Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Labour in Vain

What a joy today to hear again from war-crimes suspect Tony Blair!  He’s never sounded more panicked, falling over his words as he warns Labour not to be true to itself.  He clearly shares the anxiety of so many of his fans who fear the Left is about to steal their party from them.  That’s karma, unfortunately.  ‘Don’t go back,’ he warns, ‘embrace modernity!’  No-one’s going back: the Left is moving forward because the whole Thatcher-in-a-suit con trick has failed and Karl Marx’s views from the 19th century are seen to be rather more relevant than Adam Smith’s from the 18th.

That’s not to say we wish Jeremy Corbyn well, even though he’s a Moonraker by birth.  A successful Labour Party is just what the Disunited Kingdom needs to reboot itself yet again, save the Union and renew the consensus that Whitehall knows best.  Labour in power again, Left or Right, will be as centralist as it’s always been.  One can well imagine the establishment favouring a Corbyn-led Labour Party because of its potential to suck the life out of the SNP while still falling short – in England – of the number of seats needed to govern.  Two anti-austerity parties killed with one stone.

In terms of our strategy, a Labour Party led by another Thatcher clone would be preferable.  Successful radical politics in the regions of England depends upon the demise of Labour.  It means working with the Celtic nationalist parties that Labour despises.  Labour doesn’t understand regionalism, never has and never will.  It can’t understand how trusting communities to make their own decisions can ever result in the right answers.  Labour is part of the problem.  It can sometimes be used to advance the solution, but it can never be part of it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Founding Fixers

Avon Local History & Archæology – ALHA – does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s an organisation for local history and archæology in the Avon area, serving some 80 affiliated societies, with a collective membership of about 10,000.  Founded in 1976, it has outlived Avon County Council, recognising the economic and social – and therefore historical – unity of the area, not so much separate from as special within the grand historic counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset.  In 2011 ALHA launched its annual Joseph Bettey Lecture, named after the Bristol academic responsible for Wessex from AD 1000, Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, The Landscape of Wessex and other books that present our history from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.

ALHA also holds an annual spring conference, with this year’s entitled ‘The rocky road to democracy and freedom: from king John to mayor George’.  In the wake of Magna Carta, Bristol’s first mayor may have been the one chosen in 1216, another concession made by ‘Bad King John’.  The first directly elected one followed in 2012, the renowned, red-trousered Wintonian, George Ferguson.  London’s first mayor was in 1189, the first directly elected one in 2000, yet more evidence of how Bristol tends to mimic London’s every move.  Professor Murray Stewart’s closing talk at the conference, ‘The elected mayor: democrat or autocrat?’ provoked vigorous audience reaction.  As well it might, because one of the reasons for having an elected mayor was identified as “more direct communication with central government”.

So it seems that having an elected mayor as the key to city devolution is less about restoring civic confidence, more about training better beggars.  It isn’t about giving local folk the power collectively to shape their own lives; it’s overwhelmingly about putting in place a network of local fixers who can be summoned to Whitehall for instructions whenever any smoothing needs to be done.

Keep that point in mind, because there’s a familiar theme behind every local government reorganisation.  At the time of the ‘big bang’ reforms of 1974, official explanations referred the reader to the problems: the previous local local authorities were “too small” and there were “too many of them”.  Size can be a problem: there’s a relationship between it and functional competence and that’s what underlies the idea of subsidiarity.  Being over-numerous though is not a problem for local authorities or the communities they individually serve.  It’s not a problem they have any reason to recognise, let alone worry about.  It’s only a problem for outsiders, more especially for those who have to deal with them all.  The drive for fewer and fewer councils is about improving the London regime’s range of effective control.

Every reduction in the number of councils is accompanied by a reduction in the number of councillors.  Replacing committee government by cabinet government has concentrated power even further and left the remaining councillors with little to decide, and therefore little reason to stand.  Progressively replacing elections by thirds with whole council elections is already cutting by two-thirds the number of opportunities for democratic involvement by voters.

The ultimate aim is surely to have directly elected mayors everywhere, covering huge areas – though certainly short of regions, which pose an actual threat to centralism.  A gaggle of municipal Caesars voted into dictatorial power for four years, with no means of popular redress in the interim.  The result is ‘stable government’.  But it’s not what could be described as bottom-up vital democracy.

Do not imagine that what has begun in the big cities will not touch the shires.  The current Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill allows for mayors for combined authorities that include all (or just part) of a county council area.  A quarter of Ireland’s county councils have chosen to style their chairman ‘mayor’.  Although these county mayors are not executive mayors, they set a precedent that may, one day, produce an elected Mayor of Devon or Hampshire or Somerset.  Not very long ago, a Mayor of the North East – Greater Tyneside but with a vast rural hinterland – was perhaps the most preposterous idea in politics; now it’s a real possibility.

