Local Politics VI: Where is the University of Christminster?

Bodleian Library, Keypoint, Swindon (Brian Robert Marshall) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Part of the history of civic boosterism in Swindon is a long and largely unsuccessful story of attempts to establish a University presence in the town – in the last decade, schemes involving both UWE and Bath have fallen through; Oxford Brookes has a small presence, and BPP has a pilot scheme with a local FE college to roll-out low cost degree programmes (in Law). The efforts to establish a University go back to the 1940s at least – it’s why the Borough Council own a big old stately home just off Junction 16 of the M4, with a great kids play area, an annual firework display, but no University. And these efforts continue – Swindon will be bidding for a University Technical College any time soon.

I have previously expounded on the frustrations of living in a town which is so poorly served by book shops. This has something to do with the absence of a higher education presence in the town, no doubt. But actually, Swindon does have a huge book store, opened a year ago. The only problem is, it’s a book store, not a bookstore – a Book Storage Facility, to be precise. And not just any old Book Storage Facility.

Should a University ever arrive, it will open in a town that is host to more than 8 million books deposited in the Bodleian’s shiny new warehouse, located just off the A420, round the corner from Honda. The Book Storage Facility is Oxford University’s solution to the fact that the Bodleian’s collection grows by about 170,000 volumes a year, and they had run out of space in Oxford to house them all.  It was opened a year ago, and the books have been transferred over the last year. It is home to mostly ‘low demand’ books – the one’s no one ever borrows.

The ‘BSF’ has been described as a ‘tin shed’, but it continues in a line of high quality industrial architecture in the town – it is that kind of town.

Local politicians got very excited when it was announced that the University 30 miles up the road was going to store it’s unwanted books here. This is actually quite sad – there was a rather fanciful suggestion that the new Central Library would be able to hook up with the Bodleian collection. Not happened. Perhaps the Borough Council should just appropriate the BSF, declare it to be the public property of the people of Swindon, and set up its own University on the back of one of the world’s best collections of scholarly materials. Call it the University of Christminster. It could work.

I actually find this all a bit cruel – they close the Borders a few weeks after we move here, then open a huge warehouse full of books down the road, which you cannot actually access. I used to take an annual visit to the Bookbarn in Somerset, south of Bristol on the way to Wells – a place where old books go to die, I think of it as. Two agricultural warehouses full of musty old books, I very rarely bought anything – these really are the books no one wants to read anymore (you could, though, buy the entire collection of Enoch Powell’s speeches from the 1960s and 1970s, if you were looking for an archive for a PhD thesis). My daughter cried the one time I took her there (what do you do on the days when you have to look after a toddler?). It was probably the smell. But at least you get to go in this warehouse full of books, to wonder round, sit down for a coffee.

Never mind. I console myself with the thought that as I drive up and down the A420, to and from Milton Keynes, some of those white vans might be transporting rare manuscripts to eager scholars waiting in the Radcliffe Camera or the Map Room. Who knows, one of them might even be transporting that rarest of rare ‘low demand’ items – one of my books.

Local Politics V: ‘Boffins get grant to investigate sex entertainment’

That’s the front page story in today’s Adver, Swindon’s local paper. It’s a wonderful example of badly written local journalism, trying to suggest an element of controversy where there isn’t any. The story refers to an award by the made by ‘the Swindon-based’ ESRC to Phil Hubbard and Rachela Colosi, to study the impact of ‘sex entertainment’ (i.e. lap dancing clubs) on local communities. The hook for the story is a claim that this is a waste of money (although the project seems to have quite ‘respectable’ objectives, of course). 

In principle, of course, every single research award made by RCUK could count as a local story, in so far as they are all made by ‘Swindon-based’ organisations. Every so often, one of these sorts of stories does crop up in the Adver. Not the sort of ‘impact’ one suspects the ESRC is primarly seeking to generate. Swindon actually has a long history of trying and failing to establish a University presence of some sort, which is still seen as a key element in future local economic development strategy. There are not enough ‘boffins’ actually living here, it seems.

