associated research teams had based themselves in Wessex, ensuring that connectedness had become a way of life.  Networks, not hierarchies.  Thinking globally, planning regionally, acting locally.

Then there was the commitment to maximise self-sufficiency in energy, nutrition and all essential manufactured goods.  From the beginning, there had been a consensus in the Witan that this was the way to go, the only alternative to having terms dictated by despots and markets.

The corollary was that ‘living within environmental limits’ really had to mean what it said.  It was why no new houses had been built on farmland in Wessex for over a decade and why it was unthinkable that they would be ever again.  The London regime had ordered that they be built in their millions, mindless of the consequences.  Now new houses were built at the rate of a few hundred a year and then mainly to replace old ones conclusively shown to be structurally unsound.  In some of the most heavily overdeveloped areas the housing stock was at last going down, allowing the environment to recover, and there was talk of rewilding, even of eagles returning to Wessex skies.

One question that used to be heard quite often was ‘where will my children live if we won’t trash fields to build more homes?’  It was a question that it would now be embarrassingly stupid to ask, given that births and deaths were roughly in balance and net migration was zero.  The Witan had issued a stark warning that if everyone attracted by history, beauty and tranquillity were to move to Wessex then these were the very things that collectively they would surely destroy.  Consequently, the housing market was tightly regulated to prioritise local needs.  No-one from outside could buy that old widow’s cottage as their weekend getaway while village newly-weds were confined to mum and dad’s spare room.  The parish council wouldn’t register the sale, and the parish council was the ultimate law.  Its power to commandeer empty property was one it didn’t shrink from exercising.

So lastly, there was the core belief that the territory and resources of Wessex belonged to the community of Wessex and were not for sale to outlanders (or anyone else) who wished to exploit them for private gain to the disbenefit of the community.  Except for the shire-based savings and loans co-operatives, which only dealt with individuals, the ‘financial services’ sector had been largely abolished.  Any need for it had been eliminated by the introduction of a guaranteed basic income for all.  If any good had come from the British armed forces presence now receding into history it was the view that control over the use of real stuff is what makes the difference and that money is just a means to one of many possible ends, not a few of them contradictory.

It hadn’t been easy.  Democracy’s struggle against continuous global robbery had been worldwide and prolonged.  It had been a rough ride for everyone but the world was a more settled place at the end of it, finally convinced, in John Ruskin’s words, that there is no wealth but life.  Today a ‘moneyic’ – a combination of ‘money, ‘maniac’ and ‘alcoholic’ – could be diagnosed early and treatment for their addiction was available.  Free of charge, obviously.

There was now an acute sense among Wessex folk that all the good things arising from self-government could easily be lost again by taking a wrong turn politically, from which it would be difficult to recover.  Ideas like centralised rule from London or by ‘free’ market corporations were treated as toxic by all those elected to protect the community-benefit State.  Only obvious charlatans on the political extremes still advocated them and those who bothered to listen were generally regarded as a bit odd.

Edwin struck through the earlier passages.  He’d use the material in answering questions if they arose and put it on online later.  The philosophy was the thing to impart.

He was looking forward to hearing the other speakers too.  Hints had been given that Catalonia and Lombardy had interesting things to say about energy-from-waste and the Silesians would be sure to have something new to report on district heating.  Conferences like this – real face-to-face meetings – were so rare now that energy was scarce yet so useful when they did happen.  And then it was back to Wessex, where he’d promised his daughter that for St Ealdhelm’s Day this year he’d take her to Windsor Castle: “a well-arranged store of antiquities of various kinds that have seemed worth keeping.”  Maybe they could fit in a day trip across the border to explore some of the fields and forests that were slowly taking the place of London as its villages re-emerged.

He made a mental note to get her something by William Barnes for her birthday, now that she was interested in his poetry.  Views of Labour & Gold, perhaps.  It was never too early to think politically.  Without politics, Edwin thought with a shudder, without the Revolt of the Regions, Wessex and its heritage would long ago have been washed over by the suburbs of disdainful, global-hub London.  Even in deepest Devon you wouldn’t have found a native, not with the second home problem being as it had been.  If the Wessex Regionalist Party had given up the fight, that’s exactly what would have come to pass.  It was everyone’s good fortune that it hadn’t.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Final Countdown

What a week ahead!  Panic guys.  Family ties.  Major lies.  Scots rise.  Get wise.  Vote ayes.  Union dies?

If Scotland votes ‘No’ to independence, ‘devo-maybe’ will most likely vanish into mist.  We’ll give you more power – if you vote for less power.  Will we, really?  Not a chance.  You’ve had your little bit of fun, lads and lasses.  Now kneel and kiss the Butcher’s Apron.  Gordon Brown has already called for the abolition of the separate Scottish education system.  Attacks on the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament are unavoidable if the London parties are to do what they perceive to be their job, of ‘co-ordinating’ things UK-wide, ‘in the national interest’.  The only way to stop them is to consign all of these parties to history.