This is a measure of how unconservative the Conservatives can be in re-shaping the meaning of words.  It’s also a measure of London’s ability to get areas that are nothing like London to imitate its thoughts and actions, whereas doing things differently is actually what’s needed to give them an advantage over it.  The onward march of the mayors is but one example of this.  Tony Blair’s devolution of power to London was designed to evoke as few memories as possible of the old Greater London Council during Ken Livingstone’s term as its last Leader.  So the GLC became the GLA, the Leader became the Mayor, and London Transport became Transport for London.  Since then, we’ve seen Transport for Greater Manchester, Transport for New South Wales, Transport for Edinburgh, Transport for Ireland and, most recently, Transport for the North, which the Government now proposes to put on a statutory footing.  The first step to a northern regional government?  There’s unlikely to be a Transport for Wessex: the chronic under-funding of our region demonstrates the London view that if we think we have transport problems we must be imagining them.

Against this dismal backdrop, the Cornish experience is all the more remarkable.  Devolution of power to Cornwall is finally happening, so one cheer for that.  It’s inadequate and it’s undemocratic, so only the one cheer.  What’s to be devolved will allow better integration of public services and therefore produce better outcomes for less money.  It’s the case for devolution in a nutshell.  But what’s to be devolved will not allow Cornwall to decide its own future.  The crucial powers over housing and planning needed to halt the destruction of Cornwall’s communities and environment remain in Greg Clark’s hands, demonstrating that devolution is not defined by what’s devolved but by what’s retained.  Governments, aloof from it all, keep the important powers; councils take unpopular decisions they couldn’t shape but will be blamed for anyway.  Inadequacy is compounded by a lack of democracy; key powers are to be handed not to Cornwall County Council but to quangos like the Local Enterprise Partnership, to those who have never fought an election, let alone done so successfully, yet are still allowed to set local priorities because they’re rich.  It’s like the 20th century never happened.

What’s most remarkable about Cornwall however is that local institutions that already exist are being entrusted with anything at all.  Cornwall is the first rural county to make such gains, just as it was the first royal duchy back in 1337: forms of precedence that all help to build a case for more powers to follow.  It’s also the first area not to be forced down the mayoral route considered de rigueur for the conurbations, where a single directly elected focus is currently lacking.  (The Government was recently defeated in the Lords on this point, but that’s far from being the end of the parliamentary debate.)  It has to be said that if the conurbations lack an elected focus it is the Tories that the Tories have to blame for that because it was they who abolished the relevant county councils in 1986 and 1996.  Without putting in place a regional replacement worthy of the name.

Who has current responsibility for devolution?  The Ministry of Justice used to be the Department for Constitutional Affairs but constitutional affairs are now firmly the province of HM Treasury.  This became clear this month from the launch of a paper setting out the Government’s ‘productivity plan’, Fixing the foundations.  It contains some interesting facts, such as that London accounts for 28% of the UK’s GDP, while New York contributes 7% of the USA’s and Berlin just 5% of Germany’s.  The comment that ought to follow is that both those countries have federal systems of government that prevent the over-concentration of economic activity by preventing the over-concentration of political activity.  The printers seem to have missed that bit out.  An unfortunate omission.

There’s a section devoted to Mr Osborne’s fixation on elected mayors.  It quotes research showing that cities with fragmented governance perform badly.  It doesn’t point out that one reason why governance is so fragmented is that the London regime has taken power after power away from local councils because they can’t be trusted to toe the party line.  Returning a few with strings attached doesn’t address this key issue.  Moreover, so long as devolution is to business-dominated quangos rather than to those untrustworthy councils, joined-up governance will remain elusive.

So too, it seems, will consistency.  Fragmentation wasn’t judged a problem when the Tories abolished those county councils.  They talk too of a Northern Powerhouse, yet power is something that will not be exercised at the northern level: the Northern Powerhouse will be directed from the Chancellor’s office and delivered across a fragmented region by locally elected metro-mayors acting as his district commissioners.  How long is the north of England going to put up with this colonial-style regime?  It’s a vital question because the future of regionalism in England hinges on the willingness of northerners to lead the revolt against London divide-and-rule.  We’d love the revolt to start in Wessex but we face different issues – regions are different and that’s why we need to empower them all – and so we must watch and wait for our own moment of opportunity.