And what else makes this a ‘local’ story? Might have something to do with the fact that Swindon seems to have a thriving ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sector all of its own. At least two, in fact, one of which has opened since we have been here, bucking the downward economic trend in the midst of recession. And in fact, I think the imaginary geography of nighttime Swindon  would stand as a good case study for the project reported in today’s paper – there is a clear divide between the town centre and ‘Old Town’ as nightlife destinations, based on age certainly, class too – the latter area has seen three or four Bars and Gastro Pubs open in the last two years as it consolidates it’s reputation as the ‘safe’ and ‘nice’ part of town to go out in. 

So I’m told. I haven’t had a night out in ages.

Local Politics IV: wind, water and writing

For anyone out there interested in political politics, it turns out that Honda’s application to build 3 wind turbines on its site in Swindon, to meet environmental standards for reducing its carbon footprint, was rejected by the planning committee last week, after objections by local residents. 

Meanwhile, another long running local campaign, this one to stop housing development on and around Coate, on the outskirts of town, garnered some national attention at the weekend. The Guardian’s Review section on Saturday had a little story about the campaign to ‘save Coate‘. The venue for the story, in ‘The Week in Books’ section, was notable – the campaign is spearheaded by the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust, and the campaign revolves around the link between this large area of green space and the Victorian writer Richard Jefferies – “who was arguably the founding father of environmentalism in Britain”, and maybe even the US (who knew!). Jeffries was born at Coate, so Swindon now gets to claim him. Coate Water is a popular local amenity, centred on a huge nineteenth century reservoir which was the headwater for the Wilts and Berkshire canal – so there is an interesting loop between this modern campaign to save local green space and Swindon’s pre-railway position within an industrialising economy (Swindon is actually great for amateurish historical geography). And because lots of Swindonians visit Coate Water for some reason or other (for the pitch and putt, paddling, or picniking), the campaign has a certain ‘reach’ across the whole town. If you ever find yourself whizzing along the M4 towards Junction 15, or along the A419 to or from Cirencester or Marlborough, you will be passing by – and you should stop off, the best thing is the miniature railway.

Local Politics III: public life in the digital city

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was tangentially involved, mainly as a researcher of sorts, with something grandly called the Oxford Motor Industry Research Group, which was actually a group of academics with links with shop stewards galvanised in the summer of 1989 by plans to close the car works in Cowley. The group was led by the activist-scholar Teresa Hayter (author of, amongst other things, Hayter of the Bourgeoisie). I seem to remember that part of the politicking around the future of Cowley, which dragged on well into the 1990s, involved plans to transfer all car production to Swindon. The Oxford plant wasn’t closed completely in the end. I, on the other hand, have indeed ended up in Swindon.

Twenty years on, there is a big mini hanging on a wall outside the BMW plant, locally referred to as Pressed Steel (good name for a band). Swindon used to build trains, now it builds cars. Even the major architectural landmarks in the town are car-related: the Magic Roundabout; Norman Foster’s Renault Building (now home to a fantastic soft-play centre for kids); the defunct speed cameras; the switched-off street lights.

What with the speed cameras covered, and the street lights turned off, it’s boy-racer heaven here. Turning things off and failing to gets things to work has become a bit of a signature of recent local council initiatives. In November 2009, shortly after we moved here, it was announced with great fanfare (locally, that is, though it made national news too) that Swindon was to become the first place in the UK to offer free wireless internet to all households. A scheme funded largely by the borough council was to be rolled out across the whole town, apparently, by April 2010. This was hailed by the controlling Tory group on the Council as an innovative public-private commercial venture. “Trailblazing Swindon Council is working with the private sector to make Swindon the first town in the UK to provide free internet access for all its residents”, they said.

