An Empty Space?

The second issue of Wessex Citizen, edited by Keith Southwell and Rick Heyse, is now online.  Many thanks to all who contributed.  Earlier this month we mentioned the current – seventy-second – issue of MK’s equivalent, Cornish Nation, which this time gave us a brief mention.  Joanie Willett, reporting back on the General Assembly of the European Free Alliance recently held in Corsica, wrote:

“One of the Parties that MK members became acquainted with was Yorkshire First.  We have much that we can learn from each other, and it would be a really interesting exercise to have some sort of group meeting or conference of all the regionalist parties in mainland UK, including the North East Party and the Wessex Regionalists, to see how we can combine our voices in our campaigns for better, stronger, and more people-led devolution in the UK.”
That might be so, and the WR Council has resolved to make enquiries, though as we’ve noted, it’s been done before.  More than once.  Perhaps every generation has to give it a try and there’s certainly no shame in emulating success.  WR is different though, mainly because of how far official recognition of our regional identity lags behind.
Cornwall is not just home to a distinct nation.  It’s also (apart from the Isles of Scilly, who have their own council) a single unit of local government.  The complaint isn’t that Cornwall is unrecognised; it’s that it’s not recognised enough, or in the right way.  Cornwall Council has broadly the same powers as a London borough, even though Cornwall’s geographical isolation would allow it to do far more for itself, without treading on any of its neighbours’ toes.  It’s treated as an English county when it’s actually something more that just happens to be the same size as an English county.  The motto ‘One and All’ sums it up.  The argument that ‘there’s no such place as Cornwall’ isn’t heard though, because it’s not conceivable.
Up north, the North East Party and Yorkshire First both operate within the boundaries of their respective Prescott zones, boundaries still widely recognised by the public and voluntary sectors and used for everything from Euro-elections to the English Heritage handbook.  This is part of the legacy of the Blairite ‘big push’ for top-down regionalisation that has never fully gone away.
(Interestingly, the National Trust used also to be loyal to Prescottism but this year’s handbook departs from it.  Apart from South Humberside, now placed with the rest of Lincolnshire, the basic Prescott geography is respected everywhere except the South West and South East, where the Trust has introduced five new groupings of its own invention, plus a separate Cornwall.  If the NT now has so much property in Wessex that its presentation needs to be this fragmented, maybe Wessex needs a National Trust all of its own?)
There is, of course, another definition of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire of the ridings rather than the one of a map drawn in London, but any attempt to restore this is fraught with difficulties.  The biggest risk, revealed in the work of the Banham Commission in the 1990s, is of tokenistic proposals emerging to appease sentiment rather than to accommodate it, new ridings with old names but the wrong boundaries, which make things worse rather than better.
Until this year, a different approach was evidenced by the Northern Party, voice of the historic North of England – Northumbria – with a united claim to all three northern Prescott zones.  South Humberside apart though, this was still a claim that worked with rather than against the Prescott geography.
Wessex is different because faced with that geography our response is that we wouldn’t have started from here.  We devoted most of The Case for Wessex to explaining why Wessex is, to quote Thomas Hardy, a ‘practical provincial definition’.  Much more so than a South West that runs from the Scillies to the Cotswolds and a South East that wraps round two-thirds of London and whose extremities can only communicate with each other by passing through a national capital that forms a separate region.
If Wessex is a practical province, and not just a romantic image of myth and legend that doesn’t even merit its own official tourist board, why isn’t it shown more on maps?  We must note that briefly and for specific purposes it does come into being, as with the Army’s Wessex Brigade or the short-lived Wessex Trains franchise.  The London regime always realises its mistake and pulls back from taking things further.  Then busily covers up the evidence while encouraging others to do likewise.
Alternatively, it hides behind forms of official recognition that don’t require Wessex to be defined.  Like recognising St Ealdhelm as our patron saint or the Wyvern as our flag (and even allowing it to be flown from public buildings, something several county and unitary councils are doing today).  Another example would be awarding our earldom to the Queen’s youngest son.  The re-use of the title for Prince Edward in 1999 launched a tsunami of sneering from the London press, ranging from massive pride in not knowing where Wessex is to asking whether the brand isn’t damaged for eternity, given that Wessex Water was once owned by Enron.  When in 2011 Prince William became Duke of Cambridge, the reaction was more like ‘how nice’.  The Wessexes are one way of acknowledging that Wessex exists but, like the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, they can be a convenient device when needed for ensuring loyalty to the London regime among the grovelling classes.  Their full potential for obstructing self-government has yet to be tested.
Yet another trick is to use ‘Wessex’ as the name for something smaller than Wessex, like Wessex Water, or the Wessex Regional Health Authority.  Another still is to associate aspects of Wessexness, like cider or the dialect, with a vague area that won’t match county boundaries, but simply not to notice how these things form bundles that add up to an identity.  There are lots of words for folk from Wessex – Wessaxon, Wessexer, Wessexian, or – best of all – Wurzel, but probably none that would be acknowledged outside Wessex because if you don’t look and listen you won’t find.
In all these respects, Wessex is less comparable with other movements for autonomy within the UK and more with mainland movements in the likes of Alsace, Brittany, Moravia or Scania.  These are likewise places that exist in the heart but have been truncated, partitioned or even obliterated for purposes of governance, by centralist states jealous of any rival for the people’s affections.
Some regions have their capital city at their centre.  The central geographical feature of Wessex is the empty expanse of Salisbury Plain.  (Our big cities are round the edge, places of exchange with a wider world.)  That sense of a hollow centre is often how it feels politically.  We’re told that we’re campaigning for a region that most of its residents don’t recognise.  Yet that’s a throw-away line; it just avoids the need for any further thinking.  Thinking about how and why the London regime controls the space within which a Wessex identity could flourish, and controls it with the deliberate intention of ensuring that it doesn’t.  Thinking about the ruling class of Wessex, MPs and councillors sitting for the London parties, media hacks, academics, in many cases with anything but the good of Wessex as their motivation.  Thinking too about the opportunities we now have to build a radical Wessex movement from the bottom up.
It’s easy for critics to present the Wessex Regionalists as rather like one of those bands that were big in the 80s and are still trying to make a comeback, playing the occasional gig in obscure places like Witney.  The fact is that the raising of the election deposit in 1985 – it was more than trebled – was a huge blow that stopped us in our tracks.  We had until then been ramping up the number of candidates at each election.  Instead, we were kept out of electioneering for over a decade, times when it looked as if we might not survive.  The Tories claimed that raising the deposit was necessary to deter ‘frivolous’ candidates.  It didn’t.  All it did was deter serious candidates without the Tories’ access to loads of money.
And it shows how worried they were, as well they ought to be.  Devolution for peripheral areas is one thing; devolution for the area that encapsulates the deepest memories of statehood is an existential challenge the UK is ill-equipped to weather.  So if the current set-up is designed to deny us our identity, culturally and politically, then we should feel honoured rather than surprised.  Let’s get on with re-awakening it for ourselves.  That means, above all, not trying to influence those who have power but rather to do everything in our power to sweep them aside.
Happy St Ealdhelm’s Day