Regionalist.net provides an opportunity for those interested in regionalism and related philosophies to discuss issues of common concern, to exchange information and ideas, and to spread knowledge of what regionalism is about.
So what is it about? In current circumstances it is, at least predominantly, decentralist. It rejects the idea that the man/woman in Whitehall knows best. Power divided is empowerment maximised. Take any policy that a government might adopt to improve the well-being of its citizens. Some citizens may prefer one version, others another. The larger the political unit, the larger the number of citizens dissatisfied as a result. But divide the political unit into two or more and allow each its own, different policy and the number dissatisfied diminishes. Mathematically, the variation around the mean is minimised by maximising the number of units within which that calculation is carried out.
Predominantly decentralist. Because it does not preclude co-operation where co-operation works for the mutual benefit of those involved. Proudhon’s federative principle is still sound today: divide what can be divided and not what cannot. We should always be healthily sceptical about claims that powers need to be gathered together for the common good. Subsidiarity is a fine principle – that nothing should be done at a wider level that can be done as well or better at a narrower one. It works only if the narrower units are the assessors of their own competence and that of the wider levels to which they have delegated their authority. They cannot avoid being judge and jury in their own cause, any more than those wider levels can. But why should they, when they are their own customers for what they do? Even where little tyrannies exist they are less destructive and more easily ended than larger ones. It is a lesson lost on so many who loathe local autonomy, who imagine that a centralist state will impose their personal values, rather than suppress them. Centralism leads to violence because in a winner-takes-all constitution the stakes are that much higher.
The opposite of centralism would seem to be localism, and regionalists are generally localists too. Often first and foremost. For many, sovereignty rests, after the individual, with the parish. Everywhere else enjoys authority only by delegation, not by right. The curbing of local autonomy by Westminster legislation is no less offensive than sending in the tanks. Local government structures may be creatures of statute but they have the same democratic mandate as Parliament, arguably more so, as they are closer to the people. Successive Labour and Tory governments have become obsessed with concentrating political power at the centre. Sane politics means learning to live without the centre in most respects. It’s there to be our servant, not the other way around.
Why regionalist then? Because events have shown that there is something about the regional scale that makes a crucial difference. Devolved or federal units right across Europe – and the wider world – are small enough to respond to local conditions yet big enough to take on substantial powers and to stand up to bullying by the centre. No-one in London is going to kick the Scottish Parliament around. Berlin must acknowledge the views of Bavaria. And a trip to Andalusia might convince the visitor that its government is a sovereign entity. The Andalusian flags are on every public building, the remnants of the Spanish state all but invisible.
Europe has many small nations of regional scale, most notably the various countries dubbed ‘Celtic’. But regionalism is not necessarily nationalism. It is comfortable with multiple identities, from the parish to the planet. The region may be merely the middle level of a many-tiered sandwich. Demands for independence are a negative way of expressing a positive demand for power unreasonably withheld. And unreason has a habit of being matched with unreason. How much suffering could Ireland have been spared if Home Rule had not been so long delayed?
If some regions are also nations, what of those that are not? That they do not aspire to the national tag does not mean they have no history upon which to draw for inspiration. Wessex and Mercia have had their day but can have it again if need be. And need there is, as no constitutional settlement for England that does not address the grotesque concentration of power in the capital city can be sustained.
The Prescott debacle has tarnished the good name of regionalism, linking it to regionalisation, a purely bureaucratic exercise that never had any intention of giving real power away. On the contrary, the exercise has been about removing power from local communities to regions that are now duly hated and doubtless doomed. Hated not just because of what they are but also because of where they are. Nowhere. What a failure of nerve and imagination to prefer bland compass bearings to revival of our historic regional identities. Supporters and opponents alike of the regionalisation process point to Brussels as its instigator – the regions are also the constituencies for the European elections – but the reality is far more boring. The regional boundaries are a warmed-up version of ones in use by our own dear civil service since before the Second World War. If it’s a conspiracy, it’s Sir Humphrey’s, not Herr Hitler’s.
We cannot go on living under a system so centralised that other countries wonder how it can work at all. A lot of the time it doesn’t, but the fact is kept concealed by the concentration of opinion-formers in the capital. It’s their perceptions and prejudices that define the national conversation. A regionalised England could be a very different place. Regions would make their own policies, pass their own laws, set their own taxes. One result would be a greater diversity of discussion about the real quality of life, as regional media reported debates in regional parliaments and the Westminster village counted for less. The economy would be different too, with more recognition for those who make and do things ‘out there’ in the provinces and less reliance upon the City of London as the magical national bread-winner.
Despite Prescott’s bruising of its ideals, regionalism will return to the political agenda because in the long-run there is no alternative. The sooner we get it right, the sooner it can happen. And the sooner it happens, the sooner we can all start to benefit. Illuminated by decentralist thought gleaned from around the globe, this blog will make its contribution to that vital debate.