Needless to say, things haven’t turned out quite as planned. The deal struck between the Council and Digital City Ltd, the company set-up to develop the free wi-fi scheme, has been mired in controversy from the start. The £1.5million project was leveraged by a loan from the Council to the tune of £450,000, but the loan deal was characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability, related to the specific type of cabinet system adopted in Swindon, which meant the deal was basically signed-off by a couple of senior Tory council leaders.

After countless delays, earlier this year Digital City was dissolved and the leading business figure behind the scheme declared bankrupt, amidst calls for the resignations of the leading Tory councillors who had signed-off on the deal. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering what happened to the money, and whether the loan will be repaid.

This has been the hottest political story in town for almost two years now, and it revolves around questions of proper procedure. The general complaint around the scheme has revolved around the level of scrutiny involved in loaning public money to the Digital City venture. The story has attracted regular attention in the local paper, but has in particular been kept alive by Swindon’s vibrant little blogosphere (you can track the story over two years here and here for example). And it even became a regular-ish feature in Private Eye, here and here, as a model of dodgy local government dealings.

The MP for South Swindon until 2010, Anne Snelgrove, raised the issue in Parliament shortly before the last election, when she lost her seat. She publicly acknowledged the role of local bloggers and websites in subjecting the Wi-Fi deal to scrutiny and making it into an issue (the Tories, meanwhile, complain that the deliberate ‘politicizing’ of the scheme is part of the reason it has struggled to get off the ground, or, should that be into the air?).

The latest twist in the story is the recent announcement that a new investor has been found for the scheme, although just who this is remains a big secret for now. But the Council assures everyone that the money invested in the Digital City venture will be recouped under the new agreement: “The council will also receive a share of the profits from the multinational company which is stepping in to run the new wireless internet system, although for “commercial reasons” its identity is still a secret.”

This is now dubbed Wi-Fi 2 locally. At the moment, ‘free Wi-Fi’ has still yet to be materialised in Swindon.

I like this little local story because of the neat relation it exposes between the promise of everyday hi-tech communication and the dull ‘materialities’ of lampposts (suddenly peculiarly central to political issues in the town), council procedures, and local journalism. But also because it illustrates how ‘new media’ can bring a new dimension, a certain sort of dispersed keenness of scrutiny, to very local issues – Swindon’s public realm these days includes bloggers poring over Council minutes and/or taking the mickey out of local politicians’ promises and excuses.

Local politics II: does politics only happen occasionally?

Kurt Ivesen, over at the Cities and Citizenship blog, posted a comment on my post about local politics in Swindon last week, which I have been thinking about for a week or so, busy with other things. I haven’t had many comments, so thanks, Kurt, you’ve made me think. But not change my mind…

Kurt raises a couple of substantive issues about different meanings of ‘the post-political’, and the use and mis-use of Ranciere on this topic:

“I think I would make a distinction between post-politics as a condition (i.e. “society these days is post-political”) and post-politics as a tendency or strategy. For me, the problem is when the concept is applied in the first way. And I think it can be kinda useful when applied in the second way.”

That seems fair enough, certainly arguments about post-political conditions seem dull and uninteresting and easily refuted empirically, and are unimaginative conceptually. But I’m still not convinced by the idea of post-politics in the second sense, especially not when informed by Ranciere’s style of political philosophizing. Kurt says that for Ranciere post-politics is “a characteristic of various attempts to put decisions beyond the realm of politics that we see going on around us all the time.” Now, of course, everything turns on what you think counts as politics in deciding whether certain strategies are moves within political games, or moves beyond them. I don’t really see why one should suppose that efforts by political actors (acting strategically to further their own interests and bolster those of their constituencies), to shape the terms of debates, to move issues and decisions out of fields of more-or-less deliberative, more-or-less participatory, more-or-less inclusive, more-or-less contestatatory forums should be thought of as a moving beyond politics, of post-politicization at all. It’s just one set of political strategies that might be pursued. The post-political diagnosis, in the second sense that Kurt endorses, seems still to depend on a rather narrow understanding of what politics is, or more precisely, what it should be – it’s an understanding of politics so narrow as to disallow the ‘political’ status of bargaining or deal-making, administrative rule-making, judicial decision-making, clientalism and patronage, the sorts of forms of ordinary graft and ‘corruption’ dubbed “political society” by Partha Chatterjee, the forms of strategic disorder discussed by Patrick Chabal in his account of African politics – none of these seem to accord with the criterion of the properly political as defined by Ranciere.

