Monday, August 25, 2014

The Eastern Question

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

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

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

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  The French, whose position on minorities is 200 years out-of-date.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

False Flags & The Fallen

It takes a lot of planning to fit the First World War in between Sunday’s closing ceremony for the Stolenwealth Games and tonight’s televised independence debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.

The juxtaposition may give cause for thought.  Scotland’s choice seems to lie between two visions of Europe.  On the one hand, it can become a modern, pragmatic, Nordic-style social democracy whose guiding light is the common weal and not the enrichment of the slyest.  On the other, it can remain part of the one centralised monarchical empire in Europe that was not toppled by the events that began a century ago.  Choose well: the same class of inbred twits whose inept diplomacy launched that war is still at the helm.

That much is evident from the handling of the anniversary.  The focus is on British and colonial casualties, with little attempt at reaching out to understand realities shared with the ‘enemy’.  Tactics and trauma will be the thing, not the bigger picture, which is way too much of an embarrassment.  But gloriously, needlessly dead is gloriously, needlessly dead: what does nationality have to do with it?  The silo mentality is what wins, loaded to overflowing with our selective remembering.

What do we remember?  And why?  Yes, you, small child with no memory of the last century, let alone of its wars.  What must you never forget of the experiences you never had?  The lessons of history?  We mark the centenary of the war to end war with yet more war.  The sacrifices that must never be thought to have been in vain?  Heresy it may be to say but was the post-war world a better world?  Was it all ‘homes fit for heroes’?  How many of the social and political changes that did occur were going to occur anyway?  Was it all for nothing then?  Quite possibly, but you won’t hear the twits admitting it.

One huge consequence of 1914-18 was to militarise the anti-London struggle in Ireland to an unprecedented degree.  Should Scotland vote ‘Yes’ it will be worth watching the Scottish reaction to any dirty tricks or delaying tactics from Westminster, now that a new generation of Scots soldiers have battle experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A worried establishment this week finally conceded ‘devo-max’, the option they wouldn’t allow on the ballot paper.  Can any but a fool trust the London parties’ final desperate offer of further powers?  Too little, too vague and far, far too late to make any difference.  But presumably requiring another confirmatory referendum before implementation – since no-one will announce the details – and so to be kicked into the long grass in the meantime.  No SNP gains at Westminster next May?  Oh well, it’s a changed world, so never mind what we promised.  It wasn’t exactly binding, was it?

In Wessex, we have our own regional recollections of service in the First World War.  The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division spent the war in India and the Middle East (as apparently did the duplicate 45th (2nd Wessex)).  The Wessex county regiments saw action both on the Western Front and across the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Military leaders seemingly understand the motivating power of the Wessex name rather better than their civilian counterparts who struggle to breathe life into ‘The South West’ and ‘The South East’.  Or is that an over-simplification?  Do the civilians know exactly what they’re up to?  The Wessex name has been well-used by the military: for the Wessex Brigade, the Wessex Division, the Wessex Regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, even HMS Wessex.  But the British Army is not a democracy: Wessex patriotism is fine when confined to cap-badges but not so fine when it gets political.  That’s when it becomes less of an asset and more of a threat.  To take a Welsh analogy: a male voice choir at the Albert Hall singing ‘God Bless The Prince of Wales’ is one thing; Plaid Cymru is another; the Free Wales Army something else again.

In 1997 we held a strategy conference in Reading.  One of the questions we sought to answer was: where should we look for allies?  The Army’s record on Wessex looked promising but even in terms of Wessex as a purely cultural project it would be self-limiting.  It’s not a pride of place that comes from below but from above.  At its heart is loyalty to the Crown, not loyalty to the land.  Since it’s ‘their’ army, not ‘ours’, it’s more likely to end up part of the problem, not of the solution.  A London fist in a Wessex glove.  A sustainable future won’t lie with yet more wars for global domination beneath the Union Jack or Le Tricolore but in a Europe at peace with itself and the world, the Europe of a Hundred Flags.  Are we closer to it than we were in 1914?  Only time will tell.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Defence: Deceit & Denial

We’ve discussed before the centuries-old military occupation of Wessex by the UK’s armed services, and how this distorts both our economy and our objectivity in making moral judgments about foreign intervention or the ability to ‘project influence’ abroad.  There’s also an environmental cost.  Enter Tidworth from the north at present and you’ll find it a building site with, as at Amesbury, huge housing estates beginning to sprawl across the sensitive Wiltshire landscape.  It’s high time the British Army went home – the Channel Islands perhaps are what’s left of that – and left us in peace.

