Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Consolation Prize

On Thursday, voters in Salford decided in favour of having a directly elected mayor. It was also a local decision to call the referendum in the first place. Bristolians are being forced to hold a poll whether they like it or not, under the so-called Localism Act. The £475,000 it will cost has to be met by council tax payers initially, then reclaimed from the London regime.

It’s what known as a ‘confirmatory’ referendum. Not that the outcome is being prejudged, you understand, but Bristolians should be under no illusions which way they’re being instructed to vote.

With the Government’s consultation on elected mayors attracting just 19 responses across England, the policy hasn’t attracted huge public interest, despite all the hype. The turnout for mayoral referenda has been low. In Salford on Thursday it was just 18.1%. Barbara Janke, the Leader of Bristol City Council, has warned that “the electorate is palpably apathetic and there is a real danger of having elected mayors imposed on Bristol by a tiny minority of enthusiasts if the referendum turnout is low enough.” If so, it could all end up a costly mistake. In 2009, voters in Stoke-on-Trent changed their minds and abolished their elected mayoralty.

Next November is local democracy month. The Government announced its intention on Wednesday to hold elections for 11 directly elected mayors across England – if approved at referenda in May – on what’s being dubbed ‘super Thursday’. At the same time, elections will also be held for Police and Crime Commissioners, of which there will be seven in Wessex (also taking in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall due to incongruous boundaries). Bristol is the only city in Wessex that will be forced to vote on having an elected mayor.

We’re suspicious of moves to concentrate political power in fewer and fewer hands – the ‘Little Society’ that Cameron, Clegg, Miliband & Co are all driving forward. The argument that other countries do things this way is worth examining on its detailed merits but not as an argument in its own right. That sounds too much like globalisation for globalisation’s sake. Does Bristol need a Boris? No. It needs some real politics, not a media-savvy, business-friendly buffoon to be used as a mouthpiece for who knows what interests.

According to communities minister Greg Clark, elected mayors can give “strong, visible leadership” to cities. “This is an opportunity for each city to transform itself for the better,” he claimed. So are a lot of things. Having a big personality in charge won’t automatically make any difference at all. The powers that are needed are not being devolved. The big regional and sub-regional issues of environment and transport don’t sit within tight city boundaries and any mayor who thinks the surrounding areas, with their own electorates to serve, will bow to his or her will is in for a shock.

So why the focus? A few years ago, one of our members phoned in to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers?’ programme to ask why devolution was not being extended to Wessex. Quick as a flash, Jonathan Dimbleby said that the (then Labour) government was offering elected mayors. An irrelevant response but indicative that the message is that reorganisation of existing local powers is all that voters in England deserve. The creation of unitary authorities, such as Wiltshire Council, sits in the same category. Reshuffling the pack. Adding no new cards.

In 2000, the Fabian Society published one of their revealing, if turgid pamphlets, one entitled The English Question. Professor Gerry Stoker contributed a critique of regionalism, concluding that elected mayors are a better solution than handing out regional government to the English as compensation for not being Scottish or Welsh. It might be asked in reply what compensation it is to rural Wessex to be offered an elected mayor for our largest city, which accounts for just 5% of our population. The drive for elected mayors is a metropolitan idea with nothing to say to the vast majority of Wessex folk, except that their future is expected to be shaped by someone for whom only the urban few get to vote. It ought to be astonishing that it’s acquired the momentum that it has. But as a device to divert attention from the democratic deficit at regional level, its success should be no surprise at all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Whose Regions?

An earlier post this week examined the consequences for Wessex if Scotland votes to dissolve the union. It could be a unique opportunity to demand and to create a new England, with regionalism and decentralisation built in to its fabric. More likely, it could usher in a new age of political repression, economic polarisation and cultural uniformity as the British ‘establishment’ morphs effortlessly back into an English one. Yesterday’s post suggested that work is already underway to undermine the process of regional reawakening, laying claim to aspects of Wessex culture deemed seriously ‘national’, while dismissing the rest as hilariously ‘local’.

