The Scots recently held a referendum on independence. They discussed what currency to use, whether to join NATO, and what to do about Trident.
BBC West’s televised debate on devolution this week took a different approach. At one point, the politicians on the panel were challenged with the problem of different wheelie bins on opposite sides of the same street in Kingswood, on the Bristol fringe. It’s a common enough phenomenon on the boundaries between London boroughs but Londoners have other things to get excited about. Like what to spend our taxes on next.
Anyone watching from Dorset or Wiltshire must have been deeply disappointed that Bristol hogged the limelight. It wasn’t even as if the politicians were that well-informed. South Gloucestershire’s Leader went on about the 1,000-year-old county boundaries, unaware that Bristol’s boundary with its rural neighbours dates from 1951. A long time ago now, but not before the Norman Conquest.
What this clearly wasn’t was a debate on devolution. Not until the very end, when the Wessex Wyvern was raised and a show of hands sought on whether or not we need the same powers as Scotland. The ‘No’ vote won, but a surprisingly large number of hands went up for ‘Yes’, considering that this was a proposition the programme-makers had largely sought to bury beneath a mantle of municipal minutiae.
It could have been worse. Viewers might have been, yet again, denied the knowledge that a regionalist alternative exists. Viewers elsewhere in Wessex were indeed denied that knowledge.
There is no regional television channel that serves the whole of Wessex. Its creation has been one of our aims since 1979. Meanwhile, the BBC divides Wessex into the four sub-regions into which it naturally divides geographically. The north-west is served from Bristol, the south-west from Plymouth, and the south-east from Southampton. The north-east is served from Southampton too, via bases in Reading and Oxford. The way these various stations treated the devolution issue varied enormously, illustrating one of the challenges for a regionalist party whose aspirations the centre struggles to recognise and accommodate.
BBC West, from the Bristol Cathedral Choir School, did as well as could be expected. A range of views was aired, but the Wyvern was the only splash of colour in an otherwise drab offering. On Twitter, the programme was variously described as dreadful, dire and dreary, with the limited capabilities of the superficial Points West format coming in for criticism. One tweet sums up the reaction: “I wish I had gone to bed instead of watching.”
BBC South West, from Cornwall’s Eden Project, could have had a Wessex presence too. Their researcher was in discussions with our President, Colin Bex, in late October but by early November he’d been dropped from the shortlist. Mebyon Kernow’s Leader, Cllr Dick Cole, put in a sustained effort on the night but it would have been good to allow viewers east of the Tamar to know that they too have an alternative to the London-centric status quo. Subsequent tweets suggested that the English south-west had been badly let down by the programme-makers – but if they will exclude the one political party that has something specific to say about the English south-west then you have to expect that.
BBC South, serving the heart of Alfred’s kingdom, was the one station where you might think a Wessex Regionalist presence would be imperative. Apparently not. The South didn’t even get a programme to itself, but a joint one with the South East. One of the presenters agonised over whether the area had any coherent sense of regional identity. Define it like that and it’s not hard to find the answer.
Now, we know that BBC stations do talk to each other. They share contact details and get each other to film extra footage or record audio that they can pass around (and they co-produce the occasional programme, like Late Kick Off). We hope they go on doing so. What they seemingly do not do is share editorial perspective. When The Case for Wessex was launched at Wantage in 2003, BBC South turned up to film the event. Other BBC stations in Wessex declined to cover the story at all. Not in their area. True, Wantage is not, but Wessex is.
Politicians and media alike share a local perspective that is set within a national context. Regions perplex them. Too big to be local. Too small to be national. That’s right. They’re something in between, the missing piece of the jigsaw, the piece whose absence explains why the governance of Britain is so dysfunctional. Imagining the difference that having them will make is not easy, though Scotland and Wales are there to be visited should you need a model. The benefits will be clear enough once regions are in place in England. Those benefits will be forever denied us though, without the ability to see over the hedge.