Nearly a millennium ago today, regional England was trampled beneath Norman hooves and, as Chesterton’s poem puts it, “gored on the Norman gonfalon, the Golden Dragon died”.
Yet history has a habit of undoing itself. Dismembered Poland was put back together. Twice. The Albanians, Belarusians, Bosnians, Croats, Cypriots, Czechs, Estonians, Finns, Hungarians, Icelanders, Irish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Macedonians, Maltese, Moldovans, Norwegians, Slovaks, Slovenes and Ukrainians are some of the peoples now living in independent states that did not exist in 1900. The list of small nations and historic regions that have regained political institutions of their own within larger states is longer still.
Nearly a month after Scotland voted ‘No’, its history continues its dramatic unfurling. Membership of the SNP has quadrupled since the referendum, taking it way past the FibDems to become the UK’s third largest party. Amid all the London-centric talk of UKIP holding the balance of power at Westminster after 7th May, it seems far more likely that the SNP will be the kingmakers. With London politicians already reneging on the ‘vow’ to Scotland and thinking they can get away with that, Cameron and Miliband had better start reading up on Gladstone’s dealings with the Irish Nationalists.
Gladstone happens to be an interesting figure in terms of regionalist aspirations. Here is what he said on 26th November 1879:
“The imperial Parliament must be supreme… Subject to that limitation, if we can make arrangements under which Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and portions of England, can deal with questions of local and special interest to themselves more efficiently than Parliament now can, that, I say, will be the attainment of a great national good.”
‘Portions of England’. So much for the view – by no means confined to the poor dim Kippers – that English regionalism was made up in Brussels.
On the 22nd of last month, the BBC’s Inside Out West devoted a ten-minute slot to devolution. Reporter Charlotte Callen presented it as a battle of rival claims to power, interviewing Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and WR Secretary-General David Robins as representing city, county and regional visions of what devolution could be about.
At the heart of this picture is, of course, a misunderstanding. City, county and regional power can co-exist. There is no battle. There is more than enough power hoarded in the bloated corridors of Whitehall for all to have their share. Where we part company with the advocates of city- or county-based devolution within Wessex is not so much over the breadth of their vision in terms of territory but over its necessary narrowness in terms of powers. What is not devolved to local government does not go away. It remains centralised, when it needn’t be. Wessex can be another Wales or Scotland, making its own decisions instead of hanging on every irrelevant word uttered at Westminster. We could be sorting out issues like higher education, health strategy or rail transport that transcend merely municipal boundaries.
The BBC, true to its mission, gave the establishment the last word. Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked about regionalism. It wasn’t for him. Wessex was a thousand years ago. You can’t bring it back.
Yes, we can. It’s what we’re doing, all the time, every time another Wessex landmark runs the Wyvern up the flagpole. And while we do so, let’s nail the idea that history cannot be reversed. Events indeed cannot, but policies can. Rees-Mogg, as a Unionist, must know that as well as anyone, which is why his argument rings so hollow and desperate.
He must know it because he supports the idea of Britain. An idea that 500 years ago was a mere geographical expression, an idea that had lacked definite political form since the departure of the Roman legions over a thousand years before that. Antiquarians used to write of the ‘ancient Britons’, the long-dead to whom Stuart and Georgian politicians stretched out the hand of continuity. And now here we are, as ‘modern Britons’, and no-one sees the funny side of it. (Oh, woad is me!) But are we not also ‘modern Wessaxons’? Our homeland is as ancient as any but the Wessex Regionalists are more modern than most. Our policies look ahead because we are the party of the future.
Last month, historian Tom Holland gave a name to our movement, ‘progressive heptarchism’. It describes our frustration at the lack of imagination shown by the London parties whenever they come to discuss regional boundaries.
Why should England, of all the countries in western Europe, be the only one whose official regions are named primarily after bland compass points, when it has such a rich and colourful heritage upon which to draw? We may not actually end up with the seven kingdoms of the heptarchy, a term that represents just one snapshot of Anglo-Saxon history, but it’s a better place to start than with the civil defence areas of 1938 that inspired the current map. What’s fascinating and very heartening about the recent publicity is that no-one mentioned a South West Regional Assembly. That’s yesterday’s idea, without organised advocates now, and the media are increasingly turning to us when they want comment from a regional perspective.
We can be progressive about it too: history is our inspiration, not our blueprint. There’s no more reason for a modern Wessex to reproduce the form of feudal society circa 1000 than for Scotland or Wales to do so. We might even manage a society far less feudal, far less deferential to London rule, than the one we have today. Keep at it and we’ll have the Norman yoke off our backs long before 2066.