No chance of that under London diktat.  Gung-ho Cameron’s reshuffle last week saw a new man at the MoD.  Michael Fallon.  Are we safe in his hands?  Our money certainly isn’t, given that he moves across from Vince Cable’s Business department, where he was responsible for selling Royal Mail.  For £1 billion less than it was worth.  No wonder economic democrats are becoming more and more attracted to the idea of reversing privatisation of our public services WITHOUT compensation.

Talking of billions, David Cameron announced to the Farnborough Air Show, the day before the reshuffle, that, thanks to austerity, the London regime is now in a position to spend an additional £1.1 billion of our money on defence.

Anyone with eyes to see will know how good the MoD is at wasting public money on thoughtless procurement that is beyond insane.  This month, it launched the first of two gigantic aircraft carriers for which it doesn’t, beyond reasonable doubt, have any of the aircraft for which the ship was specifically designed, except for a full-size plastic display model.  Initial cost of the programme £3.9 billion, now over £6 billion and rising.

Next year, the MoD will be launching the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, looking at future threats and how to address them.  So how come it can say today that it needs another £1.1 billion, given that priorities could conceivably change?  Will SDSR15 really be about identifying the threats and costing the response, or just about finding ways to convince the taxpayer to go on wasting the money already allocated?

Fallon, writing in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, pushed all the buttons his fan club of empire loyalists like to see pushed.  A shopping list of mega-money kit is spelt out, framed by the familiar narrative of ‘keeping us safe’.  Go on, push that fear button.  Except that no-one can define how safe we are, if we are at all.  Quantity of defence spending does not automatically translate into quality, or any kind of value for money.  The UK has the biggest defence budget in Europe (huzzah!) and the fifth largest in the world (gadzooks!).  But will an aircraft carrier, with or without planes, protect us from an angry young man fuelling zealous fantasies from a laptop in Bradford or Birmingham?  Will £1 billion spent on military hardware be more beneficial than £1 billion spent on actions designed to remove the tensions that lead to conflict, actions such as breaking down political authority into the smallest practical units?

‘Keeping us safe’ makes assumptions about who ‘we’ are.  Are we part of a global peace initiative – safety for all – or is it rather more partisan than that?  Are we entitled to be kept safe if we keep insisting on making the world less safe for others?  And, in the much broader sense, do the key threats to our way of life in Wessex come from overseas, from homegrown terrorism, or from the very London-based regime that pretends to be protecting us, all the while interfering shamelessly in our internal affairs?

Who does benefit from defence spending?  Not necessarily the armed services but certainly the wider ‘defence community’ of arms manufacturers and the like.  This month, the London regime published the MoD Permanent Secretary’s performance objectives for 2014/15.  These include “ensuring that MOD contributes to the Government’s growth strategy by supporting Defence Exports”.

There you have it.  All the moral depravity of a Prime Minister proud of being the death industry’s honorary top salesman.  Yes, it’s jobs, but can those in the industry not do other work, work that they don’t have cause to be ashamed of?  And can we have a defence policy that doesn’t, like every other spending-based policy of this Government, have an underlay that is all about servicing ever-expanding debts to private bankers?  It’s a statistical certainty that the more defence sales the UK makes overseas, the higher the probability that one day the weapons will end up being used against our own.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Democracy’s Debt

Malmesbury – the oldest borough in England – is one of many Wessex market towns on the front line in the struggle against London overspill.  The Coalition, for whose parties all constituencies in Wiltshire mainly voted in 2010, is doing its best to make sure that Malmesbury loses.

The National Planning Policy Framework – the NPPF – is one of those documents designed to worsen our quality of life, while assuring us of the opposite.  “Sustainable development,” we’re told, “is about change for the better.”  Who could disagree?  And who judges that?  Look at the detail then, say on congestion: Development should only be prevented or refused on transport grounds where the residual cumulative impacts of development are severe”.  Whatever ‘severe’ means, which can be a right old barristers’ banquet.  What’s clear about the NPPF is that it expects things to get worse, and even encourages them to get worse, at least little by little.

