Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Empty Space?

The second issue of Wessex Citizen, edited by Keith Southwell and Rick Heyse, is now online.  Many thanks to all who contributed.  Earlier this month we mentioned the current – seventy-second – issue of MK’s equivalent, Cornish Nation, which this time gave us a brief mention.  Joanie Willett, reporting back on the General Assembly of the European Free Alliance recently held in Corsica, wrote:

“One of the Parties that MK members became acquainted with was Yorkshire First.  We have much that we can learn from each other, and it would be a really interesting exercise to have some sort of group meeting or conference of all the regionalist parties in mainland UK, including the North East Party and the Wessex Regionalists, to see how we can combine our voices in our campaigns for better, stronger, and more people-led devolution in the UK.”

That might be so, and the WR Council has resolved to make enquiries, though as we’ve noted, it’s been done before.  More than once.  Perhaps every generation has to give it a try and there’s certainly no shame in emulating success.  WR is different though, mainly because of how far official recognition of our regional identity lags behind.

Cornwall is not just home to a distinct nation.  It’s also (apart from the Isles of Scilly, who have their own council) a single unit of local government.  The complaint isn’t that Cornwall is unrecognised; it’s that it’s not recognised enough, or in the right way.  Cornwall Council has broadly the same powers as a London borough, even though Cornwall’s geographical isolation would allow it to do far more for itself, without treading on any of its neighbours’ toes.  It’s treated as an English county when it’s actually something more that just happens to be same size as an English county.  The motto ‘One and All’ sums it up.  The argument that ‘there’s no such place as Cornwall’ isn’t heard though, because it’s not conceivable.

Up north, the North East Party and Yorkshire First both operate within the boundaries of their respective Prescott zones, boundaries still widely recognised by the public and voluntary sectors and used for everything from Euro-elections to the English Heritage handbook.  This is part of the legacy of the Blairite ‘big push’ for top-down regionalisation that has never fully gone away.

(Interestingly, the National Trust used also to be loyal to Prescottism but this year’s handbook departs from it.  Apart from South Humberside, now placed with the rest of Lincolnshire, the basic Prescott geography is respected everywhere except the South West and South East, where the Trust has introduced five new groupings of its own invention, plus a separate Cornwall.  If the NT now has so much property in Wessex that its presentation needs to be this fragmented, maybe Wessex needs a National Trust all of its own?)

There is, of course, another definition of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire of the ridings rather than the one of a map drawn in London, but any attempt to restore this is fraught with difficulties.  The biggest risk, revealed in the work of the Banham Commission in the 1990s, is of tokenistic proposals emerging to appease sentiment rather than to accommodate it, new ridings with old names but the wrong boundaries, which make things worse rather than better.

Until this year, a different approach was evidenced by the Northern Party, voice of the historic North of England – Northumbria – with a united claim to all three northern Prescott zones.  South Humberside apart though, this was still a claim that worked with rather than against the Prescott geography.

Wessex is different because faced with that geography our response is that we wouldn’t have started from here.  We devoted most of The Case for Wessex to explaining why Wessex is, to quote Thomas Hardy, a ‘practical provincial definition’.  Much more so than a South West that runs from the Scillies to the Cotswolds and a South East that wraps round two-thirds of London and whose extremities can only communicate with each other by passing through a national capital that forms a separate region.

If Wessex is a practical province, and not just a romantic image of myth and legend that doesn’t even merit its own official tourist board, why isn’t it shown more on maps?  We must note that briefly and for specific purposes it does come into being, as with the Army’s Wessex Brigade or the short-lived Wessex Trains franchise.  The London regime always realises its mistake and pulls back from taking things further.  Then busily covers up the evidence while encouraging others to do likewise.

Alternatively, it hides behind forms of official recognition that don’t require Wessex to be defined.  Like recognising St Ealdhelm as our patron saint or the Wyvern as our flag (and even allowing it to be flown from public buildings, something several county and unitary councils are doing today).  Another example would be awarding our earldom to the Queen’s youngest son.  The re-use of the title for Prince Edward in 1999 launched a tsunami of sneering from the London press, ranging from massive pride in not knowing where Wessex is to asking whether the brand isn’t damaged for eternity, given that Wessex Water was once owned by Enron.  When in 2011 Prince William became Duke of Cambridge, the reaction was more like ‘how nice’.  The Wessexes are one way of acknowledging that Wessex exists but, like the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, they can be a convenient device when needed for ensuring loyalty to the London regime among the grovelling classes.  Their full potential for obstructing self-government has yet to be tested.

