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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Power to the Regions or Power to the Provinces?

This article I wrote originally for Devolve's viewsletter back in 1998, when it was still the Midlands regionalist group Movement for Middle England. Although I think England needs some sort of regional/provincial government, I think what was offered by the government was on the wrong track entirely ie let's see how many corporations we can attract to invest in the regions- state socialism for the rich par excellence! I was glad when there was a resounding "No" vote to the proposed North East Assembly in November 2004. Now the government has kicked the issue of elected assemblies into the long grass it is possible for radical English regionalists to pursue their goals without being co-opted by the British Establishment. Forward to the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy!

"Power to the Regions" or "Power to the Provinces"?

The probability is that, over the next few years, the whole concept of regionalism will become inextricably linked in the popular consciousness with Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) [these still exist without any democratic accountability whatsoever]. Whether we like it or not, our calls for more powers to English regions will be seen by many as more support for the RDAs. Furthermore, if RDAs become the unaccountable, undemocratic, remote, bureaucratic, venal and downright uninspiring institutions as I fear they will, the whole concept- indeed cause- of English regionalism will be badly damaged, just when we and similar movements should be making headway.

We could reconcile ourselves to RDAs and the possible emergence of Regional Assemblies sometime during the next Millennium, on the grounds that at least something of our vision of regionalism is emerging. However, the historical record demonstrates that what we are striving for, and what the British Establishment offer us, are two completely different creatures and ne'er the twain should meet, in my humble opinion.

Indeed, the RDAs are in a long line of schemes cooked up by the British Establishment to run England's "regions" with a minimum of democratic or popular say. To start with, most Devolve! members know that the RDAs will administer territories corresponding to the standard planning regions: standard planning regions which are based upon Whitehall contingency plans to administer the country in the event of a nuclear war between the USA and USSR.

What may not be so well known are the plans for "regional government" prior to 1945. Throughout World War II, regional government operated as it did during the 1938 Munich crisis [1]. However, the regional government system was first operated during the 1926 General Strike, based upon the 1925 recommendations of Whitehall's "Emergency Committee", with "the territory of each regional 'Division' and its headquarters- much the same as in the nuclear age". [2] Indeed, Whitehall's system of "regional" administration of England, which can be seen as culminating in the 20th Century with RDAs, emerged as a means of social and political control in the face of widespread unrest following World War I, the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and post war economic slump. In fact, the undemocratic features of Whitehall's systems for regional administration/
government become even more salient when a more historical perspective is taken:

"The scheme for regional Commissioners was made public in February 1939, to some considerable criticism of its unusual and undemocratic nature; there were unwelcome comparisons made with Napoleon's Prefects, Hitler's Gauleiters and Oliver Cromwell's Major-Generals. Indeed, the whole scheme bore close resemblance to the Seventeenth Century plans; eleven districts were created by Cromwell with boundaries close to those accepted in the 1939 scheme....The regional scheme had more or less reached its present day form." [3]

If Middle England cannot be called a "region" why call it a "province"? I would give four main reasons:

[i] We are from "the provinces". We should be proud of the fact: particularly as the phrase "the provinces" appears to encourage Establishment condescension (when was the last time you heard South-East England described as part of "the provinces"?) For me the phrase "the provinces" has some sort of popular resonance, which "regions" does not have. [As an economic migrant to London, I still stick to this view!!]

[ii] With the establishment of RDAs, the Establishment has again straight-jacketed the concept of "regions", and made it their property. However, Britain's Establishment has neither appropriated the idea, nor the borders, of England's "provinces". With our belief that Middle England's borders are provisional, should therefore say that "Provincial territories are negotiable; you (England's peoples) should have the final say about the name of the territory in which you live." No one can do that with the borders of England's "regions", can they? [As an aside, the Campaign For England's Regions, which was set up to campaign for the regional assemblies on offer from the government, was adamant that the borders of the regions on offer were non-negotiable. No wonder they lost in the North East and got nowhere elsewhere in England!]

[iii] England in the historical past has often been conceived in terms of provinces. During the 17th & 18th Centuries (in contrast to Cromwell) geographers usually divided England into the Provinces of the North, Centre, East, South and West. [4] These are rather functionalist names, I admit, but I hope helps demonstrated that we do not feel "un-English" in seeing our country in terms of provinces rather than regions.

[iv] We should think about, and cite, examples from countries which are either geographically or culturally close to us, where the concept of "province" can be readily found. Namely, Ireland is divided into four provinces (connect, lengthier, Muenster and Ulster); Belgium is divided into the provinces of Brussels, Flanders and Allan; the Netherlands was known as the United Provinces between 1579 and 1795; Canada consists of ten provinces (and two centrally administered territories- probably desperately campaigning for their own RDAs at this very moment [since then, in 1999 Nunavut become a Canadian Province]); and the provinces are the highest level of sub-national government in South Africa.

In conclusion, I think that we should think hard about what it means to call oneself a "regionalist" in the soon-to-dawn age of the RDAs. To declare "all power to the provinces" rather than "all power to the regions" may be a lot easier to say on more grounds than mere alliteration alone.

[1] Duncan Campbell (1983) War Plan UK (London: Paladin), p.55
[2], ibid, p.55
[3] ibid, pp.62-63
[4] David Robins (1996) A View From the North, Paper at the "What does it mean to be English?" Conference, Oxford, 13/4/96, p.9

By way of a Postscript...

The following I submitted to Devolve's Viewsletter not long before the North East Assembly referendum last year.

Any self-respecting radical regionalist should vote "No" to any regional assembly in Northern England (or elsewhere in England) as currently advocated by the present government.

I know there are those in Devolve! and elsewhere who believe that any form of elected assembly would be better than the status quo. When I hear this argument, my mind goes back to Australia's referendum on the monarchy a few years ago. Opinion polls at the time suggested that around 70% of Australians wanted a republic. However, instead of offering an elected head of state, Australia's politicians wanted to nominate the head of state themselves, following a vote in parliament. The people would have no say in deciding who their head of state would be under a republic.

Faced with a stitch-up by the politicians, people voted to retain the monarchy. Indeed, faced with such an undemocratic alternative to the monarchy, some Australian republicans campaigned for a "No" vote.

I see the various official campaigns for regional assemblies as similar stitch-ups of both the peoples of England and their democratic rights. Consequently, radical regionalists should not feel guilty about campaigning and calling for a "No" vote in referenda on regional assemblies.


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