Or take education.  In 2012, one of Eric Pickles’ Planning Inspectors turned down a proposal to build 77 homes on the edge of Malmesbury.  She refused to include in the reasons for doing so a local concern about school places:

“The situation concerning primary education is that due to an existing shortfall of school places in Malmesbury, the Council provides bus transport so that 14 pupils resident in the town can instead attend primary schools in neighbouring villages.  The future occupiers of the currently proposed development are likely to include 22 children of primary school age, and this would clearly result in pressure for more primary school places in Malmesbury.  There is the additional concern that the primary schools in neighbouring villages will themselves shortly be full.  I understand that there is currently no collective agreement as to the means by which the deficiency in primary education provision should be addressed…  However… in my judgment, the increased strain that the proposed new housing would place upon the already pressured primary education infrastructure of Malmesbury is not, of itself, sufficient reason to refuse planning permission outright for residential development.”

From time to time we encounter the argument that Wessex should grab whatever it can, the way London does.  If Wessex is growing then it needs the money for all the new roads, the schools, hospitals and leisure centres.  We should campaign for the Celtic nations and the north of England to be written off as economically hopeless and invest instead in success.

It’s not an argument we’d ever be comfortable making: ever since the 1970s we’ve been striving to protect what makes Wessex special and opposing its transformation by other regions that are more heavily industrialised and urbanised.  What Wessex needs is not more money to ease its transformation into a clone region but the power to reject that unwilled transformation.

The argument continues that transformation is what Wessex folk welcome: why else would they vote for the London parties?  But no-one, no voter, certainly no council leader, can have failed to spot that MPs from the London parties are quite useless in standing up for their communities’ right to make their own decisions.  Upon taking the Oath of Allegiance – a calculated insult to democracy, demonstrating our servile status – do they in effect surrender any loyalty to their constituents?  Apparently, they do.  The evidence is overwhelming and utterly damning.  They cease to be the voice of the voters and become instead mouthpieces for the regime or for the indistinguishable parties to which they belong.  It’s quite safe for them to do so, as long as their rivals do exactly the same.  All of them become convinced, if not already won over, that localities must act ‘responsibly’, ‘in the national interest’, all ‘doing their bit’ for the great common project directed from London.  And be overridden if ever judged to be slacking.

In Malmesbury, local folk have had enough of being dictated to.  They’ve got together to use the system to influence events, as far as they can.  They’ve drawn up a Neighbourhood Plan, with the full backing of Pickles’ department, or so it seemed.  In a remarkable piece of Whitehall farce, a planning appeal to build 180 homes on the edge of town was upheld when civil servants failed to let the Inspector know in time that the Government was taking a particular interest in progressing the Neighbourhood Plan.  A judge in Bristol allowed them to nullify the decision.  Now that judge has been overruled by the Appeal Court in London.  The developers are jubilant, having undermined the Neighbourhood Plan process and created a precedent that could see hundreds more homes approved in defiance of local wishes.

The FibDems’ prospective Parliamentary candidate for the area has called upon Pickles to resign.  Funny how your party can be in government for four years and then decide it was all nothing to do with them.  Meanwhile, the civil service assure us that lessons will be learnt and it will never happen again.  Sorry, but under true localism, where a developer’s right to appeal wouldn’t exist, it couldn’t have happened in the first place.

Don’t imagine that it’s only Malmesbury that’s been targeted for mass colonisation.  Just west of Wiltshire is Bath, where the demand for housing is insatiable yet must, on Government orders, be met anyway.  The Council this month agreed to remove land from the Green Belt.  With a heavy heart.  Fully recognising that the London regime leaves them no other alternative but to lose appeal after appeal and then be denied the funding to pay for the resultant infrastructure needed.  But not ONE of them took the opportunity publicly to tear up their London party membership card.

Among the consequences will be 300 new homes at Odd Down.  The Planning Inspector reporting on the proposal to the Council notes: “Overall, there would be a loss of Green Belt, localised harm to the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (nonetheless great weight should be attached to protecting this landscape); only slight harm to the Wansdyke Scheduled Monument, with a small benefit from planned positive management measures; and limited and localised harm to the setting of the World Heritage Site…  I consider that there are the exceptional circumstances to justify removing land from the Green Belt and for major development within the AONB.  The need for housing and the benefits of additional housing in this location at Bath outweigh the harm that would arise, taking into account the great weight that must be given to protecting the AONB and heritage assets.”

