As we keep re-iterating, we are not an independence movement. Our goal is to decrease boundaries between people not to increase them. We seek a more co-operative world; not an isolationist one.
WR has always argued for a more co-operative Europe, but sees the continuing dominance of the nation-state as being a barrier to closer co-operation. The need to satisfy the nation state will always take precedence – it has to while the ultimate power in Europe rests with Heads of Government who are answerable only to their nation’s electorate. The only way around this log-jam is to bypass nations, particularly the large nations, and deliver choice to the regions and small states. This would give greater power to Wales and Scotland, for example, to directly influence the direction of Europe without being beholden to London.
But what of England? What of the UK?
France has 13 Regions; Germany 16 Länder; Spain 17 Autonomous Provinces; Italy 20 Regiones; all have considerable powers and could easily become part of a Europe of the Regions. The UK has an unfinished devolution strategy; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have assemblies; England remains the only large nation with no effective devolved regional governance, and no national assembly of its own.
So how would a Regional Wessex operate?
The answer to this conundrum lies outwith the powers or abilities of Wessex. We would have to respond to various scenarios as they play out in coming years.
Our strategy within a continuing United Kingdom
WR will keep campaigning to bring into being devolved government within England, but with powers vested in full all-encompassing regions rather than piecemeal devolution to City Regions that leaves the rest under counties with few powers. One of those more powerful and effective Regions has to be Wessex, a real place not a compass direction like “North East”.
But…what of England itself? There would have to be a body that brings together the national and cultural interests of England, to promote the identity of England on a par with the status of Wales and Scotland within the UK. With real powers being vested in the regions, there is no need for a Parliament for England; the role of the central body would be to harmonise activities across the regions, not to dictate to them. WR envisages that this role would be achieved through a People’s Assembly / Citizens’ Assembly as has successfully been used in Ireland. It would have limited number of members – say 100 – selected at random from Regional lists drawn in the same way as people are selected for jury service. Politicians would not be involved unless they happened to be chosen through the random process. The body would meet for a limited period to consider a limited number of key issues that call for co-ordinated action across regions. Regional Assemblies would put forward issues for debate as would the general English public using a modified Parliamentary Petitions process. The Assembly would be able to call expert witnesses to help their deliberations, including the Civil Service, scientific experts or anyone they agree whose advice was required. Their decisions would not have the power of law but Regions, declining to act, would have to provide their electorate with an opportunity to hold a referendum on the issue.
The idea of Citizens’ Assemblies is to advise, not decide. A directly elected body would compete for a mandate with the UK Parliament and with regional parliaments, to the detriment of all. We envisage regional governments dealing with regional matters and either the UK government or the EU dealing with ‘federal’ matters. The result is messier than an independent England because of the ‘bit in the middle’: all-England issues. If we knew what issues might arise it would be easier to design a system for handling them. Sport might be one: although English sports organisations are voluntary bodies they could benefit from national sponsorship, especially on the world stage; however, that should not inhibit the growth of regional sports bodies alongside an English national organisation. As an example, there is a model for rugby and football from Ireland; there is one national rugby team but separate Ireland and Northern Ireland football teams. Given the relative difference in regional sporting culture, it is not too hard to imagine a Wessex rugby team alongside a national English team; but not perhaps in football!! Separate regional teams competing in the Commonwealth Games might act as a catalyst for future development in many sporting arenas.
Arts might be another area for a whole England approach, though this should not be allowed to develop into a rearguard action to keep disproportionate funding for institutions based in London. The co-ordinated development of the English common law might be a third but at present this would also include the law in Cornwall and Wales and to some extent in Northern Ireland. Short-term emergencies, such as another pandemic, might also require co-ordination, as might action on climate change. These actions would be in addition to the day-to-day co-operation between regional governments on cross-boundary issues and any issues of wider concern. These might not always be limited to England and we insist that regions must have the power to deal directly with counterparts in other countries without supervision by national capitals. Citizens’ Assemblies too might need to include members from outside England, depending on the topic to be discussed.
