Nowadays, the Conservatives have a tree as their emblem, symbolic of the countless trees to be felled thanks to them and their allies (Labour, FibDem, even Green) as the urbanisation of England rolls onwards. The emblem used to be a flaming torch, the same symbol that used to warn motorists of a school ahead, before two running children took its place. In both cases – conservatism and education – the implication was that the purpose of the exercise wasn’t to fawn over spectacle and novelty but to pass on accumulated wisdom.
Traditions, if they’re to be of any use, do need to be challenged though. Their deepest value lies not in constraining innovation but in acting as a reminder that the present state of things has an origin and can therefore be replaced by something different, perhaps something more in keeping with those origins. It can mean one tradition, long repressed, triumphing over another that has ceased to have anything relevant to say.
The unfolding of Corbynism is an example of that. The traditional politics of the Left has been taboo for a generation, because that which is taboo is crucial to understanding. The Left understands this, of course. It’s why the Left in the UK has a far more horrific record of seeking to restrict freedom of speech than the Right. The Left uses the negative might of the State to silence its critics; the Right just relies on the fact that most of the money and the media are on-side, able to drown critics in positive argument.
So what are we to make of the trip down memory lane? Nationalisation back on the agenda? Military top brass muttering about mutiny? The flares and the platform shoes should be along any time now. The key is indeed memory. The victors of 1979 have been able to dominate the narrative ever since. Hyper-inflation. Strikes. The Winter of Discontent. You don’t want to go back there, son. Believe me, I was there. (Or at least, I’ve read what the tabloids said about it, then and since.)
The controllers of that narrative are ageing and departing. There’s another narrative that’s been sidelined, for 36 years, and won’t be repressed any more. The ‘socialist nightmare’ wasn’t characterised by the appalling extremes of wealth and poverty now read as the unavoidable fallout of a motivated society. Young folk were the future to be valued, not burdened. Most students lived on grants, not loans, and university tuition fees didn’t exist for them. Those who weren’t able to buy their own homes didn’t need to, nor were they at the mercy of unscrupulous private landlords: council housing was an option for all, not just the poorest of the poor. Education and housing were run by elected local councils, not unaccountable academy chains and housing associations. Some nationalised industries – such as electricity – were commercially very successful. They couldn’t have been sold if they weren’t. Others could have been more successful, given sustained investment, but they spent the majority of their existence under governments at best sceptical about that existence and so it was investment they never got.
If Corbynism is to fly, it will be due to the historians as much as to the politicians. The vilification of the post-war consensus that began to grow in the 1970s thanks to Milton Friedman and Keith Joseph will have to be replaced by a far more balanced assessment. And we do mean balanced, because in many ways Labour got it wrong. Badly wrong. Why were the nationalised industries placed beyond effective Parliamentary scrutiny? Where was the workplace democracy? Where was the accountability to local communities? Who set the accountancy rules and why? The Forest of Dean coalfield was burdened with its share of a national budget for research into firedamp, a problem that for geological reasons that coalfield never experienced. John Osmond’s The Centralist Enemy paints a painful picture of the price paid for uniformity when the gas industry moved from a regional to a national basis of organisation.
Can Corbyn simply put back the clock, now that devolution has created an alternative focus for accountability? Can the nations and regions of Britain not be trusted to run their own power and water grids, trains, buses, and all the rest? If the answer is yes, and it surely is, then nationalisation needs regionalisation, as much for Wessex as for Scotland or Wales. Labour shows no signs of developing the imagination needed to move beyond tokenistic, compass-point regionalism, because Labour has always viewed devolution as something to fear, never to champion.
Today, when the Conservatives used the power of the British State to guarantee an investment by the Chinese State in the Wessex electricity industry, with the French State as its operational partner, private enterprise was conspicuous by its absence. That requires some explanation. There’s a new consensus emerging out of panic. The UK has under-invested in infrastructure for decades, preferring to draw the dividends rather than plough back the profits. It has a lot of catching up to do, which is why Corbyn won’t find it impossible to find business backers.
For the most critical Leftists, Labour is simply that tool of capitalism let into power whenever something needs doing that’s vital to economic success but not profitable enough for the private sector to justify getting its hands dirty. Taxation – which doesn’t touch the super-rich – can pay for it all instead. Our predecessors in Common Wealth were arguing, even as Attlee was legislating, that nationalisation, on its own, is not socialism. It did provide a lot of generals with good jobs though, which probably took their minds off fomenting a coup.
As regionalists, we’re especially sceptical that nationalisation of anything produces results that benefit the regions. However attractive it could be to put British Rail back together – and it’s a mightily popular policy, even among Tory voters – priorities set in London will be London’s priorities. More high-speed lines, not re-opening the Somerset & Dorset or any other Wessex-focused priority. Service patterns designed around the age-old competition between Paddington and Waterloo, not the unified pattern that Wessex Trains was pioneering before its untimely demise. Integrated transport remains a wonderful idea but it won’t be delivered without a regional dimension that links the national – and now European – rail network to local travel needs.
Nationalisation may not be socialism but it’s very much anti-globalisation. Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything, notes how it was used worldwide from the 1950s onwards to take wealth away from banks and multi-nationals and use it for the benefit of the oppressed. Mosaddegh and Allende were overthrown because of it; Nasser and Perón fared better. For decentralists, local and regional control matters more than picking ideological favourites: a region might run its own services, devolve them to local government, or let them be run by private enterprise or by co-operatives or guilds. What we all oppose is the totalitarian liberalism that defines the global free market as the only permissible solution and seeks to impose the financial and legal fetters that will keep it that way.
It was the very best of timing that saw Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour’s leader just as the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain loomed. It handed him the opportunity to not sing the national anthem. Disgraceful. How disrespectful to those who served King and Country in the nation’s darkest days. Or so it goes. The best response came from an RAF veteran who said he didn’t mind politicians not singing the national anthem but he did mind them selling guns to tyrants.
It’s that official narrative again. The one that says the post-war economic and social consensus never really worked. It has an equally evil twin, the one that asserts that the war was fought for what we know as the establishment, the royal family, the top brass, the ones who wrote King’s Regulations. It asserts that the ordinary soldier, sailor or airman was always as true blue as Churchill. The awkward fact is that they were the ones who voted him out, just as ever since the Levellers the rank-and-file have been notoriously the ones you need to watch. In the debates of the Cairo Forces Parliament in 1944, Labour had to face criticism from others on the Left, ranging from the Communists to Common Wealth, for whom Labour’s programme was timid and unappealing. Hidden history again, that needs to be recovered.
Well done that man for not singing an anthem whose sentiments he doesn’t endorse. Wessex has not one but two regional anthems he might like to sing instead. One is the Wessex Anthem itself, ‘The Very Neame o’ Wessex’, commissioned by Wessex Society, with words by Dorset dialect poet Devina Symes set to music by Gloucestershire composer Hayley Savage. With its references to the vision of King Alfred and St Ealdhelm it looks to a historical and cultural understanding of Wessex. There’s another anthem, ‘The Wessex Flag’, perhaps more stirring, with words by our very own Jim Gunter, set to the well-known tune of ‘The Red Flag’. May it one day exceed it in fame. Pass it on.
“Our ancient flag is deepest red
It fell to ground o’er Hastings’ dead
Now it’s time to shed our yoke
And proudly stand as Wessex folk
Let’s raise our scarlet standard high
Within its shade we’ll live and die
We’ll all rise up and never tire
We’ll keep the Wyvern breathing fire”