The Magic Roundabout

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (1888)

We don’t mean the roundabout in Swindon. We mean the political one we’re trapped upon, watching riders from the other parties switching horses. Hey presto! Red Tories. Blue Labour. How do the yellow party beat that? Should they bother? At all?

Politics is a dynamic artform so consistency is a rare thing. Perhaps the extreme case is to be found in Hungary, where the Socialist Party now champions privatisation and means testing. In the words of one of its leaders, “The historic task of the Socialist government is to roll back the frontiers of the welfare state.” To understand how this came about, it is necessary to appreciate that Hungarian socialism was defined by its struggle against conservative nationalism (and ultimately fascism). What started off as a battle against capitalism by socialists has become a battle against nationalism by internationalists. So it is the Socialist Party that now wants more EU integration, sells off State assets to non-Hungarians, does the least to help Hungarian minorities in surrounding countries and generally welcomes the triumph of the global free market. Red flag anyone? No fair offer refused.

We have our own, less blatant experience of the same, from Thatcher’s wooing of the working class to Mandelson’s New Labour, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. When Revenue & Customs figures show that the bottom half of the population now own only 1% of the wealth, compared to 12% in 1976, a little yearning for simpler times is understandable.

Nietzsche wrote about the genealogy of morals but political ideas too have their roots, however tangled they are now becoming. Concepts of Left and Right that go back to the French Revolution may be reaching the end of their usefulness, along with the fossil fuel bonanza that enabled their sparring, but nothing has yet emerged to supplant them. In English politics, the two-tone divide stretches even further back, back to the Civil War.

Yet the largest pitched battle of that war to occur in Dorset was not fought between Cavaliers and Roundheads. It occurred in August 1645 when a force led by Oliver Cromwell, outnumbered at least 2 to 1, defeated the Clubmen on Hambledon Hill. The Clubmen, armed neutrals, were fed up with both sides. While others argued over who should run the country, they actually were the country, the ‘Country party’, as a contemporary source described them. Clubmen of all areas, royalist or parliamentarian, had much in common: a firm attachment to ancient rights and customs against a greedy, arbitrary and centralising State, a vague nostalgia for the good old days of Queen Elizabeth, and an enduring belief in the traditional social order, even if it did need some prodding to do its duty.

Unlike the Levellers, the Clubmen had no plans to plot a revolution. Their aims were more modest but also more down-to-earth. Above all they sought peace and prosperity, to preserve their local situation, regardless of political happenings elsewhere. Historians who dismiss the Clubmen because they had no ambitions for political change at national level are rather missing the point. They rose up, with no greater motive than the desire to protect their own hearths and homes, because national politics as a whole had failed them.

Clubmen were not unique to Wessex but Wessex is where they were concentrated and at their most sophisticated in the demands they formulated. We can rightly view them as Wessex heroes not because they had any notion of Home Rule but because they believed that national politics should serve them and not that they should serve national politics. Of all the parties for which they might have voted today, the Wessex Regionalists come closest to their ‘live and let live’ localism.

So what are the barriers to applying such a philosophy? Predominantly they are formed, still, by the national character of party politics, dented only by nationalist and unionist minorities on the fringes. That politics remains remarkably 17th century in outlook. The traditional Right is less liberal on social issues and more so on economic ones. It may have abandoned the Divine Right of Kings but its political inheritance is still a theological one: sin is to be suppressed, while wealth as proof of virtue is to be sought. The traditional Left has the opposite stance because it is more secular and scientific, more concerned with the material world than with the afterlife. Those attitudes are the ultimate fruits of an empiricism that began with the direct study of scripture in place of submission to hierarchy. Hence, the sins the Left condemns are those against equality of opportunity, not of personal behaviour. The quasi-religious language and imagery of Marxism have been exhaustively analysed. In so far as the Left are heirs to the Puritans, it should come as no surprise that their following in Wessex has never been great, except when the basics are mixed with a dash of visionary indignation that appeals across classes.

The main political traditions agree that there is only one answer. Their own. Neither is comfortable with the idea that answers can vary according to time, place and circumstance. That one side of a hedge a different policy can apply than applies on the other side. Changing that stubborn refusal to live and let live is what any regionalism worthy of the name needs to be about. If throwing off the yoke of uniformity is the negative side of the piece, then the positive may well be the vague general groundswell at present in favour of co-operation and mutuality. Whatever they may claim, these objectives are all alien to the core instincts and survival chances of the London parties. Which is why they’d much rather have us all going round in circles, getting nowhere fast.

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