Yet another trick is to use ‘Wessex’ as the name for something smaller than Wessex, like Wessex Water, or the Wessex Regional Health Authority.  Another still is to associate aspects of Wessexness, like cider or the dialect, with a vague area that won’t match county boundaries, but simply not to notice how these things form bundles that add up to an identity.  There are lots of words for folk from Wessex – Wessaxon, Wessexer, Wessexian, or – best of all – Wurzel, but probably none that would be acknowledged outside Wessex because if you don’t look and listen you won’t find.

In all these respects, Wessex is less comparable with other movements for autonomy within the UK and more with mainland movements in the likes of Alsace, Brittany, Moravia or Scania.  These are likewise places that exist in the heart but have been truncated, partitioned or even obliterated for purposes of governance, by centralist states jealous of any rival for the people’s affections.

Some regions have their capital city at their centre.  The central geographical feature of Wessex is the empty expanse of Salisbury Plain.  (Our big cities are round the edge, places of exchange with a wider world.)  That sense of a hollow centre is often how it feels politically.  We’re told that we’re campaigning for a region that most of its residents don’t recognise.  Yet that’s a throw-away line; it just avoids the need for any further thinking.  Thinking about how and why the London regime controls the space within which a Wessex identity could flourish, and controls it with the deliberate intention of ensuring that it doesn’t.  Thinking about the ruling class of Wessex, MPs and councillors sitting for the London parties, media hacks, academics, in many cases with anything but the good of Wessex as their motivation.  Thinking too about the opportunities we now have to build a radical Wessex movement from the bottom up.

It’s easy for critics to present the Wessex Regionalists as rather like one of those bands that were big in the 80s and are still trying to make a comeback, playing the occasional gig in obscure places like Witney.  The fact is that the raising of the election deposit in 1985 – it was more than trebled – was a huge blow that stopped us in our tracks.  We had until then been ramping up the number of candidates at each election.  Instead, we were kept out of electioneering for over a decade, times when it looked as if we might not survive.  The Tories claimed that raising the deposit was necessary to deter ‘frivolous’ candidates.  It didn’t.  All it did was deter serious candidates without the Tories’ access to loads of money.

And it shows how worried they were, as well they ought to be.  Devolution for peripheral areas is one thing; devolution for the area that encapsulates the deepest memories of statehood is an existential challenge the UK is ill-equipped to weather.  So if the current set-up is designed to deny us our identity, culturally and politically, then we should feel honoured rather than surprised.  Let’s get on with re-awakening it for ourselves.  That means, above all, not trying to influence those who have power but rather to do everything in our power to sweep them aside.

Happy St Ealdhelm’s Day

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wider Still and Wider?

Leaflets for this year’s Royal Bath & West Show are starting to drop through letterboxes.  Far be it from us to suggest that the show is run by a far Right clique but the leaflets are easily confused with party literature for UKIP or the BNP, draped in more Union Jacks than you can shake a halyard at.  Far be it from us to suggest either that the organisers aren’t aware that they run the premier agricultural show in Wessex: the Countess of Wessex was Show President in 2010 and 2011 and since then has been Vice-Patron.  The B&W is one of the few longstanding organisations that have served both ‘the West’ and ‘the South’ within Wessex: its full name for many years was the Bath & West and Southern Counties Society, the result of a merger in 1868.  Before the permanent showground at Shepton Mallet was established in 1965 the show was held all over Wessex, with occasional forays as far as Swansea and Maidstone (and on two occasions even Nottingham).

But here we are: the ‘Great British Festival of Agriculture, Entertainment, Food & Drink’.  In fact, for visitor numbers the B&W is well behind both the Royal Welsh and the Royal Highland.  On the inside pages, we’re told about ‘England’s biggest celebration of rural life’, words incongruously accompanied by yet another Union Jack.  Numerically, this is contestable.  Yorkshire has a perfectly good county show which styles itself ‘England’s premier agricultural event’ and its attendance figures lie in a similar range.  There’s no mention of Wessex at all in the leaflet: even the ‘West Country’ only just slips in on the back page, which tells us about traders exhibiting in the West Country for the first time.  All in all, it sounds like a lost opportunity for showcasing the region’s produce rather than somebody else’s.