A third strategy favoured by the establishment has long been to make a fake and pass it off as the real thing. The official, authorised regions of England. What other kind can there then be? We are familiar with their most recent incarnation as the Prescott zones, themselves based on World War II civil defence regions. World War I produced a similar map and so on back to the Civil War and the Protectorate that followed, when Britain was divided into 11 military districts by Oliver Cromwell. Major-General John Desborough was in charge of enforcing centralist diktat in a south-western district that comprised the very same counties as the South West zone today. Major-General William Goffe commanded Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex – roughly half of the modern South East zone. The first instance of administrative devolution in England is believed to have been the Customs outposts set up by Edward I to raise funds for his wars of conquest. Earlier still, the Domesday Book itself was drawn up by commissioners organised into seven circuits, notable chiefly for the way they ignore familiar Anglo-Saxon precedent.

Those who would frustrate regionalism will always do so by posing as its friends. Effective regionalism cannot exist without effective regions and the definition of the region can be organised in only two ways. Of these, the preferred approach in England has always been to define from above. To define from below, as Spain did in the 80s, is judged impossible, a non-option that could only lead to chaos if applied here and so not in the best interests of regionalism and its supporters. Trust us, old chap, we’ll see you through. Usually, it’s just a matter of dusting off the set of regions used last time, tweaking here and there to add a soup├žon of novelty. England ends up with eight or nine regions, roughly comparable in population and therefore in caseload for the civil service. Never mind that the Cornish identity is routinely ignored, that the north and the midlands are each partitioned or that Wessex suffers from its very own Iron Curtain with blinkered thinking either side.

If identity is to be respected, and regions generally given the clout they need, England could do with fewer regions, defined not by what Sir Humphrey says but by the basic popular geography of the country. The north – Northumbria – is as much part of the highland zone as Scotland and Wales. The midlands – Mercia – are divided from East Anglia by the Wash and the Fens and from Wessex broadly by the estuary of the Severn and the watershed of the Thames. The big, named blocks of Anglo-Saxon politics are not some thousand-year-old irrelevance. They arose where they did because that is how the land works, when viewed from within and not from London.

There is one sure way not to get this outcome. And that is to let the interests of ‘England as a whole’ prevail. Give the job of region-definition to a select committee of MPs, a royal commission of the great and the good, or even the hacks of Fleet Street, and the answer will always come back to the one Sir Humphrey first thought of. It’s because for all of these groups, what matters isn’t the region; it’s the centre and their own relationship to it. They either cannot conceive of an England where power is genuinely dispersed, or else they fear and loathe it as a barrier to personal ambition. There’s also an unacknowledged circularity in this fantasy of a national conferring about boundaries. It will never happen unless the case for regionalism is widely accepted in principle. And that will never happen unless folk can already see what it is they’re going to be identifying with.

So, of course, with the job left to civil servants the number of regions is always going to be needlessly high. The higher it is, the fewer decisions the regions can make for themselves without treading on their neighbours’ toes. Which means the more decisions need to be ‘co-ordinated’ from Whitehall. The more regions there are, the less is the ‘headroom’ between the region and its local authorities, the greater the chance of friction, and the greater the scope for Whitehall to play knight in shining armour riding to the rescue of municipal damsels in distress.

The number of regions impacts directly on their powers too. Business interests want as few points of contact with different state bodies as they can arrange, so will always lobby to keep powers centralised. Multiply the number of regions and you multiply their causes for concern. With a sparing number of regions, law-making and tax-setting powers can be devolved to real regional parliaments. With a number nearly into double figures, you’ll be lucky to get a nominated advisory council packed with old retainers. And that means that a referendum to endorse regional devolution is unwinnable. Why vote ‘Yes’ to nothing?