It cannot come too soon.  The Treasury’s paper bemoans the fact that England has as many as 353 councils, with 18,000 councillors, all able to put a democratic spanner in the works.  (It doesn’t point out that France has 37,000 councils, linked in a labyrinth of joint authorities, yet still manages to survive in the modern world.)  The tone is unmistakeably that economic survival depends on rooting out democracy.  Investors won’t come here if they have to persuade – in public – some irritating people who just don’t understand how corporate deals are done.  Without effective scrutiny, before decisions are taken, the whole thing is unavoidably suspect, but so what?  Greed is good, right?

Previous generations strove to bring the key economic levers under democratic control, to make business accountable.  Today’s is rushing headlong in the opposite direction, making democracy more businesslike, not in the laudable sense of efficient operation but in the altogether more unpalatable sense of making it less democratic.  If it starts with local government, it will not end there.  Why have MPs if we can have an elected Prime Minister, beyond criticism’s reach for a fixed five-year term?  (Mr Cameron referred this weekend to having to take “my Parliament with me” over Syria, as clear a case of lèse-majesté as can be imagined.)  Why have 200 separate states when we can have a single world president applying a single corporately written law?  Powerful institutions are what safeguard democracy, by being persistently awkward; powerful individuals are what undermine it, by attacking them as vested interests obstructing change.

The irony is that elected mayors, pushed again and again as an extension to and modernisation of our democratic traditions, are now being imposed on cities like Manchester that have already rejected them in referenda.  Bristol, meanwhile, is the only city to have voted to have an elected mayor under new legislation that prevents it voting to change its mind in the future.  The arguments for and against having elected mayors are essentially academic – and irrelevant – so long as the London regime is determined that we shall have them at all costs.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bex & the Bankers

Colin Bex was on the march against austerity held in central London on Saturday (left).  His attire included 'that T-shirt' from the 2005 election campaign in Dorset South.  (The question 'Westminster Diktat?' appears above an image of the Cerne Abbas giant labelled 'Clubmen Arise' and beneath it the answer, 'Roger & Out!')  Colin reports on the event as follows:

“Turn-out was quite impressive – but nowhere near where it needs to be.  Until a 65 million multi-cultural British population musters at least 1,300,000 (2%) of its number onto the capital's streets against the criminals at Westminster, there will be no progress – 650,000 (1%) is insufficient.

Some of the Muslims departing to be brutalised by ISIS recently voiced their recognition of the blatant betrayal which characterises the early third-millennium British establishment.

I was within an ace of nobbling Russell Brand to tell him to steal our ideas (as I did Jeremy Corbyn), and to stop telling his fawning fan-club not to vote, but as he quit the rostrum, he leapt over the barrier and sprinted down Victoria Street to avoid being mobbed – or being engaged in a conversation with me unfortunately...”

It wasn’t Colin’s first public appearance since the election.  Last month he joined a ‘Positive Money’ demonstration outside 10 Downing Street – and afterwards in Parliament Square Gardens – supporting presentation of a petition for conversations with the Government to re-cast the monetary system by way of a Money Commission.

Our aim is not just to turn politics the right way up, so that local areas dictate to the centre, which acts solely as their executive agent; it’s to turn economics the right way up too, so that it becomes the means to conserve life on earth rather than to destroy it.  This month, scientists reported that a mass extinction of species is underway, caused by humans, and of which humans risk becoming part.

Underpinning this destruction is the obsession with economic growth, with having more and more of everything for more and more people, while never counting the environmental cost.  Economic success is defined in terms of rates of return that exceed the rate at which the environment renews itself.  Political interests have become slaves to economic interests who take and do not give.  Real wealth is extracted through unjustifiable levels of rent and speculation safeguarded by public policy; we need to renew politics so that economics can be made subservient to it and those abuses thereafter ended.  A sane economy must cost factors of production responsibly, for example through land value taxation and public ownership of public utilities.  One of its mantras must be ‘resource efficiency, GOOD; resource depletion, BAD’, another, equally, must be that we really are all in it together and that making ourselves greener by outsourcing our pollution to less developed countries is cruel, not clever.

The meme now circulating in politics and the media is that the banker-bashing is over, that normal times are returning.  It’s bad news if they are, since the revelations of corruption certainly haven’t abated.  The surface has barely been scratched.  Not only are the suspects still at large but there has been no fundamental reform of the institutions they helped to wreck.  The taxpayer is still footing the bill and, short of a revolution, is unlikely ever to be repaid.  The UK Government worries more over the possibility that crooked banks here might re-locate their headquarters than over how we might build an economy that is not dependent upon them.  In their blinkered imagination, politicians believe that devolution is all about creating new, go-getting ‘global cities’ like London.  A Northern Powerhouse in Manchester and Leeds.  A Western Powerhouse in Bristol and Cardiff, or Plymouth and Exeter.  A Southern Powerhouse in Hampshire.  It’s all about bowing down to money.  None of it’s about standing tall.