What’s happening is being termed the second Sack of Bath.  Bathonians are content to let this happen because they’re far too polite to confront the London party bullies (nationally) and cowards (locally) and see them off.  The Tories are blaming the FibDem-run council for everything.  The FibDems are blaming the Tory-run government.  And they’re both right.

About the only good news for Bath’s environs is the rejection, for now, of the Duchy of Cornwall’s plans to build 2,000 homes on highly sensitive Green Belt land forming the south-western backdrop to the city.  No doubt they’ll be back, come the next salami-slicing exercise in just a few years’ time.  When you’ve been accumulating the estate here since 1421 you can afford to take the long view.  Never let it be said that Prince Charles is a committed environmentalist; there’s only one thing to which he’s committed and very firmly so.  We need to be equally committed, with appropriate allies in Cornwall and elsewhere that the Duchy has land, to dragging this feudal relic into the 21st century.

Further west still, North Somerset Council this month approved 150 homes on high-grade farmland (some of it Grade 1), seemingly accepting the developer’s view that a shortfall in the supply of land for housebuilding trumps even our future food security.  Now, if planning is about considering the long-term, especially resilience in the face of uncertain global circumstances, then it should provide for new housing to the extent that is compatible with agriculture.  What’s happening is the exact opposite.

Planners work with information on agricultural land quality that is often incomplete and becoming dated.  Issues such as optimum farm structure, severance of fields or the problems of farming the urban fringe are rarely even considered nowadays in a system dominated by pressure for development.

The London regime’s aim is “to boost significantly the supply of housing”, so as to meet the needs of a population that is being deliberately raised to breaking point and the demands of a financial system that sees homes, including multiple ‘homes’, as an ever-appreciating investment.  The housebuilding targets really do trump everything: even floodplains are OK to live on now, with the increased insurance costs passed on to everyone else through Flood Re.

And where do these housebuilding targets come from?  Not us, say the Coalition.  We don’t impose numbers like Stalinist Labour did, we leave it all up to local folk to decide.  Except that the number still has to be approved centrally and if it’s judged too low, local folk must go back and think of another one.  As North Somerset Council found, after a costly court case brought about through no fault of its own when the Planning Inspectorate failed to back a higher number put forward by developers, a failure judged ‘unreasonable’ by the court.  The Council was left to pay both sides’ legal costs; the London regime walked away, having so written the legislation as to put itself out of reach.

Back to Malmesbury again.  In that 2012 decision, the Inspector said of the Neighbourhood Plan, then at a very early stage of production, that “it is material to note that ensuring local communities have an increased ability to shape the development of their areas, through mechanisms such as Neighbourhood Plans, is a key plank of the government’s Localism Agenda.  This consideration needs to be balanced with the importance the government attaches to the role of the planning system in promoting growth…”

Well, there’s a surprise.  Democracy carries great weight.  But debt weighs more heavily.

UK public debt has rocketed in recent years, as the graphs here show.  (And what they don’t show, the off-balance-sheet items like the bank bailouts and the unfunded pensions ponzi.)  It’s a shock doctrine moment when communities up and down the land can be terrorised into surrendering some of their most cherished environments, to build the houses that will (allegedly) kickstart the growth that will enable the compound interest (now £40 billion a year and rising) to be paid on the mountain of debt that no-one has the will to manage.  And that’s because no financier will bankroll a party promising a property taxation and common ownership package that would remove any need for public borrowing.  Getting rid of debt is common sense in a world where resource constraints mean it cannot go on being serviced by growth.  In fact though, there’s no plan to eradicate the debt: fear of the debt is just the cover under which other things can be done.  Financiers, naturally, want the debt to grow and financiers have the willing ear of Government.

In the boom years, under Labour, the pressure for growth was equally strong but more pull than push, and environmental angst was always allowed some degree of public expression before being largely disregarded.  Nowadays, environmental protection is one of those painfully erected ‘barriers to growth’ being comprehensively torn down on the orders of global finance.

Billions continue to be wasted worldwide on corrupt practices like ‘defence’ that add nothing to human welfare.  A top-heavy London-based government acts as our master, not as our servant.  City slickers make off with our common wealth, going for a song.  These are clever folk, who know how to confuse us as to the difference between money and reality.  We need to be cleverer.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Not Gingerbread Houses

What have we been saying?  That the range of demands increasingly being placed on our countryside could soon exceed the supply of rural land.

