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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Welcome to the Party

On this day last year we were delighted to mention Wessex Society’s success in persuading a third of the county and unitary councils in Wessex to fly the Wyvern for St Ealdhelm’s Day.  (The picture below was taken at Somerset County Hall in Taunton.)  This year, many councils are doing the same, with Bath & North East Somerset and Portsmouth City reported to be joining the list.  

Inexplicably, there is one loss.  South Gloucestershire will not be repeating last year's display of regional consciousness.  The reason advanced is that the council has changed hands from ‘No Overall Control’ to Conservative, and the ruling Conservative group doesn't want to fly the flag.  Very odd, considering that it was a Conservative minister, Eric Pickles, who relaxed the rules on flying the Wyvern and went on to declare 25th May as Wessex Day.  No doubt there are still some years of such confusion ahead of us as the London parties grapple with the fact of Wessex identity, stop regarding it as some sort of crime, and join in the celebration of our patron saint’s day.  The protestations that ‘WESSEX DOESN’T EXIST!’ will continue, but nowadays are too shrill even to be worth refuting.  One way or another, today's culture is always the foundation of tomorrow's constitution.  It's the pace of change that's uncertain.

Wessex itself is not a party-political idea.  It’s for everyone to make of it what they will.  We welcome the growth of other organisations, such as Wessex Society, with the means to reach out to and engage with a much larger audience than we can expect to attract.  The stronger and more varied the suite of Wessex organisations becomes, the stronger Wessex will be.  But let’s not run before we can walk.  The organisations we have need to be nurtured: putting down roots comes before sending out shoots.  So dissipating our energy wouldn’t be clever.

This is especially so in the political field, where there’s huge potential for a territorial party to tap into the frustration that exists with the London parties, and the admiration that exists for the SNP’s onward-rolling bandwagon.  Let everyone who cares for Wessex speak up for Wessex and do it NOW.

Let’s do it though in ways that are complementary and not divisive.  The establishment would love us to fall out over something.  It could be our name, or how we define Wessex, or any other faultline of convenience that’s open to exploitation if we allow it to be, but the fact is that changing political reality is about sustained hard work and nothing else.  Magic bullets don’t exist.  Things will move faster if we stick together: the greatest risk at times like this is for the impatient to split off, burn brightly for a season and then sink without trace.  People’s Front of Wessex versus Wessaxon People’s Front?

Quite unnecessary, of course.  WR is a broad church, and open to influence from within.  Scotland and Wales have learnt from the tragedy of Ireland that the room for diverse oppositional politics in a time of revolutionary change is not unlimited.  We’re aware of at least five groups – or possibly lone individuals – claiming to speak for Mercia, which is one reason why any formal alliance of English regionalists isn’t practical, because who do you recognise or not recognise as a legitimate ally?

WR has emerged stronger from the 2015 election, especially in terms of social media interest.  This blog attracted some 3,000 visits last month, twice the figure seen during the Eastleigh by-election in 2013.  However, one of the features of social media is the absence of any financial or organisational commitment.  It costs nothing to like on Facebook or follow on Twitter.  That’s why our cyber membership is growing a lot faster than the actual membership by which we are, unfairly, judged.  This is not a sustainable model in the long-term: it’s the actual membership whose subscriptions pay for the website that serves as the hub of our media operations. 

Real-world politics – standing in elections as committed challengers to the status quo – costs real money, for deposits (£500 a go for Parliament), for leaflets (expect 50,000 of them in a Westminster contest) and for all the expenses of canvassing and travel to media locations.  Being a Wessex Regionalist is free.  Being a member of the Wessex Regionalists is not, and for good reason.  That’s why wishing for a free Wessex is nowhere near as effective as applying for membership today.  It can be a great party, but bring a bottle.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Onwards and Upwards

Defying expectations, David Cameron, far from being locked out of Downing Street, now has the full bunch of keys (with just 37% of the vote), at least until his slim Commons majority is whittled away over the next five years.  He has promised a land of hope and glory, a Britain greater still and greater, one nation, with further devolution to some of the smaller nations the ‘nation’ paradoxically contains.  ‘Fairness’ for England even.  But the self-governing devolved assemblies that are good enough for others will not do for the English.  We can look forward only to more unwanted metro mayors, city ‘deals’ and a continuing denial of regional realities.  If things are done for the regions they will be done to the regions, not by them.

Witney might seem unpromising territory for WR.  Oxfordshire is a border shire which, despite the defining role of Burford, Dorchester-on-Thames and Oxford in Wessex history and culture, can sometimes seem unsure of its place.  Yet we do have growing support there and a good candidate can make a lasting positive impression.


At Witney, our candidate (2nd from left) almost doubled his previous vote there, finishing 7th of 12 candidates.  It was our best result since 2001.  Colin’s campaign attracted widespread and sincere interest, even from those who ended up placing their cross elsewhere.  One emailer to Colin and his team confessed that, “I just wanted to write and say how touched I am by your passion to make this world a better place.  And that is so appreciated.  You are beautiful human beings.”  It is a particular pleasure to record the assistance of the McLoone family, who volunteered as WR counting agents for the long night at the leisure centre, awaiting a declaration that came just before 6.

By then the wider picture had been largely coloured in.  Above all there was the unmistakeable roar of the Scottish lion.  The fact that Ed Miliband could not do the juggling act of simultaneously keeping on board both the Scots and middle England shows how far rigid, class-based politics is no longer fit for purpose and has to be superseded.  Don’t expect fully synchronised universal trends.  The Scots will perhaps want to ask why Plaid Cymru and the Greens failed to increase their representation at Westminster, despite a good showing in the leaders’ debates.  In the north of Ireland, nationalism actually lost a seat.

This was Nicola Sturgeon’s night as much as it was David Cameron’s.  Two Scots with very different visions for Scotland and for the rest of us.  Never mind who got the power this time: it's the direction of travel that matters.  The Unionist debacle north of the border will change the Unionist parties, leaving them much less Scottish, while increasing Scots’ sense of being let down by others.  Not even the strongest devolved government in the world will alter that very much.  Salmond is the new Parnell, and the nationalist tide is still rising.  Trident replacement will propel it higher.  If Cameron believes that Scotland can be fixed he is likely to be disappointed.  Labour will now have to decide whether to go back to Blairism; having dipped their toe into socialist waters and got it shockingly wet, they won’t be offering a real alternative ever again, and so will remain damned in the eyes of the Scottish electorate.  Anti-austerity won a landslide; austerity-lite flopped, and deservedly so.

UKIP’s results have generated a new enthusiasm on the Right for proportional representation, once the lonely preserve of a minority on the Left.  (It would, among other things, make the SNP’s triumph a lot less triumphal.)  The UK’s relationship with the EU will move centre-stage, at least for a short while, during which time our relationship with the UK will be conveniently elbowed off the agenda.  Mistrust of the Conservatives, given their abuse of the word ‘localism’, especially over planning issues, is almost tangible in Cameron’s constituency and throughout Wessex.   

Anyone who expected this election to resolve the key constitutional issues – who gets to decide what, and what qualifies as real democracy – should now be plainly aware that interesting times are only going to get more interesting.  We shall be looking to position ourselves to benefit from the debates unfolding over the next five years, meanwhile looking into the possibility of entering the fray at local government level.  We urge supporters of a regional Wessex, wherever they live, to join us in making sure that the wyvern’s roar is heard loud and clear too.