In the short-term, pouring millions of the unhappy onto London’s streets keeps alternative ideas alive and helps them circulate.  It must always be understood that it has no impact on a government determined to govern – up to 2 million were there in 2003 to oppose the Iraq War that happened regardless.

In the medium-term, it must be realised too that voting for anyone but the main London parties is the only remedy.  We, the people, punished Blair, Brown and Cameron for Iraq.  No, we didn’t, did we?  We’ve re-elected the war criminals three times over now and still wonder why terrorists mean us harm.

In the long-term, we'll have no need of events in London.  In the long-term we want rid of it.  We want its political, economic and cultural power over us set at nought in a free Wessex powerful enough in its own right to ignore it – and maybe laugh at how its fake democracy and its fake finance were ever taken so seriously.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Zombie Zones

Last Saturday, a ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ was held in the West Riding town of Huddersfield.  Those attending shared a determination that the new politics now saturating Scotland should not stop at the border.  Our Northumbrian friends have good reason to see themselves as having more in common – politically, economically and culturally – with Scotland than with London and the Home Counties.

Sadly, it only ever lasts an instant before the urge to align with Labour thinking rears up and real regionalism is silenced again.  One of the tweets that emerged afterwards proclaimed that "'English Parliament would be a disaster for the North (and south-west, Midlands...’ Need an England of the (9) regions”.  Yes, we’ve seen that figure before.  It’s the number of the Prescott beast, the number of the Government Office zones, originally set up by William Waldegrave in 1994 and since imposed on a cross-party basis as the authentic regions of England.

It is, of course, hugely disappointing to see these lumbering zombies rise from their graves, because a re-run of the Prescott experiment in identity-imposition will only have the same outcome as before.  If the Northumbrians wish to carve themselves up into two, three or even four regions, that’s their debate.  We most certainly are not happy being labelled as ‘Sou’westers’ and ‘Sou’easters’.

Nor, of course, are the Cornish.  John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council, appealed to them this month to join with Devon and Somerset in a new regional set-up with proper clout, Cornwall being, familiarly, ‘too small’ to go it alone.  It’s the London-centric imagination-failure of these folk not to grasp that Cornwall is larger than many independent states and if it needs clout its natural associates are Brittany, Wales and Ireland, not Devon, Somerset and Dorset.  Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a three- or four-county ‘Westcountry’ region is, following exactly the fate of the ambulance service, just a stepping-stone to the seven-county ‘South West’ of the Waldegrave / Prescott nightmare.

Hart’s intervention echoed rumblings earlier in the year about rail franchising, with a Devonwall unit now being promoted in that context too, for implementation once the current franchises expire in 2019.  Border-blurring is also back on the agenda, with parts of Wessex likely to be forced to share an MP with Bude under re-drawn constituency boundaries.  Cornwall, having returned a full set of Tory MPs for the first time in the history of universal suffrage, has politely indicated that it would like to be given one hell of a beating.  Cameron & Co are only too happy to oblige.

The Tories are naturally loathsome, but only for what they are.  Labour are much worse because they pretend to be something different.  Both parties blow hot and cold on regionalism, while agreeing that the only regions that can ever exist are the bloodless shapes first drawn for civil defence purposes in 1938 (and with some striking resemblances to the districts of Cromwell's military dictatorship of 1655).  Indistinguishable as they are, neither party is worth anything but our deepest contempt.  We shall continue to work, with genuine allies across the Disunited Kingdom and abroad, for their eradication from our political life.  There is a third way, and together we are it.  It's small right now, but it's the only way that offers a well-considered future for our communities.

Bex in Belgium

Guest contribution by Colin Bex, WR President

On Tuesday (16th June) I attended 'The European Citizens' Initiative and the Promise (sic) of Democracy', a conference in Brussels sponsored jointly by the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) campaign, the Latvian Presidency, and the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union.

This was a significantly high-level affair of contemporary relevance to citizens of all European Member States, with ECI stakeholders leading a review into 20 campaigns mounted during the two years since the launch of what is declaimed 'the first tool for transnational participatory and digital democracy in world history' (see this publication).

For example, two speakers were delegated from the administrative headquarters of the European Commission – the Charlemagne Building – one from the private office of First Vice-President of the Commission, Frans Timmermans; the other the Head of Unit for the Commission Work Programme, Stakeholder Consultation and the European Citizens' Initiative. The conference itself was hosted in the Press Room of the Justus Lipsius building – the Kafkaesque, 24km-corridor headquarters of the Council of the European Union across the road.