Project Fear may yet win next Thursday.  If it does, the political stormtroopers will be all over the place, wreaking a vengeance not seen since Culloden.  But nothing can ever erase the pleasure of seeing the London regime, complacent almost to the last possible moment, dashing north in unison in a state of total, existential panic.  Downing Street’s inability to keep its Saltire up is a beautiful metaphor for David Cameron’s flagging political virility.

What’s so deeply offensive is how the Three Stooges appear on Scottish stages to tell ‘them’ that ‘we’ in the rest of the UK want ‘them’ to stay.  They speak for the London regime.  They do not speak for ‘us’.  Have they never considered the possibility that support for Scottish independence may be as high (or higher) south of the border as north of it?  ‘We want you to stay.’  Why?  Whatever for?  Why wouldn’t we want you to be free?  How are we supposed to free ourselves if you don’t?

Suppose we take Ed Miliband’s advice and fly the Saltire that we all (of course) have kept waiting in a bottom drawer to show the Scots that we really do care.  Why shouldn’t it be to express a wish to see it raised over an independent Scotland?  Miliband talked today of solidarity.  Does he think he and his fellow imperialists have a monopoly on it?  Arrogant little fake.  At the head of a fake party, living in a past it can’t even legitimately claim as its own any more.  Did anyone in Wessex take his flag advice?  All we’ve heard is that Southampton City Council refused to fly the Saltire.  Not surprising, seeing what angst is generated there by a simple request to raise the Wyvern on the officially designated Wessex Day.

Meanwhile, Sir John Major weighed-in to the debate today with an astonishing concoction of nostalgic drivel and downright lies.  He had some reputation for integrity.  Who put him up to sacrificing every last shred of it?

Not content with recruiting the ghosts of 1914-18 to ‘No’, Major made great play of Britain’s ‘influence’ in the world, ‘the most successful partnership in history’ and all that.  Would that be the partnership that conquered a quarter of the globe, leaving a trail of genocidal atrocities in its wake?  ‘Statesmen’ like Major would be the first to condemn the idea of any other country having ‘influence’ over the UK.  So if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.  In the same breath there was the usual nonsense about Trident keeping us safe.  Safer than the Swiss or the Swedes?  Perhaps you only need WMDs to keep you safe if you insist on having ‘influence’ that just might provoke a thoroughly deserved backlash?

Worst of all, Major speculated that the UK could lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  This was a lie and he couldn't have failed to know that it was a lie.  The status of the five permanent members is agreed in Article 23 of the UN Charter, which identifies them by name.  The Soviet Union no longer exists.  Russia is a successor state.  But no-one got in Boris Yeltsin’s way when he claimed the Soviet Union’s seat for Russia.  The rest of the UK would be a continuing state from which part of its territory had seceded (just as France remains France notwithstanding the loss of Algeria).  Its Security Council seat is therefore not in doubt.  Even if it changed its name it would still be unquestionably the continuing legal entity identified in the Charter as the United Kingdom.  Major’s intervention in the Scottish debate marks a new low.

Regionalists from across Wessex will be watching next week’s vote closely, some more closely than others.  WR President Colin Bex plans to be in Edinburgh with the Wessex flag, to be present when history is made and hope is perhaps extended to all suppressed nations and regions across Europe.  Will he be joining Scotland’s freedom celebrations – surely the best party ever – or reflecting on the work still needed to turn a marginal ‘No’ into ‘Yes’ the next time round?  It’s not our decision.  We can only envy those who have opened up such tantalising possibilities for themselves.  But it would be better to stop the envy and start the emulation.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vote No Evil

Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, explains why the London regime has to go.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Whose Hospitals?

“I don’t know how much any of you realise that with the Lansley act we pretty much gave away control of the NHS… we don’t really have day-to-day control.”
Jane Ellison, Public Health Minister (June 2014)

In Scotland and Wales, car parking charges at hospitals have been largely abolished.  That’s one of the consequences of devolution.

In England, car parking charges at hospitals still exist because the NHS in England is a network of property companies run on behalf of bankers.  That’s one of the consequences of Andrew Lansley’s £3 billion reorganisation that was in nobody’s manifesto.

It’s also what became clear last week when ministers published new guidelines on parking charges that sought to address the chief complaints about the system, especially from folk with disabilities and from staff whose shifts mean they can’t use public transport.  These guidelines are just that.  Guidelines.  The Health Secretary has no power to compel NHS providers to comply.

