What gets lost

One of the key characteristics of constitutional structures which divide responsibilities and funding sources is an enormous capacity to shift costs and political blame for unpopular decisions.

In Australia the Abbott Governments Commission of Audit is allegedly going to address these issues although one suspects the outcome will be a series of ideologically-driven recommendations masquerading as efficiency proposals which will cut back government services while preserving subsidies for business and industry.

While the United Kingdom system is different – no State governments although Scotland and Wales have a degree of autonomy and the Scots get to vote for independence fairly soon – it does share the fact that other tiers of government are heavily dependent on central government funding.

So, if you want to squeeze spending, and try to avoid the political blame, the clever thing to do is to squeeze funding to another tier and let them cope with the political outcry. In the UK the process started with the Cameron Government’s ‘Big Society’ policy which supposedly would encourage voluntary organisations to take a bigger role in the community by taking over the running of institutions which had been funded by government. The policy died a natural death simply because local community groups, as in the world over, are already fully stretched maintaining the things they already do let alone taking on new responsibilities in a time when fund-raising is difficult to say the least. But the impact of ongoing funding cuts is continuing as UK local governments jettison services (libraries, swimming pools etc etc) which are considered unaffordable.

The blog has recently signed a petition protesting against one such cut – the decision by the Cambridgeshire County Council to close the Cromwell Museum in Huntington. For more details see http://savethecromwellmuseum.org/

Now the blog is a Cromwell Association life member so has a keen interest in the subject. But it is symptomatic of problems not only in the UK but also Australia. With funding being slashed in all sorts of areas what do you save and what do you protect? In Australia the blog would nominate the diesel fuel rebate which delivers billions of dollars to large mining companies and exempt cuts to universities (other than to university administrative overheads of course) and public institutions such as libraries and museums. In the UK the blog would want to see Google, Starbucks and others paying taxes and the money-laundering, tax-dodging system of LLPs cracked down on while the Cromwell Museum saved.  Saving the Cromwell Museum would, of course, cost less than a tiny skerrick of the taxes dodged by large multinational companies. While the Murdoch media, and most conservative governments, would see these priorities as ‘elitist’ they are actually the opposite as museums in Australia and the UK regularly draw more visitors than AFL matches or soccer in the respective countries.

Most importantly though it is also about what our national priorities are. Understanding our history – or understanding versions other than the official propaganda versions – is part of being a mature society. Without understanding the British Civil War, Cromwell, religious and parliamentary reform and similar things you don’t really understand what makes our society either distinct or similar to others. In Australia we need to remember, as the Australian Republican Movement has been given new impetus by the election of an aggressively monarchist Prime Minister, that republicanism is part of the history of Britain and those who inherit its institutions and historical viewpoints.  Australian monarchists who base some of their support for the status quo on the supposed stability the monarchy provides ignore that, just as they ignore the centuries of instability which make up British monarchical history.

The Cromwell Museum is a tiny one housed in a former school attended by Oliver Cromwell. But it represents an insight, and a source of information, about an important part of British history. As the blog has commented in other places, Oliver Cromwell’s April 25 birthdate is perhaps more significant in the larger scale of our political and cultural history than that other April 25 event which is increasingly hyped and mythologised in Australia.

And in that context – as we get closer to the 1915 Gallipoli centenary – the blog can’t help wondering how Gallipoli rates in significance to other historical events we, as a former British colony, can celebrate that year such as the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 750th of the first English Parliament and, if we want some military commemorations, the 600th of Agincourt and 200th of Waterloo.

As a moderately successful multicultural society (except for our treatment of indigenous Australians and that too is very much part of our colonial heritage and the British imperial way with native populations) we are extraordinarily lucky to be inheritors of many historical traditions.  But we need institutions, such as the Cromwell Museum and many others informing us about different traditions and diverse national historical perspective, to remind us who we really are and how we got to where we are.