It was notable that of four moderators two were female, whilst of 13 speakers eight were female – all lucid and convincingly informed on their subjects – and most were young, some in their second or third decade. As to age, the same was true of the audience – those of us in our eighth decade vastly out-numbered by young of every sex and gender – most impressive.

Latvia’s Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica opened by welcoming the members of the EU Commission and Parliament and called upon them to live up to their promises of three years to implement ideas which have attracted support from one million signatories. She called for adequate public visibility and online connectivity as existed in Latvia and she called on EU organisations, the public and the conference to work together to initiate the necessary changes to legislation to ensure this happens.

Co-ordinator and founder Carsten Berg pointed to the origin of the ECI campaign ten years ago and its mission to interconnect institutions and citizens. Since then, he said, many people in Europe feel it has lost its way. For example, provisions for facilitating the initiative had been included within the Lisbon Treaty but it took two years before implementation in 2012. “ECI procedure must be clear,” he said, “It must encourage participatory democracy, and it must be reviewed every three years.” He presented a graph of participatory progress which demonstrated a consistent increase until its peak toward the end of 2013 after which it plummeted and, he concluded, “We are here to-day to discuss how it may regain its strength for example by means of the online dimension of digital democracy.”

Bernd Martenczuk from Timmermans’ private office reported that the EU is going through challenging times but to rectify democratic illegitimacy, Jean-Claude Juncker has made democratic change a prime concern. Three years on since the ECI regulation, there have been 50 initiatives. Three each received one million signatures of which one led to rights-to-water legislation and one to anti-vivisection laws.

When called to speak, I introduced the WRs as a campaign fighting for a proportionally representative majority democratic parliamentary system for the Wessex region which is a model we regard should be adopted not only within Britain, but also throughout Europe – if it is to survive. I confirmed I had stood in the General Election against Cameron who was elected again despite 63% of the British electorate, and many more disenfranchised, opposing or not supporting him. On account of shenanigans being orchestrated in the Security Council by America and Britain and in Russia by Putin, I suggested that after 70 years of unarmed conflict, with the exception of the break-up of Yugoslavia, now Europe is being driven toward the risk of a third civil war and therefore in order to prevent it, the ECI would require a means of acquiring signatures on a timescale considerably less protracted than 12 months – such as Avaaz and change.org provide.

In addition to distributing the 2015 election addresses among a hundred or so delegates, and leaving more on display-stands including a number on Press Office desks, also I mounted and displayed the WRs banner made for General Election publicity for purposes photographic, advertising and to aid discussion. This was mounted briefly in the chamber for a photo-op and afterwards at the post-conference reception for refreshments and networking – and later outside the EC building (left).

Here I had positive conversations for more than an hour with a number of delegates across the age-range, amongst them a highly supportive conversation with a senior Polish delegate, Benon Gazinski (Jean Monnet Professor of Social Sciences and Art at the University of Warmia and Mazury, Olsztyn, central north Poland), and with Carsten Berg himself who, armed with a degree in political science from Potsdam and a masters in education in Bonn, has lectured and campaigned for participatory and direct democracy at regional, national and transnational levels. He provided his card, and if acceptable to the ECI I intend to join the movement either with group membership for the WRs if by majority agreement or, if not, on my own account.

This is to provide but a flavour of the event. If / when time and circumstances allow, I plan to write up my notes but in the meantime, anyone interested can visit the ECI website where I am told a report of the meetings is due to be posted.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Progressive Patriot

Guest contribution by Nick Xylas, WR Council member

The following is a review of The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, by Billy Bragg, published in 2006 by Bantam of London.

This is really three books in one. The first is an autobiography of Billy Bragg, the singer and songwriter who took the blues and the music of the American folk revival and made them into something distinctively English. The second is a history of his native Barking. And the third articulates an inclusive, forward-looking vision of English patriotism far removed from the puce-faced xenophobia of UKIP and the Daily Mail. The way Bragg switches somewhat awkwardly between the three can be a little frustrating at times, but there can be little doubt that he sees them as intrinsically linked.

“I’m Billy Bragg and I’m from Barking in Essex”. These are the words with which Bragg closes every concert, and as he explains here, they amount to a mini-manifesto of sorts. Of course, Bragg now lives in Dorset, and we West Saxons might feel a little put out that he doesn’t show his adopted homeland more love. But this misses the point. The statement is his way of saying “I am from somewhere, I have roots”. It is a calculated rebuke to the rootlessness that permeates American rock ‘n’ roll in particular, with its recurring imagery of open-topped Cadillacs cruising along endless highways. Bragg brought the epitome of this trope, Route 66, closer to home by turning it into A13: Trunk Road to the Sea, in which the highway from Santa Monica to Chicago has been replaced with the road from London to Shoeburyness. His patriotism manifests itself in his unapologetic belief that he has not devalued the song in any way by doing so.