Decades – nay, centuries – of debate and discussion about the governance of England’s territory ought to have led us to a solemn resolution. Never to trust the establishment to draw our boundaries for us but rather to refute their patronising assumption that those on the ground can’t do a better job of it ourselves. Not by an arbitrary cutting-up of England into meaningless zones but by a careful linking-up of communities to form regions that echo real places, with names and flags and ways of speech and thought so deep that no spin doctor could summon them into being or magic them away again. Devolution, regionalism, decentralisation. Whatever you call it, it’s about making our own decisions. And no decision can be more fundamental than to define the political units to which we choose to give our loyalty.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Whose Poet?

“'William Barnes, you say? What possible relevance could he have today?' 'Well, I suppose people who like Dorset might be interested, or some local historian or Wessex regionalist, but as for me…'. So goes the reasoning of many. It is false reasoning...”
Fr Andrew Phillips (2003), in the foreword to a reprint of Barnes’ Views of Labour and Gold

Nice piece in the (London) Guardian yesterday about William Barnes. Nothing about Wessex though, the place that Barnes himself revived in 1868, after centuries when the word was seemingly only used by historians.

The journalist seems to think that Barnes can be promoted as the English equivalent of Robert Burns. The Wessex equivalent, fine, with Barnes Night (22nd February) an established tradition in parts of Dorset and now spreading further afield. But a national poet for England? A poet who wrote in the Wessex dialect? No doubt the London hacks will all want his poems translated first before they read them. Can’t be having them in wurzelly, ‘inaccessible’ language now, can we? Dorset dialect is dead, implies the article. Maybe, in the trendy parts where hacks hang out. They really do need to mix a bit more.

Perhaps national poet isn’t too far-fetched. For Fr Phillips, Barnes “is someone of whom not only Wessex should be proud, but all England, and indeed one whose vision is today of global importance.” Yet we do think Wessex is something other than just another name for England. East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria are not fictional places whose inhabitants have no legitimate opinions, nor great poets of their own to proclaim. Besides, to see Barnes purely as a poet would be to belittle the man, who should be remembered for many talents.

Views of Labour and Gold, first published in 1859, is a treatise on political and moral economy that deserves to be read everywhere, but especially in Wessex, from where its wisdom arose. It speaks prophetically against the powerbrokers in London and beyond, of ‘Saxon Economics’, and reminds us that work and money are our servants, not our masters. It’s not just for fans of Dorset, or local historians, but definitely for Wessex Regionalists too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Whose England?

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.

G.K. Chesterton, The Secret People

Ten years ago last month a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish Assembly was delivered to Downing Street, to the home of a Prime Minister renowned for his commitment to devolution. As long as it was to a pattern that he’d thought of first. Cornwall, Mercia, Wessex. All were equally ignored, all equally off-message.

The anniversary was marked by an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, tabled by three Plaid Cymru MPs. Such motions are a means to publicise a particular event or cause, enabling MPs to show support by signing. In the case of the Cornwall motion, all of ten MPs in fact, including the sponsors. No matter. That the Westminster Parliament – supposedly existing for the benefit of us all – cannot bring itself to debate the future governance of one of our constituent nations will only deliver a further boost to the nationalist vote.

Reactions to the idea of Cornish self-government have been as expected. The usual nonsense about lack of viability – despite the evidence that the small nations of the world are often the richest and happiest. And the supposed trump card, played by one commentator at the Huffington Post: “What next? Independan­ce for Wessex, East Anglia, Yorkshire etc. etc.?” Well, tell us where the problem lies. Are folk in these areas not capable of making their own decisions? Is it a Celt-only thing, this ability to be free of London’s suffocating influence?