That would be fine if the NHS providers were accountable in some way to a democratic institution locally that did possess the power to compel.  It’s not fine at all that they appear to be simply unaccountable.  The warming-up of the English NHS for privatisation has been presented as a hands-off policy freeing clinicians to make their own judgements on patient needs and the best way to meet them.  They will be held accountable for clinical outcomes but nothing more.  So the management of publicly-owned assets built up over many decades passes out of democratic sight.  Unelected bodies are handed huge amounts of public money that is to be used to achieve specified objectives, yes, but with the ability to adhere to or to ignore other objectives at will.  Objectives that might seem peripheral to the core aim of the NHS but which nevertheless have an impact on our lives.

The united aim of the London parties is to take the NHS further down the privatisation road.  They really will do anything to avoid direct responsibility for the well-being of those who elect them.  So we can expect to hear more about empowering the unelected managers of trusts and foundations and commissioning groups to make their own decisions.  Decisions about what to do with our assets and our money.  But these are not our decisions.  And if they’re decisions we don’t like, then we have no redress.

It’s so very easy to cheer-on the stripping-out of democracy.  ‘Good thing too.  Get the politicians out of decision-making.  Put the experts in charge.’  Then again, if you find yourself at the hospital, visiting a dying relative, and without the right change for the parking, the penny must drop even for the densest of Daily Mail readers.

The boundary between what is debatable as policy and what is to be delegated as mere administration is being pushed further and further in the direction of empowering an inaccessible oligarchy.  Inevitably, the more centralised the system, the more pressure on its rulers’ time and so the smaller the realm of policy and the larger the realm left exclusively to the bureaucrats.  Eventually, something big goes wrong at the sharp end; the politicians say ‘nothing to do with us’ and present privatisation as the answer to the ‘lack of accountability’ inherent in a system that they designed to fail.

In 1948 the NHS was deliberately set-up within a Government department – and not as a public corporation, like the nationalised industries – because it was seen as a service and not as an industry.  It was to be run on lines of Parliamentary scrutiny and ministerial accountability, not commercial performance or independent access to the capital markets.  It has since fallen victim to a cross-party consensus that is far from unique (since education and the fire service are going the same way), one that combines long-term guile on the part of its promoters with short-term stupidity on the part of its receptors in a currently winning formula.  One that views turning all caring into a profit-seeking business as the only means of motivating staff to do better with increasingly constrained resources. 

Patients can expect more respect as customers, surely?  Why?  The contract isn’t with them personally and the ultimate truth is it’s then the money that motivates, not them at all.  Going the extra mile won’t happen if it wasn’t allowed for in the bid.  Costs increase as the moral hazard is to order more stuff that can be charged for, even when not really needed.  Nobody is transparent about their costs any more, because that becomes a matter of commercial confidentiality.

In Somerset, NHS Trusts are in the process of being reorganised, not on the basis of what they can do for patients but on the basis of their financial prospects.  This is a requirement of the Lansley act, which forces every NHS Trust either to become a full-blown Foundation Trust or to give up, for example by handing over to a private contractor.  Weston Area Health NHS Trust is England’s smallest Acute Trust (someone has to be), yet ranks as one of its top six for clinical efficiency, and has the smallest percentage of patients readmitted to hospital within seven days.  So it’s not surprising to see it being destroyed.  As with academies, the new language is that of mergers and acquisitions, of chains and groups; soon it will be the language of share options and directors’ bonuses.  Public money, private pockets.

We need to be abundantly clear that our own aim is democratic decentralisation.  Democratic institutions without the decentralisation of real power are a facade behind which centralist interference in local affairs continues unabated.  Decentralisation without democracy is a sell-out (often literally) to a managerialist form of tyranny that is no improvement.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Eastern Question

“‘Fighting’ was one of the most honourable words in the vocabulary, ‘the real, highest, honestest business of every son of man’, as Thomas Hughes put it…  Of course, the fight had to be for a good cause.  But one of the effects of imperialism had been to imbue very large numbers of people with a religious belief in Britain as the great force for good in the world…  That England could be in the wrong was almost inconceivable.”
Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981)

One of the key arguments in the debate on Scottish independence is that a splintering UK would lose the ability to throw its weight around in the world.  Is that an argument against independence, or one of many strong moral arguments in favour, one of the instances where Scotland’s gain is also a gain for others, here and abroad?

When David Cameron writes, as he did in the Sunday Telegraph last week, about Britain’s ‘military prowess’, he hopes the lack of connection with other issues won’t show through.  He heads the government of a country that is supposedly bankrupt (though, as we’ve noted, in no hurry to pay down its debts).  Local services are being more than decimated, while food banks proliferate.  Never mind ‘charity begins at home’.  What about ‘competence begins at home’?