Barking is effectively the key to the whole book. It is the environment that nurtured Bragg, and he treats it as a microcosm of England as a whole. As a town whose history revolves around boat-building and fishing, it has long welcomed visitors from many parts of the world, and this informs Bragg’s desire to affirm a patriotism that looks outward rather than inward. Like the Wessex Regionalists, he is informed by an English radical tradition that includes Levellers and Chartists, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing. He presents this history well, and whilst I suspect that this book won’t tell most readers of this blog anything they don’t already know, I am glad that it exists. When Michael Gove was Education Secretary, one of his aims was to rewrite the school curriculum in order to put the “tory” back into “history”. Though Gove is no longer responsible for education, this may yet lead to a generation that will never get to learn English radical history in any other way. It once again falls to the bards and minstrels to teach people the truths that they won’t hear at school.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Our Three Europes

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

The quote is attributed to Buckminster Fuller.  Another variation on the theme is that new ideas don’t triumph by changing opinions; they triumph because those holding the old ideas die out and those holding the new ideas take their place.

The Swiss can have a referendum on what they like, when they like.  In the UK we tend to stage them for reasons of party politics, including as a tiebreaker in internal party politics.  No-one outside the Westminster circus has any direct say on whether they’re held or not.

The Bill paving the way for an EU in-out referendum received its Second Reading in the Commons last week, opposed by the SNP for its failure to protect Scotland’s right to opt right back in again.  And for its failure to give 16 and 17 year olds a vote on their future.  There are plenty of 16 and 17 year olds who feel cheated by that.  As well they might, since their future may be swayed by the elderly end of the age range voting disproportionately ‘Out’.  That’s to say, the only end of the age range who’ve already voted once before on the issue, in 1975.  Two votes for them then, four decades apart.  And none for the young.  That’s a shame, because the deep-seated view that the older are also the wiser isn’t necessarily borne out by events.  Wars, quite infamously, are started by old men (and old women) for young men to fight.

After a conflict that may come to be viewed as at least in part a European civil war, we at last got a chance to re-assess who we are and whether our historic enmities matter as much as we thought they did.  The European issue is not about policies, because they can be changed, and in a dynamic democracy forever adapting to a changing world it’s right that they should.  It’s not about structures, because they can be changed, and those of Europe, 70 years old or less, are more malleable than those of our Anglo-Norman elite, 950 years old and dug in deep.  It’s not even about values, because they too can be changed, preferably to be improved upon and never to be placed beyond reasoned challenge.  The European issue at root is about identity and our place, or places, upon the planet.

What is it to be European?  The history of Europe as a name and an idea is the history of that search for place.  Mythology ascribes its origin to Europa, carried off across the sea by Zeus in the form of a bull.  A folk memory, perhaps, of the role that cattle, and therefore dairying, played in the continent’s opening-up for agriculture.  One linguistic theory links the name to the Akkadian for ‘to go downwards’.  The European peninsula in that case, like the Maghreb in Arabic, is literally the West, the place of the sunset when viewed from the centre of the ancient world.

Wessex, as England’s peninsular West, mirrors this on a smaller scale.  ‘To go west’ is to die, and it is to Avalon, the land of the orchards, that King Arthur is carried, the same land of the apples of immortality that the Greeks knew as the Garden of the Hesperides.  A chance to drink up thy zider then, as the sky turns red and gold and, like Chesterton, watch “the western glory faint along the road to Frome”.  For those who have followed the sun’s path to the shore, there’s always the sea and new-found land.  Little wonder then that Charles Kingsley, a great advocate of a contemporary Wessex, should have penned Westward Ho!, re-siting the phrase from London to the Atlantic coast, in geographical terms the most European part of Europe because also its sharpest interface with the rest of the world.

Europe is an encircled continent, often wary of what lies beyond.  To stand in defence of the West is a theme that runs from Leonidas to The Lord of the Rings.  Rome’s focus was the Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum that was a highway, not a border; what we know as Europe is the product of reaction to the success that came early to the followers of the Prophet.  The first reference to the Europeans – Europenses – is in a near-contemporary account of Charles Martel’s victory over the Arabs at Tours in 732.  Roman Christianity pushed northwards and north-eastwards more frantically – and more brutally – than it might have done because to survive it had to win new lands to replace those lost.

