I sit down to write a piece about devolution in the South West and realise that of course, since Brexit, devolution may no longer happen. What will happen? It is the question on everyone’s minds and as the days go on, the questions remain unanswered and the situation turns from terrible to worse.
There is however, a silver lining, one that seems to have come at great cost, but one nevertheless and that is a perceptible shake up in the political system. We have a chance at least, for recreating our democracy from the grassroots up. As long as we take advantage of this now, that we don’t wait for Boris to get comfortable in No. 10, that the political elite that so many people voted against set their claws in even tighter. I organised a meeting last month in Totnes. A large group of people from across the South West sat around the table, once used by Oliver Cromwell to forment revolution and discussed our own 21st century version of it. The people who came were interested in the idea of independence; of independence at local level, at county level and at Westminster. The goal is to promote people to stand against the entrenched and the incumbent in order to represent our communities more effectively and more democratically. If you vote for a party at the local elections, you are voting for the party machinery, this may be what you want, but you need to know this may not be in the best interest of your local area.
I became interested in local politics due to my growing realisation that local people had very little say in what was happening in their own areas. That massive housing estates of unaffordable housing were being pushed through against the wishes of the people who lived there because it was decided in central government that this should be so. Our democratically elected councillors, however independent of spirit they might be, seemed incapable of preventing this or of listening to the people they were supposed to be representing. They appeared to be more in the game of representing their party’s interests than they were in representing ours. Local hospitals began to close, developers got out of their obligations to support the area they were building in, council budgets were cut and the only people with any say over how our infrastructural money was being spent seemed to be a remote, unelected quango called the Local Enterprise Partnership, who had vested interests in pushing for as much building as possible. I became politicised and so did many of the people campaigning with me.
I became interested in a group from East Devon called the East Devon Alliance. They are a loose alliance whose main interest in common is that they don’t follow any party whip, that their main and only concern is the area in which they live and in which they work and they have been very successful. As a loose, but supportive alliance they gained 9 district council seats at the last election with Independents as a whole gaining 15 and have become a defiant and powerful voice against the status quo. They came to our meeting to discuss what they have done and how it works and to encourage South Devon to promote and support its own independent councillors. Also at the meeting were Claire Wright, who stood against Hugo Swire from East Devon in the last general election as an Independent and Martyn Greene, the co-founder of Free Parliament. Free Parliament is a brand new organisation, also backed by Digby Jones, the ex-CBI head and now cross party peer and they are calling for an absolute shake up of our parliamentary system. They believe that our system is no longer fit for purpose and that people should stand to represent their constituency without having to follow or be bullied by the party whip; that they should be free to do what is best for their area and not to slavishly follow the two party line.
It’s heady stuff and at our meeting the conversations ranged from how we value our communities, to what shape an alliance of Independents could take and how we can actively promote and publicise this. All over Europe people are coming together to take back power at a local level and from there to national. Podemas in Spain are doing this, the Alternative Party in Denmark, the Pirate Party in Iceland; there is real energy, real excitement and real commitment and I can see our independently minded people being right there at the forefront. I won’t let the consequences of Brexit defeat me, I will look at the opportunities it gives for Devon, Cornwall and Somerset to show their mettle and be at the forefront of a new type of politics.
We are meeting again on July 5th in the Guildhall in Totnes and this time there is real urgency to our plans. Revolt is in the air and I for one, am glad of it.