“At a number of places in his celebrated Imperialism (1902), J. A. Hobson used southern England as an image of the successful, imperialist side of British capitalism: a countryside of plush ‘parasitism’ drawing tribute from overseas via the City, supporting ‘great tame masses of retainers’ in service and secondary industries, and riddled with ex-imperialist hirelings. ‘The South and South-West of England is richly sprinkled with these men’, he continued, ‘most of them endowed with leisure, men openly contemptuous of democracy, devoted to material luxury, social display, and the shallower arts of intellectual life. The wealthier among them discover political ambitions… Not a few enter our local councils, or take posts in our constabulary or our prisons: everywhere they stand for coercion and for resistance to reform.’”
Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, 1981
Next year, political Wessex hits 40. It was towards the end of 1969 that the then Lord Weymouth first mooted the idea of a Wessex identity for the purposes of tourism promotion. Of course, even then, his ambitions were more extensive than that. So how far has reality today caught up with them?
St Aldhelm’s Cross and even the Wyvern are now to be seen flying from public buildings in Wessex, and the list of towns and cities doing so will doubtless grow. Aldhelm is becoming more widely recognised as the patron saint of Wessex. A Wessex Anthem has been written by a Dorset dialect poet and set to music by a composer from Gloucestershire. Our wonderful dialect is attracting new scholarly interest. We even have our own Earl and Countess, a fact of recognition for which we can almost forgive their meagre efforts to live up to the title. The infrastructure of a community is taking shape.
For many of these feats, except the last two, the credit must go to Wessex Society, which Party members helped to launch in 1999, on the 1100th anniversary of King Alfred’s death. The Society has, quite rightly, taken on a life of its own. The membership today includes a peer, a bishop, an MEP, three MPs and the popular musicians Acker Bilk and Gordon Haskell. While some Society members are also Party members, the vast majority are not. It would be false to assume that to be patriotic about Wessex is to be sympathetic to Home Rule. Yet no regionalist can be unhappy that Wessex is finding pride in itself again.
And not before time. While the letters pages of our region’s papers are dominated by those droning on about Brussels, or the unfairness of Scottish devolution, Wessex is being torn apart. Not by the regulators of straight bananas. Nor by some anti-English conspiracy. But by the money men (and women) of the City of London. Our homes, our farms, our deep-rooted businesses, all are simply opportunities for them, opportunities to place their own pockets above the common good. And who can blame them? If we let our politicians let them then we have only ourselves to blame.
In News from Nowhere (1890), William Morris coined the term ‘cockneyisation’. Morris, a Londoner himself by birth, saw it as the process by which crass commercial values seeped up the Thames valley, consuming all they found, oblivious to charm and beauty. Morris was horrified by what he saw in his own day. What would he make of Basingstoke or Didcot now?
Some have suggested simply abandoning the east of Berkshire to London, much as some Welsh nationalists have toyed with re-defining Wales as the Welsh-speaking parts only. Such counsel leads nowhere. Once every limb has been amputated, where is there left to call home? We insist that nothing is up for surrender. If the Cockneys laugh at the Wessex accent, then it’s time to laugh back and remind them where they’re now living.
Gently, of course. Because we make no distinction between native and settler who alike love Wessex. Take away in-comers and our Party would collapse. There are all too many Wessex natives who have been taught to despise their heritage for us to be choosy.
But if it’s not about race, it’s very much about space. New homes by the hundreds of thousands are planned and we’re entitled to ask searching questions about why our farmland is to be destroyed to make way for them. We’re still awaiting even a half-convincing answer.
Folk are rightly upset about what’s happening. ‘Change’, we’re told. Yes, but what sane person supports change when it’s irrespective of better or worse? What we demand is the restoration of politics, of the right to make choices democratically and to see them implemented, not side-stepped. For that, Wessex needs a party it can call its own.
We know that New Labour has no mandate in Wessex. Wessex has never voted Labour, yet has periodically suffered the consequences of votes cast in Scotland, Wales, London and the big cities in Mercia and Northumbria. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have any solution to this. Both seek to control the Westminster machine themselves, and letting Labour in from time to time is the price they’re willing to pay. A Wessex Parliament would keep Labour out, for good, unless Wessex voted Labour. A Labour government at Westminster – or equally a Tory or LibDem one – could no more impose its policies on Wessex than it can today on Scotland and Wales. A vote for the Wessex Regionalist Party is no wasted vote. A vote for either of the main opposition parties is a wasted vote because all they can offer is to buy time before Labour is back with a vengeance.
There’s much to dislike about Labour, but not all. Strip away the PC twits and the wolves in sheep’s clothing and there remains a faintly beating radical heart. It was a movement that Wessex could, in the right hands, have endorsed. Looking at the deep blue map of today, it’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago Wessex was a predominantly Liberal region. It was a region with a strong tradition of mutual support, as shown by a thriving network of friendly societies. But it was also a region rightly suspicious of the collectivist instincts of the rising Labour Party. So much so that it has ever since preferred the safety of voting Tory.
Wessex Regionalism is a philosophy that necessarily reflects the political complexion of the region itself. But it’s also one that taps into the unfinished business of old-fashioned liberalism. Not the spiteful, totalitarian kind embraced by Thatcher and Blair but the truly radical programme of constitutional reform and social emancipation cut short by the rise of hard-line socialism. It was no accident that the wartime Common Wealth party had its origins in Wessex, a party advocating vital democracy, common ownership and morality in politics. Nor that WR office-holders over the years have included at least three ex-members of CW’s own Executive Committee.
Dissatisfaction with what the major parties all offer is growing. Extremists are likely to be the beneficiaries if no more attractive alternative is presented. Frustration is turning to anger and anger to rage. The alternating wings of the Laboratory Party have conspired to deprive us wholesale of the control over our lives that we have a right to expect. Decisions that used to be made at the level of individual schools or hospitals are now made in London, either by ministers or, increasingly, by the courts. Decisions on housing and planning that used to be made in town and county halls are now made by quangos stuffed with business interests and reporting to Whitehall-knows-best. Buses, electricity and water – vital services that used to be locally owned and controlled – now belong to the Scots, the French, the Germans and the Spanish. How long before the Russians and the Chinese follow them in?
Common sense dictates the appropriate scale of any service or enterprise. Nothing should be done at a wider level that can be done as well or better at a more local level. Whether it’s a public service or a private enterprise the same rules should apply. While there’s a plausible case for aerospace or pharmaceuticals to be organised on a continental scale, given the high development costs and need to meet U.S. competition, things like buses, electricity or water are tied to their local and regional geography. There’s no case for international empires in these sectors, except to maximise market share. And that’s a case we should have the right to reject.
Politics? Yes please. And the sooner the better.