It seems that under its new Chief Executive the B&W, instead of remaining what it is, and being good at it, is determined to be what it’s not, another national festival that happens to be located in Wessex.  A bit like Glastonbury (and, yes, Michael Eavis, this year’s President, is credited with sourcing the live music).  In that case, it needs even more visitors to fill the site and pay for it all.  Now just short of its 240th birthday, the B&W has survived by moving with the times but we hope it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew.  The fate of Stoneleigh is a solemn reminder of the risks ag show organisers must now constantly face.  We’d like to say, go and support it while you still can, but if it’s no more distinctive than many of the others, where would be the point?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Post-Truth Politics

Is an Eton education good value for money?  From the public’s point of view, it seems not, given Boris Johnson’s underwhelming analysis of European history.  He lit up the weekend with his dire warning that the EU is little better than a Fourth Reich.  For others, it’s the EUSSR, but we’ve learnt to recognise that political consistency is no barrier when conspiracy theories are in town.  The string-pullers can also be variously identified as Saudi Arabia, the CIA, Mossad, the Vatican…

BoJo was backed by a fellow Old Etonian, Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told the media thatPhilip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon and Hitler all wanted to create a single European power.  What Boris has said is the EU is following the footsteps of these historic figures but using different means."  Not so fast, Jacob: an Oxford history graduate should be rather more precise.  Philip wanted a more powerful Spain, headed by himself.  Louis and Napoleon each wanted a more powerful France, headed by himself.  Hitler wanted a more powerful Germany, headed by himself.  Not one of these rulers wanted a powerful Europe, an association in which all countries are regarded as equals, a Europe designed to clip the wings of imperial ambition on the part of unfettered autocrats.  In fact, the most appropriate equal of all of them could be none other than BoJo, who wants a more powerful Britain, headed by himself and up to who knows what mischief in the world.  Those advocating a united Europe have done so chiefly with the aim of ending centuries of internal strife through challenging or breaking up the great powers: the Duc de Sully’s Grand Design (1630), William Penn’s European Diet (1693), Auguste Comte’s Occidental Republic (1852) and Mikhail Bakunin’s United States of Europe (1867) were all schemes with this end in mind.

The fawning media remind us that BoJo is a ‘classical scholar’, as if knowledge of the Roman Empire is really that much help.  The entity most consciously modelled on it was the British Empire, the Pax Britannica, greatly admired by Hitler, largely for that reason.  BoJo was quite right to say that pan-European thinking does sometimes draw on the Imperium Romanum as a model.  Does he think that re-creating the Roman province of Britannia out of its post-Roman nations was something different?  Perhaps drawing on the legacy of Rome is OK if we do it?  BoJo is also quite right that there’s little deep loyalty to a common European identity.  Nor will there be if he and other nation-state grandstanders succeed in blocking its emergence.  The question is whether Europe in 2050 will be better off if Europeans stop working together, as Europeans.

The EU referendum debate ought to matter but instead it’s been reduced to a willy-waving contest among overgrown schoolboys over who gets to lead the Conservative Party.  What should be a debate about an uncertain future has been reduced to which unpleasant bit of history is judged most likely to repeat itself, in altogether different circumstances.  Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian (the ex-Manchester London newspaper) on Friday, highlighted the alternate reality of ‘post-truth politicians’, buffoons who aren’t.  These are the folk who form the Government.  If we voted for them then the bigger fools are us.

As usual, what’s never injected into the debate is any criticism of the UK and how it’s governed.  From a regionalist perspective, the European issue comes down to whether ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ is more likely to deliver regional parliaments in England powerful enough to end London dominance forever.  None of the big players will be asked that question by the media and so we won’t get an answer.  We’d just like to point out that if the EU is undemocratic, unaccountable, bureaucratic and corrupt, what's the UK?  How is a multi-national structure alleged to have been put together by banks and big business worse than a union that well suited investors in the Bank of England, the Honourable East India Company and Lloyds of London?  Who will defend, with any sincerity, the further entrenching of a subsidiarity-free constitution involving huge over-centralisation of power, wealth and talent in one small corner of the country, an electoral system in which the vast majority of votes are thrown away as worthless, and a Parliament that since 1571 has been firmly under the City of London’s thumb?  The frying-pan, however hot, is still a safer place than the fire.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Stacking Up

Libraries news tends to be bad news.  Closures mainly, accompanied by the snarling of those who think that in the Internet age all books should be burned, as useless relics of a barbarous past.  Little thought is given to the social role of libraries as places to meet and share, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, or their educational role in actively promoting literacy.