Now it’s been confirmed.  Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership has published a report – The Best Use of UK Agricultural Land – quantifying the UK-wide shortfall at up to 6 million hectares, or 15 million acres, by 2030.  (Wessex covers 3 million hectares or 7 million acres.)  You can read the headlines here and download the report here (right-hand column).

Some of the difficulty can be overcome by making multiple use of the same land – a woodland can be used for timber, biomass feedstock, water retention, carbon storage, wildlife habitats and recreation – but there are limits to this.  Our houses aren’t edible, so the land they occupy is land lost to food production.  In Wessex we have the added burdens imposed by London overspill housing, second and holiday homes and other external demands on our land area, for water-gathering, power generation or waste disposal.

As the report points out, the UK Government is failing to provide any leadership on the issue of land use in its broadest sense, not just development.  Scotland has a better grasp of the issues, but that’s just Scotland.  Many ecosystem services have no market price, so leaving things to market forces won’t deliver a sustainable solution.

The report makes interesting reading from a Wessex perspective.  It argues that the UK imports foods it could grow for itself, including foods in which it has a competitive advantage and could therefore also develop an export market.  Examples include apples – all those orchards grubbed up! – pears, plums, summer berries, pig meat, and processed products such as yoghurt and ice cream.  Wessex agriculture could have quite a future, if the policy framework is a supportive one.  But with no sign of joined-up thinking in Whitehall, it’s clear that Wessex will have to do its own planning and make its own decisions.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Don’t Mention The Region!

A recent post on a left-leaning website makes an excellent case study, for all the wrong reasons.  Dan Holden’s piece, ‘Westminster Must Address Regional Identities’, is the sort of thing that has been written many times before and doesn’t get any better, because centralist assumptions are never challenged.

First up, the writer appears to sit on the fence over the question of whether devolution has ‘worked’.  Doesn’t it all depend on what you expect devolution to deliver?  Is it about empowering folk to make their own decisions for their own areas?  If so, calling a referendum on independence for Scotland is just another part of that new politics.  Or is it about re-engineering the constitution so that Labour control freaks can be assured bits of the UK even when they’re out of power at Westminster?  If the latter, then of course devolution has failed.  It fails every time Labour is rejected.

Labour has never fully made up its mind who are the good nationalists and who are the bad ones.  Irish nationalists are good, presumably because Karl Marx spoke up for them, considering their situation objectively different, at least at the time, but Scottish and Welsh ones are defectors from the straight and narrow path of true British-only brotherhood.

Objective differences come and go though.  So too, one might think, could the Labour Party.  Especially in Scotland, where a radical, newly independent country looks more like a refreshed Labour vision than Labour ever could.  (And here?  Labour has never won in Wessex; what if a regionally rooted radical party were to take its place?)

Labour wants to win the referendum because it doesn’t want to let go.  The potent myth peddled is that the UK without Scotland would be doomed to eternal Tory rule.  Doomed, we say.  Good old Labour.  Democrats to the core.  A ‘Yes’ vote would be bad news because then Scotland would always get the government it voted for.  And so would the rest of the UK.  How awful.

It is a myth though.  Currently, Labour has 41 MPs from Scotland, with other parties there holding the remaining 18 seats.  So the net contribution to Labour’s Westminster majority, if it had one, would be 23.  Labour’s majority in 2005, when it also had 41 Scottish MPs, was 66 seats, down from 167 in 2001 and 179 in 1997 (though there were 13 more Scottish seats before 2005).  Labour has to work only slightly harder without its Scottish donkeys but since when has Labour fought shy of hard work?

So, moving on to the writer’s next point of reference.  Some highly superficial, even tongue-in-cheek musings about Yorkshire being a separate country.  Look up ‘shire’ – it’s a division, a share, a shearing, of something bigger.  Within the area usually labelled ‘England’ there are two well-defined countries: Cornwall (the land of the Cornish) and England (the land of the English).  Just two.  There may be any number of regions, according to choice. 

It doesn’t help that advocates of autonomy don’t all agree where Yorkshire is.  The Yorkshire Devolution Movement remains true to the three ridings and York; the Yorkshire First Party embraces the Prescott zone, northern Lincolnshire and neither tea nor sympathy for those lopped off in 1974.  ‘We are about the future, not the past’, claims their leader.  Future not the past, or present not the future?  It all depends how radical a vision you wish to advance.  That both the North East Party and Yorkshire First go with the Prescott zones, flaws and all, is bound to raise suspicions; the Prescott zones are always bad news in Wessex.  The South West Party, should it rear its ugly head, has been forewarned.

