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.