Hold that thought while considering Scotland’s bid to bound from its bonds. David Cameron’s recent attempts to treat the First Minister as the junior partner in the governance of Scotland have done incalculable harm to the unionist cause. They may even mark a turning point in the history of these islands. Yet the ostriches cannot see a thing. Most hilarious of the gypsy’s warnings wheeled out this week is one suggesting that the United Kingdom might, in a fit of post-colonial spite, veto Scotland’s application to join the EU. The SNP’s response, that Scotland would be a succession state, not an accession state, is sound, but they deserve better opponents. A United Kingdom without Scotland? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Cameron? Bleached of its blue, the Union Jack would be at best the flag of the United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland, with the Principality of Wales (and Duchy of Cornwall). More likely, the show would be over long before the ostriches raised their heads and shook the sand from their eyes and ears.

The Welsh Government has made good use of the past dozen years, consolidating the plethora of agencies, boards and committees that used to run Wales into the makings of a self-confident, inclusive democracy. (We set out our own plans to do the same for Wessex back in 1982, but this side of the Severn remains as disorganised as before – and it shows.) The peace process in Northern Ireland has created a fluidity that in turn has enabled nationalists to operate on an all-Ireland basis to an extent not seen since before Partition. Will the Province survive the demise of the United Kingdom? Probably not.

England has never demanded its independence to anything like the same degree as its neighbours. With a permanent 85% majority in Parliament it really hasn’t needed to: none of the huffing and puffing about the West Lothian question has ever led anywhere beyond crude party advantage. But it may now be staring independence in the face whether it likes it or not. And that means a lot of catching up to do.

The first line of defence is that of the abusive spouse contesting a divorce. It’s so UNFAIR that Scotland should have the right to vote for independence when England doesn’t have the right to vote to stop it. What about all those who feel British above all and who face having their identity taken away from them? (Honestly! I need you, so I can feel good about myself. Don’t you dare leave!) One poll suggests that, given a chance, English voters would in fact be even more keen to vote for Scottish independence than Scottish ones.

The Campaign for an English Parliament can probably be blamed for half of that, forever harking on about the Barnett formula and other forms of selective accounting. The facts are, most likely, that Scotland subsidises England, that both Osborne and Salmond know this, but that the former daren’t admit it. And WITHIN England, regional disparities are huge. London receives more public spending per head than Wales, despite the obscene levels of personal wealth enjoyed by its top echelons. If an English Parliament could address regional disparities, so could a British one have done, but hasn’t. Only regional parliaments can make that difference. And the other half? Well, Salmond can be blamed for that, if blame is the word. If the SNP leader has so annoyed English voters that they want to see the back of his whole country, that’s the achievement of a very canny politician.

So what next? The second line of defence is to fight it out over the marital home. It’s to shrink Britain so that it becomes England, a lesser Britain. Not the real England, content within its own borders. This is an England motivated not by any positive thoughts about itself but by continuing negativity towards the Celtic separatist challenge. It is a supremacist, irredentist England, clinging to every clod, actual or potential, from Berwick-on-Tweed to British Antarctica, claiming Gwent as Monmouthshire and Cornwall as a conquered county. It’s the political equivalent of an amputee believing his limbs are still there to respond to his will. It’s a surprise no-one seems to have thought yet of claiming Calais, which returned MPs to the English Parliament at Westminster long before County Durham did.

The third line of defence is over custody of the future, of the soul of England. What does it mean to be English? What SHOULD it mean? The English identity is – or ought to be – a hotly contested concept. The match is lit but the fuel has yet to be ignited. What we can expect to see, if an independent England starts to seem likely, is an explosion of interest in defining its essential character, in seizing the prize.

Billy Bragg apart, there has been little sign of urgency about building an alternative to the right-wing narrative of ‘the warrior nation’, two world wars and one world cup. In the short-term, the most likely scenario remains that England will be defined as a unitary state, run from London, licking its post-British wounds by inflicting new ones on others. The battle lost, the war can still be won. By making sure that no-one else can challenge London hegemony. Freed from the need to offer a decentralist veneer to save the union, such a new England would have no room for regional structures in any shape or form. The politics would be jingoistic, to inhibit independent thought. The economics would be – no, already are – rabidly libertarian, substituting market forces for anything that might engender loyalty to a territory smaller than England. The culture would be, even more than now, that which promotes a uniform past, present and future.