Some good news comes from the LibrariesWest consortium, which links Somerset and the four unitary authorities in what used to be Avon.  The public library services of Dorset and Poole will be joining the consortium in June.  As a result, users will be able to access over 150 libraries ‘coast to coast’, from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, using a single library card.  Items can be reserved, borrowed, renewed and returned at any LibrariesWest library regardless of where borrowed from.  LibrariesWest is also introducing a shared computer system to manage loans and stock, offering online searches of a unified catalogue of 2.5 million items.

The London regime’s expectation is that councils will increasingly work together to reduce costs, including through pooling their buying power.  Financial pressures and technical changes mean that it’s happening across a wide range of services, from police and fire to archives and museums to smaller councils pooling back-office functions like audit, payroll, procurement and IT.

Costs could be reduced and effectiveness improved much more rapidly, and with much less pain, if Wessex had an elected assembly to co-ordinate all these ad hoc efforts.  For example, the Welsh Government’s National Procurement Service has led the commissioning of a single library management system for all 22 public library authorities in Wales.  This is but one of its many initiatives, designed to empower local economies as well as cut costs across the whole public sector.  An assembly in Wessex would have its own ‘invest-to-save’ budget to spend on driving forward regional priorities, which could be very different from those that London thinks best for us.  Wessex needs to be free of interference from Whitehall departments that, by imposing ideological solutions through institutional silos, only gets in the way of sensible answers to challenging questions.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Thursday last week saw a plethora of different elections across the UK and among these polls was a referendum in St Ives.  Local folk voted by 83% to 17% in favour of a policy to ban the building of new second homes.  Faced with a housing market described as ‘financial cleansing’ of the locals, that’s no surprise, though of course it does nothing to ease the pressure on houses already built.

Reactions ranged from great interest, among towns and villages elsewhere, including western Wessex, to threats of judicial review by appalled developers.  Wessex already has an example of this type of policy, in the Lynton and Lynmouth Neighbourhood Plan in Devon, but this could be argued as an exception because of its location within the Exmoor National Park.  What happens when exceptions become the new rule?

Ministers in Lunnon insist that this is the sort of thing up with which they will not put.  The law will be changed to curb these uppity yokels.  Cornwall is surely somewhere that only comes into existence during the holiday season and switches itself off afterwards.  Localism?  Oh, we really are having a laugh.

The current issue of the MK magazine Cornish Nation highlights the raw deal that Cornwall is increasingly getting.  A cross-border Devonwall Parliamentary constituency is looming, regardless of token recognition of the Cornish as a national minority.  (If approved, this will make it impossible for MK candidates to represent Cornwall and only Cornwall, just as it will make it impossible for us to represent Wessex and only Wessex.)  Last month, a paltry £150,000 a year grant to support the Cornish language – equivalent to about three MPs’ expenses claims – was peremptorily withdrawn, to widespread dismay.  Cornwall’s Grand Bard described this spiteful act, so damaging to the tourism offer, as “an ideological decision based on indifference and not a financial one based on fiscal responsibility”.

Last year’s ‘Cornwall Devolution Deal’ was so feeble as to be an abuse of the word ‘devolution’, so limited in scope that it did not merit legislation or even a Commons debate.  The key areas of housing and planning are excluded from the deal.  Instead, the centralist inspection regime has imposed on Cornwall a much higher housebuilding target than that deemed appropriate by the majority of local residents and also re-written the council’s affordable housing policies to undermine their effectiveness.

As if to pour petrol on the flames, the Court of Appeal yesterday ruled it lawful for the London regime to prevent councils seeking contributions to affordable housing from sites of 10 homes or fewer, overturning a previous ruling obtained by Reading and West Berkshire councils.  These small windfall sites, often redevelopment sites, are the sort that can make a significant – and generally uncontroversial – contribution to housing development in our towns and villages.  Excluding them means that councils are ever more reliant on the volume housebuilders to deliver their one affordable for every two market houses.