The incompetence of the London regime explains why our energy security has been outsourced.  It’s why the next nuclear power station in Wessex will be built by two rogue states if ever there were, the French and the Chinese.  The French, whose position on minorities is 200 years out-of-date.  So much so that if France applied to join the EU today it would risk a refusal on human rights grounds.  And the Chinese?  China is an economic giant and emerging superpower but arguably has the worst human rights record of all.  Just 25 years ago in June, troops of the People’s ‘Liberation’ Army mowed down students demanding reforms before the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing.  Justice is still awaited.  France and China share an image of themselves as modern, enlightened states that in fact carries forward the contemptuous centralism of absolute monarchy at its worst.

In 1969, following the crushing of the Prague Spring, two young Czech students burned themselves to death in Wenceslas Square.  Their example has been widely repeated, notably by autonomists in India and by victims of the European sovereign-debt crisis.  But nowhere do the figures equal those in Tibet, where 35 cases were reported in 2011/12.

Do we hear about these deaths?  No, we do not.  Gaza, yes, Lhasa, no.  Whole editions of Newsnight are devoted to every little flare-up in the Middle East.  China might as well be another planet.  That can’t just be because there are fewer Tibetan Buddhists at the BBC than Jews, Arabs and Maoists.  Acute oppression makes news headlines; chronic oppression does not.  Those who have rockets to lob at their neighbours are, from a relative perspective, the lucky ones.  The unlucky are those whose oppression is so total, whose fear of reprisals is so great, that their voices are never heard.

The United Nations should be standing up for the oppressed everywhere, without favouritism.  It faces huge difficulties in doing so.  It is composed of the winners, the states that exist and not the unrepresented peoples who are still in the queue.  The least that British diplomacy can do is nudge it in the right direction.  Can British diplomacy do that?  Or is the shadow of empire cast too long?  Are we too busy doing our own thing, exercising our military prowess?  Bombing other countries, then sanctimoniously patching-up the injured and welcoming (or not) the refugees whose homelands our actions have disrupted.

Most of the time, over 95% of the world is at peace.  It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man, acting collectively, to treat violence and the causes of violence, problems no more inevitable than smallpox or polio.  Unilateral action may be swift but it’s rarely decisive and it effectively absolves the rest of the world of its responsibility for collective security.  We need to confront the fear that if we aren’t acting as the world’s deputy sheriff, someone else will fill the vacuum.  The UN’s job is to prevent the vacuum emerging.  The sad fact is that our own efforts seem to have created far more vacuums than we’ve filled.

Look around the world for hotspots and you’ll see the Union Jack disappearing over the horizon, its mischief-making done.  Kashmir.  Palestine.  Iraq.  The Libya operation cost around £1 billion and only succeeded in replacing a crazy but competent dictator with a bunch of bandits.  While spreading conflict across the central Saharan states in its wake.  Leaving well alone was always a sensible alternative.  Now, when last week’s evil enemies are proposed as this week’s necessary allies, it makes even more sense.

The best intentions can go awry.  The 1916 Sykes-Picot accord is now viewed as a shameless example of European colonialists carving up territory that was none of their business.  Yet Mark Sykes, the British half of the deal, was a Yorkshire squire who fell in love with the Middle East.  He had his doubts about imperialism, thinking that "the White Man’s burden is a bag of gold".  He hated cities and their inhabitants (he was, after all, MP for central Hull) and greatly admired the nomadic life of the desert.  It was his deepest wish to protect the area’s ancient civilisation from corruption, "the smearing of the east" with the "slime of the west".  He hoped Sykes-Picot would provide the focus for emergent Arab nationalism.  Which in a much less predictable sense it now has.

In a globalised economy, actions have unexpected consequences.  The idea that Islamist fundamentalism was deliberately promoted by the British Empire in order to weaken Ottoman rule – and strengthen London’s influence in its place – is about as believable as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The Brits backed fighters, not theologians.  But successful fundamentalism never lacks funding.  Oil is oil and if the Islamic State is financed by the oil wealth it now controls and by donations from others whose wealth also comes from oil, then we may indirectly be funding terrorism every time we top up the tank.

Muscular humanitarianism has been the subject of debate ever since Disraeli and Gladstone locked horns over the Eastern Question of their day.  But whatever its achievements, crusader-style chivalry starts to look insincere once we consider how cramped its priorities are by realpolitik.  In the 21st century, 19th century multi-national empires like the UK are not the best means of doing good and they only get in the way of other institutions better placed to deliver.  At the 2005 G8 Summit in Scotland, Tony Blair told the world’s press that “we are trying to do good”.  Might it not be far, far better for states like ours to stop trying to do good and simply be good?