Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

CLARION COMMENT: That referendum – how it could affect us

In Editorial on November 11, 2014 at 11:55 am

The Scottish referendum debate dominated the news coverage over the first few weeks in September. Arguments, analysis and the ubiquitous opinion polls swayed back backwards and forwards right up until polling day on Thursday, 18th September.

It may possibly be that there are some folk in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley who weren’t much interested. Or perhaps wondered whether it was any concern to those of us living in our neck of the woods. After all, Scotland’s a long way away – so what’s it got to do with us? Now, if it had been Wales seeking independence, that would have been a different matter. Whichever side of the border we lived, we’d have been caught in the thick of it. But that’s not on the cards, is it?

But the Scottish referendum, and its results did, at least implicitly, affect us here.  It’s not just the state of the union and its possible impact  – though this might well have been of concern to some (particularly if your name was David Cameron). But it’s the kind of way that we, in the remoter regions of England, are governed.  Who pulls the strings? What kind of control (if any) do we who live between the Severn and the Wye have over our lives?  What kind of political decisions can we make?

Less and less, it would seem. Power, both political and financial, is being increasingly centralised, with decisions made in London dominating, possibly even suffocating, all of us.

Local government is increasingly emasculated as its powers to act meaningfully are stripped away – or privatised. It was of course a process that began during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, but it has accelerated under the present Lib Dem government. So in these circumstances, is there a case for establishing a structure of regional (even provincial?) government to reassert a level of more localised participation and, more importantly, control?

Stimulated particularly by the debate in Scotland, such a possibility is already being discussed in many parts of England.  In Yorkshire, for example, there have been meetings to discuss the feasibility of regional government in the north east of England. One spokesman declared that there was a “need to say it loud and clear – devolution to the north must be on (the) same basis as Wales and Scotland (and the Greater London Assembly) – not unaccountable combined authorities run by the same old faces. Regional assemblies elected by PR working with strong, community-focused local government” (Paul Salveson, from Huddersfield).

Some (though by no means all) of the arguments used during the Scottish referendum debate have a resonance here. Particularly those concerned with the ability to control, or at least influence, social and economic decisions at a more local level, or to fit the needs of the regions concerned.  And the campaign overall generated a sense of involvement and enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen on the political scene for nearly seventy years.

As for regionalism as a concept, it might be that it’s an issue that divides opinion. But it’s interesting that even those on the right (ie, amongst the Tories) are now talking about it. And the Lib Dems have suddenly claimed that it’s a concept that they’ve always believed in.  But we suspect that in practice it might be somewhat different from the ideas put forward by those on the left.

SCOTLAND’S REFERENDUM:

In Scotland, the referendum campaign is now over – and the call for full independence has been rejected by a fairly narrow margin (some 46 per cent of the electorate voted Yes, against over 50 per cent who plumped for a No vote).

But what was significant was the size of the vote. It averaged out at over 80 per cent of those on the electoral register, rising to over 90 per cent in some districts.  These were percentages that many politicians this side of the border could only dream of!

The second point is that it was a campaign that engaged so many of the electorate, with a passion that’s usually lacking in elections. The “No” campaign, after a lacklustre start characterised by negative campaigning and doom-laden threats, finally managed to galvanise itself  – thanks interestingly to the intervention of a re-vitalised Gordon Brown.

It’s perhaps only natural that defending the status quo would be difficult (particularly the unedifying sight of Labour leaders on the campaign trail shoulder to shoulder with Tory counterparts like Cameron) .

But the campaign certainly galvanised the Scots. There may well be a sense of temporary demoralisation amongst “Yes” campaigners, but in the longer term it’s an issue that won’t go away. And if the extra powers belatedly promised to the Scottish Parliament are actually delivered, then a victory of sorts will still have been achieved.

Which brings us back to the notion of devolution for us in England. Worth campaigning for, or not?

BRING THE RAILWAYS BACK UNDER PUBLIC CONTROL!

In a powerfully presented article in a recent issue of The Observer Will Hutton argues that the present system of privatisation on the railways, with a short-term franchise system at its heart, offers passengers and the public the worst possible deal.

Fare levels are now the highest in Europe, as rail companies fleece passengers in order to maintain profit levels. Fares have risen by almost a quarter since 2010 – and are likely to rise by another 24 per cent over the next four years. This is “a poll tax on wheels”, declares Will Hutton. Even buying the right ticket is a minefield (as some Clarion readers will testify!).

He also makes the point that dividing up the network into a multitude of franchises was absurd. It was from the first, “a conceptual disaster”.

First, the railways are a natural monopoly. And second, the system of franchises encourages short-term thinking – making as much profit as possible whilst the franchise lasts, at minimal cost and investment.

Lastly, it was “crazy” to believe that running a public service, as the railways in effect are, could be achieved without any public subsidy.

EAST COAST MAINLINE:

Will Hutton cites East Coast Mainline as a success story, since it was brought back under public control. “Five years of public ownership and it is now the best run and most efficient operator, making a net surplus of £16 million for the taxpayer.”

And it’s reward? It’s to be sold off to a private company early next year.  So where do their profits go? Into overseas tax havens, suggests Will Hutton.

For example, “the ultimate owner of Virgin trains are Branson’s family trusts in the Virgin Islands. Operating in a tax haven allows him to move from business to business without massive tax liabilities.”

Hutton concludes that public services such as the railways are natural monopolies… and other countries respect that truth. Britain’s attempts to escape such a truth have been a costly debacle.

Incidentally, it’s ironic that one franchised company that operates locally, Arriva Trains, is actually owned by Deutsche Bahn – Germany’s state-owned railway system. Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

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  1. Great points about the railways, Caroline Lucas is campaigning for public ownership. Also, the referendum has revitalised Scottish politics. It looks like an snp whitewash is afoot, as Labour is not doing well in its own heartland.

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