It ought to be a cause for comment that such a vision owes an extraordinary amount to Celtic nationalism, even though Celtic nationalists, in Cornwall, are liable to be among its first victims. The idea of England as political nation, with one law, one executive, one parliament, mirrors the idea of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Cornwall as political nation. The idea of Britain is not challenged by any of these because it leads to bad government but because Britain groups as one nation areas that assert politically their own separate national status. Celtic nationalists are often the staunchest advocates of an English Parliament precisely because it looks like a neat and tidy solution to the national question. Whether it actually is so is another question entirely. Historically, Celtic nationalists haven’t shown much interest in a well-governed England living next door. They’ve been more interested in maintaining their differentials in an exchange of blows with an ever-adaptive British state. And that’s meant a certain hostility to regional devolution because it leads to the all-too reasonable point that Wessex, with the same population as Scotland and Wales combined, is at least as capable of running its own affairs.

Nationalism means an England no less badly governed than it already is as part of the UK. London would remain dominant, regional differences would continue to go unacknowledged. Those differences matter at a profound cultural level, though the case for regionalism would be no less real even if they did not exist. Firstly, it is simply inefficient to refer decisions to London when they could be made much closer to home. Secondly, decisions made in London ‘in the overall public interest’ are not effectively informed by the perspective of those who live elsewhere and so in practice always reinforce London’s dominance. And thirdly, as we move into the post-oil age, the argument for smaller political units built around clusters of regional-scale infrastructure will be at least as compelling as ancient cultural loyalties.

Those loyalties are not about to disappear. There’ll always be an England, but it will have a different meaning and role once it has to share the limelight with Wessex, Mercia and the like. It will have to, because the sane, humane, ecological England we need is one that respects and values its regions even more than itself – just as regions in turn need to treasure their counties, cities, boroughs and so on. It’s the only England worth having, the only England that deserves to emerge triumphant from the forthcoming cultural and political struggle. In truth, it’s not about England, and never has been. It’s about whose England. And who gets to choose between the paths.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Sack of Wessex

Pressure is being piled on MPs to toughen scrap-metal legislation in a bid to stop thieves stripping out our infrastructure in search of a quick profit.

There was a time when metal theft was more or less restricted to opportunist pilfering from building sites and removing lead from the roofs of abandoned churches. Not any more. The wholesale looting of metal has lately developed into organised international crime on an industrial scale, causing widespread damage, danger and disruption.

Churches in rural locations are targeted by well-equipped gangs operating under cover of darkness who will return on several occasions until they have taken everything. Fundraising for the repair of historic buildings puts a heavy burden on local communities; some congregations have been brought to the verge of bankruptcy and are facing the closure of their church.

Churches are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of theft of roofing material because insurance payments for damage are capped at £10,000. Repair bills can easily exceed this when rain seeps in where metal has been taken, causing damage to plasterwork and pews. And then there is the cost of replacing the roof. English Heritage has been impelled to abandon its policy of requiring ‘like-for-like’ replacement when a church roof is restored, knowing that traditional lead and copper will simply be plundered. Church bells and other treasures can be targeted too. Not even war memorials are sacred now. When the metal elements listing the names of the fallen are ripped off, the very record of history is obliterated.

Lead is in demand worldwide for lead-acid batteries and a constrained supply has fuelled speculation, driving the price higher. Even more lucrative is the trade in stolen copper which is in particular demand in emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil, so that even a few yards of cabling can net over £100 for the thief. It is reckoned that the theft of copper from lineside installations alone has cost Network Rail over £40 million in the past two years. When copper wire is removed, the signals stop working and trains have to stay where they are or be cancelled or diverted; there is no costing the time lost and the anxiety suffered by countless passengers delayed by such incidents, which are currently running at the rate of eight a day.