Is that where the debate ends then?  Cornwall and Yorkshire?  How very convenient, because both can be linked together, and then dismissed, as county-based campaigns that are not truly regional.  That way, the hacks never need to discuss Mercia or East Anglia.  They can move on to claim that every county is a region and so all it needs is a county council.  Debate over – centralism saved.

Or let’s push on down to city level.  All cities are different, says our writer.  What a discovery!  But cities then, not counties or regions, are the future of regional identity.  An idea that leads in turn to Local Enterprise Partnerships, city-regions, unelected commissioners and all the rest of the quangocratic gobbledygook that gets between us and the simple, elegant solution at regional level.  Meanwhile, the countryside is locked outside in the cold; its only place in this debate is as the place that urban creatives descend upon at weekends.  This kind of socio-econo-functionalist localism seems only to offer cities limited powers on a string and the countryside a cloak of invisibility.  Overturning the constitution?  Not today, thank you.

The remarkable thing about Dan Holden’s piece is its ability to discuss regional identities in terms of not discussing regions.  Nations, counties, cities, just don’t mention the region.  It all ends up like some Sunday colour supplement spread on how grim life is up north.  So let’s celebrate gritty provincial talent.  And get it down to London asap so we can all enjoy it.  Let’s definitely not start discussing the names, the boundaries, the flags, and which of us will criticise the Labour Party the hardest for its ever-lengthening record of betrayal.

Holden suggests we ‘force Westminster into acting’.  No.  Don’t give the self-important pimples the satisfaction of imagining we even slightly care what they think any more.  They just aren’t worth it.  The news from here is that Wessex is too busy building its own future.  Westminster can catch up if it ever feels like it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Summer of Discontent

David Cameron would like to think of Scotland’s referendum as a little local difficulty.  Perhaps that’s why the mainstream media stay so quiet about the widespread discontent now simmering across Europe as our continent awakes to new possibilities.  Catalans are ignoring Madrid’s refusal to allow them a vote on independence.  Basques are thinking along the same lines.  Venetians have already voted for independence from Rome, in an unofficial poll, and are now agitating for the right to hold a real one.  Plaid Cymru’s leader has recently renewed the call for Welsh independence, proclaiming that ‘independence is normal’.

Mebyon Kernow has published a consultation document on establishing a National Assembly of Cornwall.  (Labour continues to brief against the idea.)  In Northumbria, a plethora of groups is staking a variety of territorial claims, with the regional political party model increasingly pulling ahead of the old mantra of ‘working within the Labour Party’, the ‘big red thumb’ under which so many live, that has so clearly failed to deliver.  The Wessex Regionalists, encouraged by the official flying of Wessex flags on St Ealdhelm’s Day, are beginning to draft proposals to put to the electorate in 2015.  Even the BBC is clumsily beginning to explore the deeper England of the future.

In many ways, across many countries, this is looking to be the hour.  And in France, the stakes could not be higher, with a new regional map about to be imposed, one a lot worse in many areas than the current one and consequently already leading to vigorous action against the Paris regime.  The best that can be said about it is that it could actually have been worse still.  Relief?  Well, no – revolutions often kick off when expectations that events are finally moving in the right direction are cruelly dashed, revealing how real reform has never even been on the agenda.  The one thing leading Parisian politicians all seem to agree upon is that there must not be a region that covers Brittany, the whole of Brittany and nothing but Brittany, whatever the Bretons think.

Brittany is a kind of Scotland.  Each has a Treaty of Union with its larger neighbour, the one in 1532, the other in 1707.  Although both were the result of bribes and duress, these treaties guaranteed the continued existence of certain historic national institutions and the freedom of local folk to make at least some of their own decisions.  The concessions won by Scotland have grown to the point where it may even put the Union behind it.

