I went to the launch of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation a few weeks ago, which is a campaign for democratic self-determination, authority and responsibility for places in the north of England, and of which I've paid my very reasonably priced 20 quid to become a member.
I really like the fact that a political campaign is named after a person. Inviting people to engage with the Foundation through a story is such an open, warm and welcoming way to start a conversation.
A story is made by readers as much as the writer. As my friend Peter Sansom - publisher of a poetry magazine called The North for the last 25 years - likes to say, “a book is only as good as its readers”. Reading is active and doing, and reading about Hannah Mitchell is asking people to do some work to begin finding their own understanding of what it means to live in a place in the north of England now.
At the launch, the presentations by The Committee included one of the best talks I've heard on any subject anywhere for quite a while, and the common theme I took from all of them was how empowering and energising it will be to think of the “North South divide”, “regeneration” and all that stuff as being about democratic self-determination, authority and responsibility.
What also I noticed at the launch though was the tension between process and product in the Hannah Mitchell Foundation so far.
The Committee reported that they have begun a process of engaging with other organisations, and of learning from the experience of other devolution campaigns, planning to ask Scottish and Welsh campaigners “If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?”. That's a cracking question, and they've been open about not pretending to ahve any answers yet, saying “We don't know what structure democratic self-determination for places in the north should take”.
That is a great way to begin, but it still feels like at the moment The Committee's sense of their process is of a search for a product. The product will be a set of policies that clever people will work out, and the rest of us will vote for (in a referendum that will be lost). Job done.
But do you start a campaign for democratic self-determination, authority and responsibility, and name it after a human story rather than an abstract policy objective, and choose the word “Foundation”, and say quite openly “We don't have a plan, we'll start by asking people what they think” and have as one of your prime movers a man whose professional expertise is in the provision of network infrastructure (could anything be more timely? I'd support the Hannah Mitchell Foundation just for that alone), if in your heart of hearts you are the kind of people who want to tell other people what to think?
Instead, it sounds much more like you are inventing (perhaps in spite of yourselves at first) a new way of doing politics in places in the North that isn't a shouting match aimed at browbeating other people into silence. It is politics as a public, civic, space (where does the word “politics” come from?).
When we step into that space we listen to and cooperate with people we don't have to agree with, let alone like. We can like whomsoever we like in our private lives, in the political space we simply have to extend people the courtesy of not thinking we are the only ones who know the truth, and that everyone has their own claims on the common good (my understanding of ideas like the common good is very sketchy, so buyer beware). People like Maurice Glasman and Richard Sennett are saying these sorts of things very persuasively I think.
This tension plays itself out in what I think is the odd and unwieldy official definition the Hannah Mitchell Foundation has for itself, which is as a campaign for democratic self-determination, authority and responsibility for places in the north of England and ethical socialism. That has got to beg the question hasn't it: how can you have a campaign for process when you are already telling people what the end product is going to be.
I think tacking on “and ethical socialism” will reduce the store of goodwill that the Foundation can draw on, and narrow its capacity to engage with other voices and stories. Hannah Mitchell's story becomes the only story, rather than a motivating story. Instead of being a wellspring of narrative capital, it becomes an excluding and backward looking Heritage Leftie Northernism.
And there really are other stories. What about the Makers of Leeds? Doesn't that piece of storytelling have any insights to contribute to the future of places in the north of England? And what about British Asian people from those places, for example, let alone people from Eastern Europe? Does Hannah's story say everything they might want to say?
I don't think that is what the Hannah Mitchell Foundation is or wants to be at all.
I think the Hannah Mitchell Foundation is process - self-determination, authority and responsibility - and how that happens. Or, in places in the north of England at the moment, doesn't. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation should always be doing what it is. Listening, being open, finding grounds for cooperation in good faith with people and organisations that they might not want to spend time with socially.
There is a responsibility on The Committee to live up to that. To be open enough to let the Hannah Mitchell Foundation become what it needs to be. It's a doers responsibility - they are doing it, no one else is going to do it, so they've given themselves the responsibility whether they like it or not.
And the hardest part, and something they might have to wrestle with, is taking a step back from their personal political world views. That's not to say they have to change them, but in their roles as The Committee of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation their position has to be about the creation of the civic, political, space, not prejudging the policies that should be formed in that space. Of course there will be a campaign, but it's for self-determination (which is something bigger than ad hoc press releases about teachers' pay scales). The Committee's role might not be to find the answers for us, it might be to curate and facilitate the discussions.
Those discussions might be about three things: the value of democratic self-determination, authority and responsibility in themselves (here's an interesting piece of research that suggests the chance to participate in local political decisions makes people happier); the necessity of devolved authority and responsibility in order to make sustainable, resourceful and resilient places in the north of England; the structure of constitutions in those places such that they best achieve the first two.
I think we are a long way from needing to make final choices on any of that (wikipedia tells me the SNP was founded in 1934), but that doesn't mean the end is a long way off. The process is an end in itself. By having those discussions, and listening to anyone who thinks they have something to contribute, we are doing devolution.