Readers may recall that we drew attention to a long-standing attempt by the London regime to hamper the growth of Wessex consciousness. That is to say, the exclusion of regional flags from the list of those that may be flown without official permission. Fortunately, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has listened enough to issue a discussion paper on liberalising the controls on flag-flying. This proposes to allow the flag of any ‘current or historic UK traditional region’. If that includes the Wessex Wyvern, as it must, then well done that man. What a shame Labour’s control freaks couldn’t have brought themselves to do this years ago.
Perhaps the most interesting consequence of the draft wording is that the London regime has been forced to concede that traditional regions actually exist. The proof is that they have traditional flags. Which folk fly. And which are recognised by the Flag Institute, precisely because folk do fly them.
The existence of an area with a flag does not necessarily mean that it has democratic institutions to match. Some county flags exist, which represent the traditional county, including modern unitary authorities that stand apart from the county council. Cornwall has a flag but is divided between two unitary authorities, one for the mainland, the other for the Isles of Scilly, though both are constitutionally part of the Duchy of Cornwall. England has a flag, but no parliament exclusively its own. Wessex has a flag but…
Nevertheless, it’s a start if folk can as freely show their loyalty to Wessex as to, say, Wiltshire or England. It also demonstrates flexibility and pragmatism from the Coalition. No doubt there are those within its ranks that share both our distaste for the Prescott zones and our dismay that more traditional alternatives have been so thoroughly discouraged by officialdom.
Our hope is that the ‘new regionalism’ now emerging, based around traditional geographical blocks like Northumbria and Wessex, will also be more appealing to advocates of an English Parliament and to civic nationalists in England, as part of a general constitutional transformation.
The presentation of the Prescott zones, for example in the 2002 White Paper, was remarkable for the absence of any reference to common English interests distinct from those managed at UK level. We do not think they are numerous. Real regions could deal with most things by themselves, just as the Scots and the Welsh do. But the assumption was made that the UK would deal with such common English interests as did arise (and, given the limited devolution planned, these would have remained extensive). There was no suggestion that inter-regional co-operation might have any role in this, despite the tentative moves in this direction by the unelected regional assemblies and RDAs forming their own networks. Indeed, the White Paper was explicit that the UK Parliament – with its potential for West Lothian interventions – would continue to legislate for education and health policy. Allegations of unfairness over such arrangements were inevitable.
So the stage was set for an English nationalist backlash against regionalisation. That the regions drew most of their powers up from Town Halls and County Halls, not down from Whitehall, added the other millstone.
It needn’t have been like this. A better man than Blair or Brown might have approached matters in a more generous spirit, recognising that losing control over some areas to Labour’s opponents was an honest price to pay for safeguarding it in its heartlands. You cannot devolve, yet micro-manage at the same time, and still be seen to be fair. Labour sided with the mandarins against the people of England because it was in its UK-wide political interests to do so. It could not be seen to be abandoning its supporters in Tory-majority regions by urging them to discover their own path to regionalism, one more fitted to democratic regional character. Hence Brown’s obsession with Britishness, with himself as the means of holding it all together.
Labour’s stance allowed regio-sceptics to claim that England was being wiped off the map. It wasn’t true. England wasn’t on the map anyway. Few distinctively English institutions exist, by comparison with Scotland and Wales. Administratively, England is ‘whatever’s left over’ of the common State. That’s why it’s been so remarkably elastic over the centuries, variously taking in Cornwall, Wales and bits of France. It also wasn’t true that division equalled negation. England is divided into counties and still exists. Australia, Canada, the U.S.A., Germany and Switzerland all have federal constitutions yet still exist, despite a degree of autonomy at state level that we in Wessex can but dream of. Divided? Yes, but constructively so. Conquered? Certainly not. Strengthened? Undoubtedly. The creation of alternative conversations within England would lead to a much richer society, politically and culturally. For example, the regional media would be boosted by having new opportunities to cover debate in regional parliaments.
In fact, the fear of ‘losing England’ had little to do with the regions and much more to do with the London regime’s desire to hold on to its control over them within a UK framework. It could cope with regions, especially lots of little ones with hardly any powers. What it could not cope with was the idea of regions banding together to deal with all-England issues. It could not cope with the idea that it is not for the UK to micro-manage England, using Scottish Labour MPs to enforce its will. Our own future choice of allies may well depend on whether Wessex is to be a region within the UK or a region of an independent England. And that’s an outcome that’s largely driven by the Scots too.
Whatever happens around us, our focus remains Wessex. We have no time for those who would have us sacrifice Wessex to the greater glory of an ‘England’ that in practice is an unapologetic facade for London dominance. We keep our distance therefore from the type of English nationalist who sees in all things regional a plot to weaken England. The Anglo-Norman type of nationalist, who regards a ‘strong’, united English State as necessary in the face of threats coming thick and fast from all directions. It’s actually rather un-English and not the kind of analysis we support. It doesn’t make for a more co-operative, mutually respectful world to see enemies everywhere. But even if the analysis were true, defence and foreign affairs are never devolved matters in a federal constitution. And the more decentralised England becomes, the easier it is to apply moral pressure on others to decentralise too. Looking at the success of those who’ve already done so, it’s an abiding wonder that everyone doesn’t see the logic in empowering as many communities as possible. You fly that flag then – and don’t let the bullies say nay.