Lord Deben – the former Tory MP John Selwyn Gummer – wrote approvingly this week of the Coalition’s decentralist agenda:
“People who feel that they cannot influence big decisions in a globalised world are adamant that they should control the space around them. It doesn’t help to call it nimby. It is more ‘ideah’ – I Decide the Environment Around Here.”
Gummer’s analysis is incisive and perhaps over-revealing about the cards in his hand. For it confirms the moral poverty of the political consensus. Let local people fight each other over the crumbs. While the loaf disappears over the horizon.
Cameron’s Big (Global) Society takes up where Thatcher’s Big (Global) Economy left off. She was swept to power by an anti-statist backlash after Labour had, as always, abused the trust placed in it and swerved off in the direction of totalitarianism. For her, devolution was not about re-arranging tiers of government but about returning power to individuals to look after themselves. Cameron is not so crude, because his task is to transcend the limits Thatcher imposed on her own project. His attack is not on the principle of collective provision but on the inability of finance capital to benefit sufficiently from it. ‘Public service reform’ is about siphoning-off money that could have been spent on services and tying those services up in long-term contracts that prevent dynamic democratic accountability. Outsourcing deprives democracy of its lifeblood – information – because private contractors are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Armchair slashers of public services have asked – and it is a fair question – why the Coalition has chosen to ring-fence spending on health and overseas aid and not other areas. Most commentators – Thatcher’s children as so many now are – have failed completely to question the ideological ring-fencing that is also going on. Cameron and Clegg may want a smaller State but that does not mean they want a weaker State. The Big Society is their means to make the strings less obvious but in reality they will be micro-managing with the same fanaticism as Blair and Brown. Targets and controls are giving way to incentives and call-ins. Power ring-fenced in this way is power undevolved. Ring-fenced too is the whole issue of stratospheric levels of private wealth. Looking at a Cabinet with 18 millionaires among its 23 full-time members, Karl Marx’s judgement, that the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, acquires a remarkably contemporary resonance. (That figure of 18, by the way, is only 8 higher than Labour’s last Cabinet.)
State finances are in a mess. It’s the recession, stupid. So, allow us to sell off at rock-bottom prices what generations of taxpayers have accumulated. But sell to whom? If there are people with the money to buy public assets then these are people for whom there is no economic crisis but only economic opportunity. It’s about time it was pointed out, every time we’re told that ‘we’re all in this together’, that this is a feeding frenzy for financiers and nothing more.
When the Wessex Regionalist Party began work, three decades ago, there were many fruitful discussions about the characteristics of different public services, and whether each was more appropriately run at local, regional, national or international level. There was a feeling that really worthwhile change would come about if the maze of different regional bodies – with overlapping boundaries – that provided electricity, gas, health, transport, water and other vital requirements could be rationalised and for the first time made democratically accountable to an elected regional authority for Wessex. For an older generation of radicals, this was gas-and-water socialism with a vengeance. It made perfect sense. Regional rationalisation would reduce costs directly, while introducing joined-up thinking about the region’s needs and how best to meet them. Regional democratisation would free-up the choked corridors of power in London, reducing the more hidden costs of an over-centralised structure. Moreover, it would re-instate that accountability to people on the spot that was lost when nationalisation swept up the fruits of municipal enterprise and threw them to arms-length boards with managements accountable to no-one but themselves.
Today, post-Thatcher, such a view may seem hopelessly nostalgic. Among parties with elected representatives, it is perhaps only the British National Party that still clings to it. Its 2007 local government manifesto called for the creation of a new tier “for the region, representing historic regions such as Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia”, which “would have symbolic importance, but only a small set of responsibilities which are most sensibly done at this level. These organic/historic regions would have nothing in common with the Euro Regions which are based on uniform population areas, not areas with a natural cohesive affinity. Typical regional responsibilities would be: tourism; utility provision (water, gas and electricity – even if these are privatised they would have to operate regional structures and be accountable to the regional assembly); certain transport responsibilities – trunk roads, railways, canals.”
The purpose of including this quote is not to endorse the BNP, or the far Right generally. The fact that such regional councils would function within a State capable of taking centralist diktat to new heights is revolting enough, before even venturing into the realms of BNP social policy. The purpose of including this quote is to pose the question: where is the Left’s response?
New Labour sold out, literally in many cases as it drove onwards the Thatcherite agenda of choice for the rich and powerlessness for the poor. Hopes that regionalisation might herald the rebirth of the public sector were dashed. A catastrophic failure of imagination saw meaningless names and boundaries imposed with a ministerial arrogance that provoked a ferocious reaction. The centralist machine hoarded its treasure, leaving regions nothing to do but steal the powers of local government. It was all so predictable. Nothing had been learnt beforehand and nothing will be learnt now.
In the 1990s, Wessex Regionalism acquired a strong strand of radical decentralism. Our philosophy is no longer content to file services at the appropriate level but is rather to insist that sovereignty rests with the parish. Anything more is voluntary and subject to the inalienable right of veto. Wider tiers are there to act as servants, not masters, of the parish community, with the pyramid of power finally turned the right way up. If, in consequence of this emphasis, Wessex and regionalism have seemed to some to have receded into the background then this was not intentional. It has been necessary to distance ourselves from the mis-application of our ideals by others. Regionalisation is not regionalism if conducted for the centre’s benefit. Coalition criticisms of the Prescott project now being so thoroughly erased from the administrative landscape are overwhelmingly justified. Our criticism is that there ought to be more to the debate than whether it is local or regional institutions that provide the better means for the centre to control events.
Coupled with this there has to be a re-appraisal of economic as well as political devolution. As taxpayers, we surely expect our representatives to be more than over-paid doormats for global financiers and industrialists. We surely expect them to do something for us, without the sharp-suited middlemen taking their cut. Wessex has to stand up for itself, rejecting equally Whitehall-knows-best and the zombie economics of ‘what the capital markets demand’. As our economy has grown in absolute terms, so it has also grown relative to so much else in life, so that what was once beyond economics is now given over to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The end of cheap oil will force us to think again soon enough, requiring the re-localisation of our political, economic, social and cultural life in ways that challenge the unthinking belief that money is all. That will mean too a genuine role for genuine regions in protecting a quality of life so painfully re-assembled. Not gas-and-water socialism perhaps, but maybe its grandchild, community control over the sustainable infrastructure – energy, transport, communications, ecology – that we need to start planning for right here and now.