The Personal Column: Curious and curiouser

IssueOctober - November 2014
Comment by Jeff Cloves

I’m writing this on the very eve of what a folkie of the ’60s, Nigel Denver, used to yearn for in song. He sang about the ‘Scottish Breakaway’ and maybe it’s come about or even came aboot.

During the Thatcher years, Westminster presided over what seemed an unstoppable diminution of the power of local authorities to control their own affairs. Instead central government took over to the extent that LAs seemed doomed to become collectively a powerless rump. How odd it is now to hear the prime minister and his cabinet banging on about their commitment to ‘localism’. It’s time to reclaim local government

In fact, Tory support for the idea of localism is enough to give it a bad name and so the word needs to be reclaimed too. It’s clear that such Westminster-speak derives from Alice Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all’.

Thus-wise he pre-empted any possible challenge. As a tactic it has proved to be very successful in increasing our sense of powerlessness. This Wonderland logic was so persuasive in St Albans (where I lived and worked for more than 25 years) that the district council celebrated its increasing irrelevance by building a monumentally-expensive headquarters, the better to administrate its diminishing departments and responsibilities. The whole presided over by someone styling themselves ‘chief executive officer’ and pulling in an enormous salary.

All this is by way of saying, the time has come for there to be a local authority breakaway. In the meantime, however, it is possible to challenge the parliamentary status quo – sometimes successfully – simply by ignoring it and using extra-parliamentary tactics.

I’m sure I’ve used this example before but it should never be forgotten; it was the anti-poll tax demos which brought down the Thatcher government – not the feeble hand-wringing of the parliamentary Labour party.

It’s worth remembering too, that the Thatcher government used Scotland as a trial ground for the administration of the hated poll tax and, having convinced itself it was unchallengeable, introduced it in England.

In the event, the legendary ‘poll tax riots’ did the biz and their success should cheer us and speed us ever onward.

And then there’s the tactic of online petitions. Like most PN readers, I suspect, when I turn on the iMac in the morning, in the hope of hearing from family and friends, I find instead the three or four mails in the inbox are heart-wringing petitions which I cannot bring myself not to sign.

Many – most it seems – mount up such impressive numbers of signatures they become the stuff of news stories and thus add to the pressure they aim to apply on this government or that organisation.

I long ago gave up signing paper petitions in the street because I came to believe they had no effect whatever and the number of signatures rarely if ever found their way into a news story. Somehow, though, the net has become indisputably more newsworthy and so I add my pennyworth of signature and hope for the best.

I wonder how other PN readers feel about this and what effect an online petition to abolish the monarchy and/or nuclear weapons and/or the arms industry might have?

Certainly the petition to end Page Three Girls appears to be having some effect at last and may give comfort and cheer to other campaigners.

However, these words from Alice in Wonderland make as much sense as anything I’ve signed:

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do’, Alice hastily replied, ‘at least – I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘Why you might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same as “I eat what I see”!’

Topics: Radical living
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