Monday, January 23, 2006

This is a local town, for local people...

Menzies Campbell said that: "just as government does not always know best, neither does the council".

And this morning Peter Preston has a go at trendy localism. From the Lib Dem point-of-view he's doing a few rounds with a straw man.

First he advances a lot of arguments about the US and Switzerland:

Is it fair... that a murderer in Oregon will face no death chamber while a murderer in Texas prepares to fry?

Local democracy [in Switzerland], honed over centuries, means a host of different hard things: different taxation levels, different asylum policies, different education fees and subsidies, different benefits.

There is a tradition in certain parts of the Lib Dems that local is always best which is what Menzies was attacking and, yes, Peter P. you make the point that local isn't always best. Likewise he's correct that quangos, etc. don't give local residents a real say. But IMO he's not so hot on the rest.

The Lib Dems are in favour of bringing things "closer to real people" but this isn't necessarily to a local level. It's to the most effective level. Finding "head teachers for 127 needy schools" isn't a decision that national government should be concerning itself with. Street lighting and local schools are decisions best made by local people. The two specific examples he cites from the US and Switzerland are the death penalty and being able to see Brokeback Mountain. These are universal human rights and free speech issues and are best decided at a national level. Defence and asylum are also best made at national or international level - security threats to Avon and Somerset don't come from southern Welsh people invading from over the Severn Bridge. This is why Menzies isn't keen on "passing power down to the people" merely out of a "misty haze of benevolence".

He then goes on to say "like it or not, in our warm bath of Britishness we are already a quasi-federation" citing Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Wales are partly devolved but in general:

The UK has a highly centralised system of government, and the powers of local government are very limited. Central government exercises considerable controls over local action. The main power local government has is one of conservative resistance, usually in the form of a failure to put central government policies immediately into effect

We have a long way to go before we can be compared meaningfully to Switzerland. In fact, AFAIK we are the most centralised country in Europe. A little gratuitous localism would probably merely be redressing the balance.

He goes on to cite the customary fears of devolving things downwards:

don't think consistency or equality. If you don't like it in Geneva, then you can move to Bern or Basle or wherever. Choice is getting on your bike. Fed up with Islington? Push off to Wandsworth instead.

This suggests he thinks two things:
  • Centralised control delivers uniform services. Given just how centralised we are - do we have uniform, equal provision. No? Surprise, surprise.
  • Variation in service provision and consistency is all bad. There's a lot of stuff on this in the Orange Book about how inconsistency, variation and freedom can lead to good practice arising spontaneously in one place and being transmitted to others. This is somewhat more efficient than one group of people in Whitehall coming up with a plan, rolling it out across a pilot area and then the UK... discovering it doesn't work... devising another plan

The Tories and Labour are authoritarian parties and have centralising instincts so their policies are no doubt window-dressing or an 'aspartame mush'. But the Lib Dems are for appropriate localism so don't tar us with the same brush.


  • At 10:24 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Quite right femme.

    With localism comes variety - but at least it is accountable variety.

    Chris huhne has got this area of policy dead right.

  • At 10:34 am , Anonymous Will said...

    "Is it fair... that a murderer in Oregon will face no death chamber while a murderer in Texas prepares to fry?"

    Why not? They have different laws because that's what the people who live there have decided. It's no less fair than facing execution on one side of the border with Canada and not on the other. Countries don't have be homogenous.

  • At 10:47 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    I guess I didn't pick up on that because I view the death penalty as a universal human rights issue rather than a local US issue.

    After all, the list of countries that have the death penalty is entirely unsavoury with the exception of the US (which has an unsavoury current administration but isn't Iran).

  • At 1:03 pm , Blogger Wallyxab said...

    Congratulations for getting to the end of a Peter Preston article. Normally I give up due to the near terminal incoherence of his pieces.

  • At 2:12 pm , Blogger LibertyCat said...

    His claim that the solution to bad local services is getting on your bike demonstrates Labour's problem with local democracy. The solution to bad local services is to vote out the Labour (and it is always Labour) Council responsible. This idea is heresy to the Guardian, but not to the Liberal Democrats.


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