Brittany has fared much, much worse.  French revolutionaries ignored the treaty and, abolishing the Breton institutions, launched two centuries of systematic persecution that has never fully abated.  In 1941, the collaborationist Vichy regime redrew the regional map of France.  Brittany, traditionally five départements, was reduced to four, with the ancient ducal capital of Nantes attached to an artificial ‘Loire Country’ region, where it remains to this day.  The Paris technocracy won’t be budged from the view that a single region with two large cities – Nantes and Rennes – just won’t work.  Try it and see then.  You know, like Edinburgh and Glasgow, Cardiff and Swansea, Bristol and Southampton.  No.  That’s too empirical by far.

François Mitterrand of the Parti Socialiste came to power in 1981 pledged to decentralise power.  There were bold changes.  Elected regional councils, and the abolition of tutelage, the system whereby local decisions could be blocked or reversed by the departmental Prefect acting as guardian of the centralist interest.  But the boundaries of the regions remained unchanged.

Now another ‘socialist’ President, François Hollande, has grasped the nettle.  France’s 22 regions are to be reduced to 14.  ‘Socialism’, one would think, is about society.  And society is made up of communities, intermediate powers between the centre and the individual that need to be cherished.  Not so for Hollande, ever true to the Jacobin ideal that the job of the State is to nip community in the bud, in the name of the one true community – itself.  So the claims of Basques, Catalans and Savoyards to separate regional status continue to be ignored.  Those of Alsatians, long recognised, are to be overturned.  Small but distinctive regions like Auvergne, Limousin and Picardy are likewise to be abolished.  In the one piece of good news, if the reforms do happen, the two half-Normandies are (as we predicted) to be re-united at last.  The result will be a single region with two large cities, Caen and Rouen.  Yet by a stroke of the same pen, Brittany is to remain partitioned.

Does it make any sense, other than in the terms of continuing Parisian supremacy?  Of course not.  But any questioning of the new arrangements is to be suppressed.  The new law will make it impossible for a département to choose to change the region in which it is placed.  You will have the identity that Paris decides that you will have.  Having your own, real identity is a threat to the unity of France and that would never do.  Why is that, when a France divided, along traditional lines, would be so much more pleasant and interesting than the dull conformity of a united one?  It’s a French thing, the wholly irrational foundation of the supposedly rational Republic, as indivisible as the Holy Trinity.  There are questions you just don’t ask because the mental capacity on the other side just isn’t there.  Those in the UK who remember Labour’s regional White Paper from 2002, Your Region, Your (Lack of) Choice will find all this refusal to engage in debate irritatingly familiar.

Hollande already has a good deal of Breton fare on his plate, put there by the Bonnets Rouges – ‘the Red Caps’ – a movement recalling a 17th century tax revolt with constitutional issues thrown in.  Like all successful reform movements, the new Bonnets Rouges cross class lines, combining traditional autonomist thinking with the aspirations of a new generation of entrepreneurs for whom a more distinctive Brittany is just part of the real world of 21st century economics.  It’s a point we’ve often made about Wessex – that we simply have to get our act together as a region for marketing purposes, building a ‘brand’ with a reputation for quality and reliability.  Otherwise we shall have Labour’s alternative thrust upon us – our cities, with their hinterlands, set against each other within a British/English framework that allows London to tax the fruits of our efforts and then give us back what we beg for nicely.

France proclaims its values, supposedly universal, to be liberty, equality and fraternity.  It honours none of these because in every case they are applied in a partisan way by a State that cannot understand why it, as the judge of them, should be bound by them too, even to its own disadvantage.  There is no liberty for conquered nations, their once treaty-assured rights trampled underfoot.  There is equality for those who think, speak and act French and an unconscious, sneering hatred for those who demand to be different.  There is fraternity only in the sense that Big Brother is watching you and legislating you out of existence.

Is the French Republic sustainable on such terms, in a broader Europe that is keen to appear just and civilised, two things that France is not?  Its ruling class, stuck in the 18th century, remain in denial about the new Europe now emerging around and below them.  Happy to embrace as their national anthem a bloodthirsty and dishonest hymn of racial hatred, while treating attacks on the communities that form the building blocks of the French State as normal, reasonable behaviour.  Those who believe these psychopaths are ready for the chop deserve the support of freedom-seekers everywhere.  Why abolish regions to save money when you think how much could be saved just by devolving 99% of the central State?  France, one and indivisible; the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament.  Call it what you will, centralism is a common enemy.  So bring on the real revolution: the sooner France has proper regions with recognisable names and boundaries, and proper, regionally-rooted powers, the sooner Wessex and other English regions can point to their example.