The Tiny Society

It’s often said, with an air of superiority, that the Russians don’t really get democracy, that they prefer strongman rule. Democracy, in the sense of open public debate followed by free and fair voting, is something we used to do tolerably well in most areas. But recent decades have seen us slide more and more towards the Russian model.

In 1974 the number of councillors serving on principal local authorities was cut drastically. In many areas it has since been cut drastically again. A climate of sneer has been assiduously built up until we have come to believe that councillors are all in it for themselves and we’d be far better off without them. Leave it all to the experts. We can’t be bothered to ask searching questions any more, as they salami-slice our liberties.

Local government has withered as a consequence. The years since 1974 have not been its finest, but it’s hard to do good with the London regime on your back, stealing your powers, dictating how to use the few that remain, and making sure that no-one locally can have any real idea of just how powerless their local elected representatives now are.

The culmination of these attacks on civic virtue is the belief that discussion ‘holds things up’, when ‘everybody knows’ what needs to be done. It maybe even halts altogether things that enrich the few at the expense of the many. Let’s have strongman rule instead. Elected mayors. Elected police commissioners. Everyone else is doing it. All those countries we ‘compete’ with (dictatorships included). They all have strongman rule. That Mussolini makes the trains run on time, don’t you know.

The reality of David Cameron’s Big Society is responsibility without power. Get the volunteers to do all the hard work. But get them out of the debating chamber and the committee room. It’s not for them to shape the future. Real decisions are for the Tiny Society, the cabal of powerful personalities that folk without self-esteem can look up to and be impressed.

Assuming that Thursday’s referendum results are already in the bag, Cameron announced back in March that he plans to set up a national ‘cabinet’ of directly elected big-city mayors that will meet at least twice a year. Other council leaders are not invited. Behind the thinking is a vicious urbanism that belittles the contribution of all who do not live in cities. In the globalist ideology, territory has been abolished (and with it any concept of space-defined democracy). All that matters are cities as the consumers and remoulders of wealth into profit. They are seen as creative powerhouses that will drive reinvigorated growth. But it’s all an illusion. We’d like to see a city anywhere that can feed itself.

An illusion, yes, but one increasingly believed. The idea of city mayors is part of a bypassing of democracy that is redesigning institutions around dominant economic interests. City mayors are expected to speak and act not just for their core cities but for the wider city-region, for areas that had no say in electing them. It’s an idea that may well appeal to the chamber of commerce. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with democratic accountability. Lord Heseltine (remember him?), interviewed on BBC Radio 4 last month, suggested that Newcastle needs an elected mayor to compete with Alex Salmond. Bristol presumably needs one to meet the challenge from Wales. It’s astonishingly easy to get away with such completely fatuous comparisons. Salmond is not the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Provincial cities in England need provincial parliaments, reflecting their true strength, drawn from their hinterlands. Elected mayors fall short both in terms of powers and in terms of the territory they can lawfully control. But in their obsessive desire to exorcise the spirit of regionalism, the Coalition are happy to disenfranchise the whole of the rural English electorate. For some, that’s a necessary first step towards reorganising local government on city-regional lines, in an unholy alliance between city hall and Whitehall to spike the case for provincial parliaments. It seems that wiser counsel is being largely sidelined. One of the sharpest critiques happens to have come from the South West Communists. (The Communists? Championing localism? Well, stranger things have happened.)

If Bristol votes for a directly elected mayor, the first will be elected on 15th November. There will be elections that day whatever happens, because that’s the day we all go to the polls to elect our Police and Crime Commissioner. Well, maybe not all of us. Turnout is hardly going to break records. At least, not at the top end of the spectrum.

Where did it come from? Is there some decree from the U.S. State Department that all our local institutions have to be remodelled on American lines? If so, we await with interest the introduction of a federal constitution. But why, oh why, the change? Why get rid of local police authorities, made up of a range of councillors who know their widely differing areas and can speak with deep local knowledge of the problems they face? Why replace them with a celebrity from nowhere? The idea has been sloshing around Tory think-tanks for years. Oliver Letwin was promoting it in Iain Duncan Smith’s day. But not one credible argument has emerged as to why it would be a good thing. The best that Letwin can come up with is that a mechanism is needed to enable the current micromanagement of policing by the Home Office to be removed. So just do it?

What passes for our democracy is being hollowed out as fewer and fewer opportunities for effective involvement in the political life of our communities are allowed to remain in place. More and more decisions are being made without even the legal possibility of immediate scrutiny and direct challenge.

Passing power from collective to individual hands is a proven way to tighten central control. Bullying one high-profile personality is a lot easier than bullying 50 councillors, some of whom will assuredly be too bloody-minded to be bullied by anyone. Start with a ‘voluntary code of conduct’ for mayors and commissioners. Then make it statutory. Require them to comply with ministerial directions on how to carry out their tasks. Force them to get their plans and programmes signed off by the minister, ‘to ensure better co-ordination’. And when, at last, elected mayors and commissioners come to be replaced by appointed ones, ‘in the national interest, but still fully accountable through Parliament’, claim that no-one will notice the slightest practical difference.

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