Yann Fouéré, in L’Europe aux Cents Drapeaux, set his views in the context of three successive Europes, past, present and future.  The first, Christendom, existed for most of a millennium before fragmenting.  The second Europe, of religious divides and imperialist rivalry, repeatedly came close to destroying itself.  The third, Fouéré’s Europe of a Hundred Flags, is one of co-existence between regional power and transcontinental co-operation.

It isn’t the EU, but the EU is somewhere on the road that leads ahead, perhaps to a pared-down EU, designed primarily to safeguard regions against the predatory intent of nation-states.  The EU has its critics, and many make sound points, but the staunchest are those shuffling backwards towards a world of now long-gone empires that has no conceivable role today.  One does have to ask, for example, which century UKIP inhabit.

Quite possibly the 20th, amid dreams of a revived Commonwealth, even though with each passing generation the family ties become looser.  And trade moves on.  Goods from Australia and New Zealand aren’t sitting on the quayside waiting for the call from the motherland.  The UK is a much smaller player on the global stage now because Europe is much smaller too and demographic trends will only make it more so.  In a world dominated by semi-continental blocs like the USA or the BRIC countries it’s difficult to see where the UK would hope to go.  UKIP fantasies of plugging-in to BRIC growth rates could only be delivered by matching their rates of environmental degradation, but perhaps that’s the plan.

The current alternatives to Europe don’t include the land of Rule Britannia, colonies, coal and cotton; they do include 51st State of the USA, in all but name, or perhaps ultimately to become a satellite of India or China.  Norway’s independent, but awash with oil; it’s also forced to apply the EU’s legislation in order to trade with it but has little say over the content.  Switzerland’s proudly independent too, but as the world’s money laundry it can afford to be.  The ultimate in centralisation is not the EU; it’s globalism, which UKIP seem to endorse.  The evolution of the EU into a bulwark against that globalism is fraught with difficulties but look forward to the world of 2050 and there could be worse places to be.

And… if not the 20th century, then quite possibly the 16th?  Euroscepticism’s founding document is the declaration of the Reformation Parliament in 1533 that “this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world”.  It’s the double standard of Fouéré’s second Europe: no-one tells us what to do but you disagree with us, local folk, and it’s off with your heads.  We demand your subservience in all things as proof of loyalty.  The Irish, the Welsh and the Cornish were among those who discovered how one-sided the Tudor idea of English independence could be.  And not only English: many an Alsatian or Breton has died fighting for France against not-so-distant cousins across the Rhine or the Channel.

The most compelling argument for staying in the EU, while insisting on its radical reform, is that withdrawal would further empower the London regime, parliamentary sovereignty and ‘fortress Britain’.  Might a re-invigorated UK not share out its enhanced functions in a generous wave of regional devolution?  Not on past form.  More likely by far is that triumphalist waving of the Union Jack would turn into a paranoid hunt for the nationalist and regionalist ‘enemy within’, egged on by Fleet Street and by a State apparatus looking out for itself.

The UK has NO commitment to subsidiarity, even in constitutional theory.  Federalism, for example, is for the other man.  If only the UK had as little power over Wessex as the EU does!  If the EU is a corporatist conspiracy, so too, blatantly, is the UK, and we need completely different choices all round.  Claims that the EU is unreformable, however, sit ill with the facts.  The EU now labelled oppressively neo-liberal and the one previously denounced for its social chapter are the same institution under different managements sponsoring different treaties.  Politics happens and no ideology therefore can own Europe forever.  The longer the EU exists, the more vulnerable it is to attack, because both Left and Right can pile up precedents that support their case.

A simplistic view might be ‘EU bigger, therefore bad; UK smaller, therefore good’ but there is more to decentralisation than that.  It depends just how much power is centralised at that wider level, whether the modern world needs it to be there for reasons of subsidiarity and how much headroom is left for more local levels to flourish.  In the context of subsidiarity, net decentralisation – a few things up but many more down – is a fundamentally credible position to advance.  The real debate should be over who gets to decide what’s decided where: subsidiarity is only genuine if judged from ‘below’.

And… if not the 16th century, then quite possibly the 13th?  Today we mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the short-lived foundation of English liberty.  Short-lived because the Runnymede original was declared null and void by the Pope ten weeks later.  The charter that forms the basis of what survived was the heavily edited version re-issued by the regency council of Henry III meeting at Bristol in November 1216.  It was the result of strategic bargaining with the Pope’s man in England, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri.  Stop press: islanders do deal with continent over share-out of powers.  It could be David Cameron today as much as William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke way back when.  Magna Carta continues to influence our politics, producing in some a kind of resting on laurels that means we don’t have to update our ideas because 13th-century feudalism can’t be beaten.  Looking at how England is still governed today, the bad bits of that feudalism may be more evident than the good ones.