Even the telephone lines have not been spared, cutting off subscribers and disrupting 999 services. In some cases BT vans have been stolen by criminals who can use them to pose as legitimate workers, tear out the wires at their leisure and arouse no suspicion. Agricultural vehicles, tools and equipment, garden gates, railings, children’s swings and even metal beer kegs are also easy prey. CCTV is no obstacle: the thieves just take the cameras.

When, in the predictable chaos following the fall of Saddam, news reports told of Iraqi infrastructure grinding to a halt as equipment of all kinds was stolen, it was easy to be complacent. Iraq is Iraq. Britain is Britain. Now it is clear that the skills involved in metal theft are universally deployable and it has come into the province of serious organised crime. It is regarded as less risky than robbing a bank but potentially just as rewarding. So far, fatalities have been limited to the criminals themselves, including, astonishingly, folk attempting to steal live cable from pylons, but it can only be a matter of time before an innocent victim suffers more than mere inconvenience. Manhole covers are an obvious target and an obvious source of concern.

It has been proposed in Parliament that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 should be replaced by new legislation imposing a single licensing scheme with greater powers for the courts to shut down scrap yards that do not comply. Metal could not then be legally purchased without proof of identity and address and all trade would have to be carried on through accounts rather than with the traditional, mostly undocumented cash payments. So far, deregulatory ideology has held up the legislation and there are no signs of early action from the crooks’ best friends in power. (Crime, along with waste, increases GDP by stimulating demand for replacement items, so the Coalition are very much in favour of both.) Meanwhile, an increasing number of undertakings which use copper wire are coating it with ‘smartwater’, each preparation of which has its own ‘signature’ enabling its owners to be identified, in the unlikely event of it being recovered.

In the short-term, legislation is required urgently. So too are more stringent policing, greater community vigilance, and a tackling at source of the drug culture that underlies so much criminal activity. Now that metal theft is an established lifestyle, even a fall in commodity prices is no deterrent: in fact it acts as a spur to more theft in order to sustain value.

We are becoming an increasingly wired society, dependent on telecommunications, especially the Internet, for more and more of our daily lives. Rail transport, the backbone of all future planning for the movement of goods and passengers over any significant distance, is likewise vulnerable. Renewable energy installations, such as solar panels, also offer the lure of metal content. Economic growth, fortunately at an end in the materially obese countries of the developed world, is, for now, continuing to play a role amongst the emergent economic giants of the south and east. Their aspiration to lift themselves out of absolute poverty is a noble one. But it should not be achieved through tolerating predatory attacks on our own civilisation as we enter the era of ‘peak everything’. We have to be resolute about that. And instead of trying still to impose our way of life on other countries, it’s time to wake up to the pressing need to protect it at home.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Needling Doubts

News reaches us that Occupy Bristol are finally departing from College Green, after weeks of treating PUBLIC open space as somewhere to set up their own Third World shanty town, having first failed to find anywhere more relevant to squat. Surprise, surprise, there are syringes all over the place. It seems that those who wanted to sort out the world couldn’t even sort themselves out.

The Occupy movement have been exposed as a disgraceful disappointment to reformers everywhere, setting back necessary changes by at least a generation, just as the ‘establishment’ planned all along, no doubt with the aid of police insiders. Any fool can be ‘anti’ capitalist, or claim to speak in the place of the millions who actually voted FOR the status quo. It takes brains to articulate a viable alternative and WORK for it consistently. All the ideas needed already exist. We’ve been accumulating them and arguing for them for over 40 years. We’ve even been willing to share them with Occupy folk who will listen.

Are they interested? In building a political party, one of a network of regional movements committed to radical transformation? No. In growing a new, sustainable economy to spearhead transition to a world free from London dominance? No. In rediscovering and revitalising our own unique culture, through living life in a land of which we can all be proud? No. So guess who’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Politics, Philosophy & Economics

Politics - featuring the unacknowledged death of localism.

Philosophy - or the message behind the medium.

Economics - coming soon to a petrol station near you.

Because understanding what’s happening is the first step towards influencing it.