This in turn puts ever more pressure on councils to allow more market houses than are actually needed by the local population, leading to yet more second homes and an influx of retired folk whose social care costs later in life are met from local taxation, not from national taxation or by the areas in which they paid taxes when working.  Meanwhile, as the Revenue Support Grant is being squeezed out of existence its place is being taken by the New Homes Bonus, a shameless bribe to councils to build or lose out.

This all began in the 1980s when we largely stopped building council houses and loaded the cost of social housing onto homebuyers, who themselves are often struggling to afford the prices.  Landowners do nicely though, with three attempts since 1945 at capturing their heightened development value through taxation or public ownership overturned by the Tories and no fourth attempt in sight.

The point we have to hammer home is that you really do get what you vote for.  Cornwall elected the full set of six Tory MPs last year.  What did it expect to get in return?  Little victories like St Ives mean nothing if the one lot can still count on your vote ‘to keep the other lot out’.  Tory, Labour, LibDem.  All centralist and all rotten to the core.  So forget ‘the other lot’.  Be your own lot and deny them all the power to do your community lasting harm.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Road to 2020

Nick Xylas polled 62 votes in Eastville on Thursday, a sound base from which to expand at Bristol’s next election in four years’ time.  In 2020 we’ll have a General Election to fight as well, so planning needs to start straightaway.  For Nick’s own reactions to the result, see the Eastville blog.

It was clear at the count that voters in this two-member ward are not so tribal as might have been supposed, with many splitting their choice between two candidates from rival parties.  The point needs to be made to voters whose first loyalty is to a party with only one candidate – the Greens and TUSC in this case – that giving the second vote to WR is a reasonable option.  It also means that a negative campaign would be counter-productive, though this is true of many places in Bristol given its genuinely multi-party profile.

The result wasn’t bad for a first go – across the city, one Tory and four FibDem candidates managed less than double this and at 0.849% of the poll it was in percentage terms our third best ever.  Second place goes to our founder, then known as Viscount Weymouth, who polled 0.855% when he stood in the first Parliamentary contest at Westbury in 1974.  First place goes to Tom Thatcher, who took 3% at Westbury in 1979.  Tom was a popular local farmer, active in the community, and so, naturally, we can’t agree that any similarity of name with the then Leader of the Opposition could have influenced the outcome.  Wessex voters are too smart for that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Choice At Last

Our President Colin Bex and Secretary-General David Robins were in Bristol at the weekend to help our candidate for the Eastville Ward, Nick Xylas, with his campaign there.  All three are shown here at an impromptu stall set up in Eastville Park.

Nick unexpectedly had the chance to move to a new flat that same weekend, leaving him, equally unexpectedly, to rely on others to do much of the leafleting.  Fortunately, Nick had the process well-organised, with lists of addresses prepared for each polling district.  A surprising number of addresses were not on the electoral register at all, which may be down simply to folk moving house or possibly to the recent changeover to individual rather than household registration, which may have cost the unwary their right to vote this time round.  As we keep saying, the Victorians thought through electoral law very carefully and it’s suffered heavily from ignorant meddling over the past two decades, postal vote fraud on an industrial scale being the worst consequence revealed so far.  And what else is currently kept under wraps?  No wonder some question what, in the absence of real reform, is the point in voting.

Bad weather didn’t help us and it now seems highly unlikely that full coverage of the ward will be achieved ahead of polling day tomorrow.  The best we can hope for is that by targeting key locations within the ward we do our bit to ensure that news will pass around by word of mouth or electronic media.  Nick takes the long-term view that 2016 is primarily about learning how best to do a local election campaign, with the idea already in mind that 2020 and the run-up to it offer the opportunity to do the thing really well.  One suggestion is a regular ward newsletter – the Eastville Wyvern perhaps?

This is the first time that voters at a local election anywhere have had a Wessex Regionalist on the ballot paper, so we as much as they can make our mark.  Nick is the first WR candidate to contest a seat wholly located in historic Gloucestershire (the Wansdyke Parliamentary constituency, contested in 1983, included some Gloucestershire wards but was predominantly in Somerset).  With this election therefore we can claim to have raised our standard in every one of our eight historic shires.  And – who knows? – we may yet be pleasantly surprised when the results are declared on Sunday.