On Kurt’s reading, Ranciere might have inflected my little vignette about local politics in Swindon a little differently: “In the story above, sure, there might indeed be politics, and I agree that it would be wrong to characteriseSwindonas a ‘post-political town’. But it seems to me that there is a post-political tendency in the story too. Like when the wind-turbines are supported by both Tories and Labour alike because “there is no alternative” if we want to keep the plant competitive. Isn’t this an attempt to take the decision out of the realm of democratic decision-making and into the realm of economic necessity? And isn’t part of the movement against them a struggle to make the decision a political decision to be settled democratically, as opposed to a managerial one? As such, could some concept of ‘post-politics’ help in unpacking what is going on in Swindon and elsewhere?”

Actually, on reflection, prompted by Kurt’s questions, this seems to me a pre-eminently political story, all the way down. Above all, I see no reason to suppose that the efforts of political parties to frame issues in particular ways, to their advantage, and to define some interests as trumping others (i.e. the ‘general’ interests of the whole town in the success of Honda, somewhat differently understood no doubt by Tories and Labour; against the ‘narrow’ interests of local residents living close to the plant), is a sign of a move towards post-politics – it might be a sign of a reconfiguration of politics, but that’s a different sort of analysis entirely. That’s what political parties do, it’s what they are for, it’s what makes them political actors in the first place. And I’m not sure that the equally routine form of campaign by local residents against the wind turbines does really qualify as full-on dissensual action of the sort that Ranciere takes as the model of ‘democratic’ politics. An analysis that sees only post-politics or de-politicization in this sort of fairly ordinary example seems to me to be missing an awful lot of what makes politics political.

So, I remain unconvinced of the utility of this approach – it seems to turn on a conflation of politics with democracy, both rather narrowly defined, and rather weirdly defined too, by reference primarily to a generalised Kantian model of sublime experience (the last recourse for a whole host of French theorists of a certain generation and broadly shared political trajectory). If one thinks of the world divided between forces of order and disruption, constituted power and constituted power, or similar conceptual pairs, then I guess the seeming absence of dissensual disruption is always likely to look like hegemonic reproduction, the routines of ‘police’, the on-set of the post-political.

There is actually a shared spatial and temporal imagination across a set of currently fashionable theoretical approaches to ‘the political’, which might be usefully interrogated. For example, at what ‘scale’ is it assumed that ‘the sensible’ is partaged, so to speak? Are there local formations of the sensible; national ones? And likewise, over what temporal scale is dissensual-democratic-political action enacted – can it endure, be sustained over time, be institutionalised and maintain it’s status as dissensual-democratic-political action? Above all, is it possible to rule dissensually? Imagine that. Because, after all, democracy may or may not ‘mean equality’ (actually, doesn’t it imply equality, of a certain sort, which is not quite the same as ‘democracy means equality’). But it certainly seems to imply ruling and being ruled.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.

OBE for Ron Johnston

I see that Ron Johnston has received an OBE in the latest honours list – for ‘services to scholarship’. I have a bit of a soft spot for the sort of electoral geography that Ron and his colleagues do, which provides a really incisive style of political analysis that demonstrates just why ‘geography matters’, as they used to say. Ron’s Geography and Geographers, probably the first or second edition, was the very first academic geography book I ever read, in the summer of 1986 before going to University – it was the only book on the list of recommended things to read before ‘going up’ that the public library in East Grinstead actually had. And besides, he’s from Swindon, and went to school in the next road over from where we now live – one of my little joys about going along to vote since we have moved here is the idea of getting to vote in the school where Ron was a pupil. Such are the small wonders of life in Swindon.