The good bits show the importance of a radically decentralised Europe in which ideas that others have discarded as quaint and old-fashioned can survive, rather like old plant varieties, until they’re ready for a comeback.  Take juries, a Frankish administrative innovation, adopted early by the English, later applied by them to criminal trials and retained when the rest of Europe moved on.  France introduced jury trials at the Revolution, modelling them on English practice, and spread them across Europe.  For UKIP-inclined conspiracy theorists, jury trials are doomed because they’re incompatible with continental, Roman law.  In fact, juries exist today in many countries across the EU, which really spoils the argument, especially as UK governments are quite capable of restricting trial by jury without needing any external encouragement.  As for the wider point on legal systems co-existing, Scots law is a mixture of Roman and common law, and the Scots have juries.  The same is true of the laws of Quebec and Louisiana.

The practical divide within Europe isn’t between common law and Roman law jurisdictions.  It’s north / south.  When it comes to drafting EU laws, it’s the Mediterranean countries that are more laid back and happy with statements of general principle, and the northern Europeans who insist on precision, regardless of legal system.  (The Germans, it should be remembered, also had their own version of common law, based on Saxon practice, down to 1900 and our own word ‘law’ comes not from Old English but from Old Norse.)  Montesquieu, writing De l’Esprit des Lois in 1748, tried to answer the question of why different peoples have different laws.  They have, he suggested, different temperaments, due to different climate.  So will climate change alter English law?  We shall see. 

What we do know is that the north / south divide in Europe is mirrored in north / south divides in many of its larger countries, notably England, France, Italy and Germany.  Differences in landscape and vegetation (and hence in agriculture), in language, in religion and in wealth continue to find political as well as cultural expression.  There’s a particularly remarkable zone of transition between the 44th and 46th parallels of north latitude, roughly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, which runs through many of the world’s best wine regions and also marks the northern limit for growing olives and rice.  As one might expect, it disregards national boundaries far more often than regional ones.

Those who wonder how a diverse Europe can hold together should ask how well diversity is accommodated in some of its Member States.  Not very well is the answer.  France from 1789, Italy from 1861 and Germany from 1871 tried to make single countries out of regions that simply don’t think in the terms dictated from the capital.  Nor do the several parts of the UK: Brexit propelled by the votes of southern England would be likely to provoke a Scottish exit from the UK, making UKIP not the saviours of British sovereignty but among the chief architects of its destruction.

The problem with learning from history is that we don’t.  The Europe we need to see, with sovereignty at the narrowest level, solidarity at the widest level and subsidiarity in between, is not what we have.  How we get where we’d rather be is up for debate, but it’s fascinating to listen to those who claim to be pro-European and anti-EU, just as if it were possible to be pro-British and anti-UK.  (Perhaps voters are viewed as making the wrong choices.)  Structures give concrete form to identities, so it is important to get them right and that means not allowing them to be defined by others.

If Brexit happens, it will be for two reasons.  One is that Eurosceptic myths will not be subjected to the forensic dissection they deserve, and that misinformation once in circulation and insinuation becomes impossible to stop.  The other is that the Brussels gravy train will respond with arrogance, complacency and weariness, and will fail to make a positive case for Europe.  That is, it will fail to own up to its mistakes and to understand that a workable vision of Europe must have a broad cultural base, upon which the economics and the politics are built, not the other way round.  Some splendid books have been written – none more splendid than Norman Davies’ Europe: A History – that join up the dots of a common heritage much vaster in time and space than Little Englanders can imagine.  Primed with that information, it’s much easier to see the bedrock of Europe, its small nations and historic regions, and not be distracted by the shifting sands of states determined to partition or assimilate them.

A clear discussion has been made immensely difficult not only by Euroseptic antics – demonising the EU while presenting national parliaments as implausibly fine paragons of virtue – but by uncritical enthusiasm in the opposite direction.  A good example of the latter is the SNP’s draft constitution for an independent Scotland, Section 24 of which states that Scots law will be inferior to EU law.  Technically, it may be true, subject to equally technical safeguards, but what a message it sends politically.  We’d much rather not criticise the SNP, so how come, having worked for centuries to regain national sovereignty, is the first act, apparently, to give it away?

It will be a shame if 16 and 17 year olds don’t get a vote.  They won’t be the only ones to be disappointed though.  A choice of in or out, of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, is not much of a choice.  Why not a box for ‘Maybe’?  Because without the really wide-ranging debate that we, as advocates of a third, rather different kind of Europe, would like to see, that is the answer we prefer to give.