Our strategy within a dis-United Kingdom
There is little enthusiasm for English separatism. England dominates the UK, with over 80% of the population. English MPs acting as a block cannot be outvoted at Westminster, which is effectively the old English Parliament with added members. English national interests therefore cannot be sidelined involuntarily, though regional ones clearly can. It is very hard to imagine England leaving the Union unless the other nations do. For one thing, the UK would then need a new capital. England is more likely to find itself independent by default if the others decide to go. That poses significant challenges. In the smaller nations, separatism has been talked about for generations. There is some understanding of what it means and some anticipation of the consequences. England’s planning would start late, in the midst of denial that any change was happening. We believe that is unacceptable; without a shared vision of a better England, we could end up in a situation markedly worse than the status quo, possibly in the aftermath of a new civil war if the old order refuses to let go.
The response from some quarters to losing the “Celtic fringe” would be to blame devolution, insisting that the lesson to be learnt is to centralise power and keep it that way. That is a likely scenario but not a sustainable one. Regional grievances would remain. Meanwhile, history shows that all centralisation in England requires the creation of administrative regions. Conformity cannot be imposed from the centre without people on the spot willing to help in organising to make it happen. Better to have regions from below, democratic and accountable, than regions from above, bureaucratic and unresponsive.
An independent England would stand out in Europe as the only state of its scale without elected regional governments. We would rather see these built-in to a new English constitution from the outset. However, England poses a threat to Wessex if, in the rush to federalise, the regions were all made deliberately small, to keep central government needlessly powerful. In our view, central government at whatever level has enough to do without intervening in local and regional matters uninvited. Fewer, larger regions can shoulder more of the burden. They also much better accommodate historic identities, at both regional and shire level.
Those who see devolution so far as a slippery slope to the end of Britain may see its extension as a slippery slope to the end of England. Certainly, there are regional movements now questioning what a political Englishness adds.
Our strategy within a dis-united England
Boris Johnson has made a controversial claim that devolution in Scotland has been “a disaster.” Politicians in Holyrood recalled his 2012 claim, made while mayor of London, that “A pound spent in Croydon is far more valuable to the country, from a strict utilitarian calculus, than a pound spent in Strathclyde. Indeed, it would generate jobs and growth in Strathclyde far more effectively if you invested in Hackney, Croydon or other parts of London.”
We would question the extent to which London’s economy subsidises the rest of the UK, though it continues to insist that the nations and regions could not possibly survive without it. But when you take into account the extent to which this economic activity depends on tax revenues collected from across the nation, London increasingly starts to look like an abusive partner yelling “you’re nothing without me, nothing” at their departing victim.
However, despite Johnson’s protestations, Brexit has already made it likely that the “Celtic fringe” will want to break from England and rejoin the EU as independent nations. Now, though, the breakup has spread to England itself. This is only to be expected if the north and west find themselves squeezed between a dominant London – still not listening – and newly emergent states beyond England building alliances from which they are excluded.
A new party, the Northern Independence Party, has recently emerged, and has been registered with the Electoral Commission. It endorsed candidates for the 2021 local elections and the Hartlepool by-election. If successful it has the potential to be a game-changer in regionalist politics. The Wessex Regionalists have never promoted full independence. Our vision has always been devo-max within a federal England/Britain. But the Northern Independence Party offers the intriguing possibility of a vastly shrunken England. We wish them well, but it may mean that we are forced to rethink some of our assumptions about our relationship with the rest of England. The case for an independent Wessex would become one we would have little choice but to consider to avoid being forced into a “Southumbria” even more dominated by London. Only time will tell.
In a scenario where Wessex became an independent country – or more likely a region of Europe – the all-England level could be as described above, using Citizens’ Assemblies as a device to gauge opinion on matters affecting more than one region.
Our ambition on achieving a fully devolved Wessex
A fully federal system is envisaged which would also allow for expansion into a whole European model. Central government would have powers limited to those for which the Nations/Regions agree centralised action is the optimum solution. Examples would no doubt include defence, environmental control measures, a common currency. The relationship between the current UK central government and that of Jersey, Guernsey and Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man) provides a flawed but useful example of the framework envisaged.