Last week, an environmental coalition – Butterfly Conservation, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Mammal Society, the Ramblers, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts – held a ‘Rally for Nature’ at the Palace of Westminster. Why? To lobby MPs ahead of the next election, reminding them of how important nature is.
MPs need reminding. Because across Wessex, wildlife is under siege. In Alton, for example, there’s currently a campaign to save its wildflower meadows from housebuilders. This area is a beautiful example of Hampshire countryside and a haven for butterflies. Spearheading development at Alton is the Homes & Communities Agency, a central government quango. Yes, it’s our own taxes that are paying for our destruction.
Any campaign against imposed development has our support. Wessex is, for us, a community of communities, every one of which must be truly free to decide its own future, without interference from those in London who think they know best.
But how effective are these isolated actions? The rallies. The petitions. The implorings? Not very. Look at Winchester. At Twyford Down, the Department of Transport carved the M3 through one of the most heavily ‘protected’ landscapes in England. Nearby, the battle for Barton Farm was lost, due to the winning combination of Winchester College as landowner, a dogged developer, and a government that spectacularly failed to deliver on localism.
The system can be beaten. Occasionally, a developer goes away empty-handed. But such cases are all too rare. They serve mainly as ammunition for those who claim that the system works and that it canbe beaten, with reasoned argument, and that therefore there’s no cause to change it. Most folk don’t engage with the system until it impinges on them, and so they fail to see the bigger picture, the campaigners in neighbouring shires facing the same developers, the same arguments, the same strategies aimed at defeating them. They place their faith in non-party pressure groups like County Wildlife Trusts or the Campaign to Protect Rural England. More hardened campaigners refer to them as the ‘fluffies’, those who are simply too nice to win.
They really are their own worst enemies. They lose because even when they do think politically they do not act politically. Development is being imposed on Wessex by a Tory/FibDem coalition. So what does Wessex do? It votes Tory or FibDem. Alton has a Tory MP (with 57% of the vote). Its district council, East Hampshire, is 100% Tory/FibDem. Hampshire County Council is 79% Tory/FibDem. You get the lies you voted for. These are folk from whom you cannot expect anything better. And you chose them to represent yourviews. Do they not represent your views? Then why do you keep voting for them?
How do they get away with it? ALL London-party politicians play pass-the-parcel. MPs will insist that planning decisions are for local councils to make and nothing to do with them. But councillors will point out that as decisions can be overturned by Whitehall they are never truly masters in their own house. Some of them undoubtedly enjoy putting the blame on the faceless mandarins, knowing that voting loyalties are too tribal for this to make any difference at all come polling day.
Because who would you vote for if the Tories and FibDems disgust you? The argument goes that there’s only one realistic alternative – the Labour bogeyman – and that ‘socialist’ Labour would be so much worse. That’s widely believed because it happens to be widely true. (Except for the socialism, transformed long ago into the petty spitefulness of political correctness, which, being obsessed with individual reward and punishment, is everything but social.) Labour are the party of Big Growth. But no more so than the other London parties. Labour are worse because, as an urban party, they aren’t shy about destroying the countryside. For them, protecting countryside is the hobby of the well-heeled who want to keep house prices up.
Maybe, but the butterflies have committed no crime. Those who defend them may well be sincere in believing that a better England is not the overcrowded concrete jungle it’s becoming. The problem for the Tories and FibDems is that the outrage is bound to grow as ever-more-sensitive sites reach the top of the ‘to build on’ list. That’s when a belief in the free market reaches revulsion point. Labour meanwhile, accustomed to State intervention as a means to facilitate growth, not to reverse it, are left hopelessly unable to respond to that opportunity. Grand analysis gives way to marginal differences. Should we build more flats in villages? Or convert old Dutch barns in the middle of nowhere? Would using floodplains for housing be fine if we just raised defences? What’s the cleverest way to undermine support for the Green Belt?
No wonder UKIP are rejoicing. UKIP can expect to pick up votes from three sources. There are the true believers, those who think that to be really cynical is to be really cool. Then there are the protest votes, finding a home, any home, that gives vent to their anger and frustration. Finally, there are those who are easily fooled into thinking that UKIP is them. Those who believe, for example, that UKIP is an anti-immigration party when it has made clear that it’s nothing of the kind. It’s pro-immigration, but on the UK’s own terms.
And so it goes: Third World immigrants might work for less than eastern Europeans. Don’t mention the argument that filling a glut of vacancies by stripping developing countries of their most skilled workers is far from fraternal. Or ask what it is that made those countries so relatively unattractive. Above all, keep folk well-confused and focused on immigration – THEM – instead of on population, which is them AND us. UKIP is yet another economically libertarian party, whose main gripe is that the EU, unlike little Britain, might just conceivably stand up for sovereignty and tell the globalists and the growth junkies where to go.
A vote for UKIP is not good, but neither is it bad. In the long view, anything that breaks up the hereditary, class-based tribalism of British politics has to be a positive development. The more fragmented the vote becomes, the less credible it will be to continue with first-past-the-post or with a media focus on just the ‘top three’. Those who have left the Tories behind will have shown that it’s possible to move on. And beyond UKIP, or maybe the Greens (enthusiasts for ‘green growth’, so hardly sound), lies what? Territorial parties like ours have a vital role to play in the 21st century. The long-term limitation of UKIP is that it isn’t actually interested in the territory of the UK, in the way that, for example, the nationalist parties are interested in the territory of Scotland, Wales or Cornwall. For UKIP, the UK is just Airstrip One. Any hint to the contrary in its 2010 manifesto need not be taken seriously, since its own leader condemned it as ‘drivel’.
Essentially, the smaller the territorial focus of politics, the better the chances of defeating Big Growth, because the closer the connection between those who make decisions and those who live with the consequences. That might suggest localism rather than regionalism, let alone europeanism, but there’s no contradiction so long as subsidiarity is observed. Wider solidarity can avoid one area being set against another for a third party’s benefit. Regions, properly designed from below (not the Prescott zones imposed from above) can be a shield for local democracy, not its negation.
We want a self-governing Wessex because we want a completely different kind of politics, taking for granted changes like proportional representation to break the hold of the old parties here. Instead of admiring Switzerland, with its self-governing cantons, citizen initiatives and binding referenda, why not imitate it? What are we waiting for? Why would we rather choose to be beggars before the lords and members of a despotic and self-obsessed Parliament, the guardians of an English democratic tradition that objective observers might judge to be no better than tyranny? We should talk politics with our neighbours, because they are part of our ability to change whatever we choose, notwith our MPs, who exist only to abuse the power we lend them.
In 1992, we issued a pamphlet entitled Your Region Needs You! Its ever-more-relevant conclusion is as follows:
“Wessex is for its people West-Saxon or not, native or settler who cherish it for what it could be and should be. But what of its future without regionalisation? The answer is disaster! – The remedy in your hands…?”