Or maybe ‘Ozzy, Wheezy’. What is the sound of one hand clapping? George Osborne ought to know, following his announcement this week that business rates will be ‘devolved’ to local councils, along with the one-directional power to lower them. Osborne’s understanding of devolution is that it’s that degree of autonomy that allows others to take the same decisions as the London regime would take anyway, given the opportunity. And nothing more. Devolution in an era of spending cuts is in effect an invitation to self-mutilation if associated radical changes are all ruled out. Labour, of course, are happy to do what it takes to preserve their hereditary power. And will surely agree that local government shouldn’t be allowed to have policies that central government disagrees with.
Osborne described the move as “the biggest transfer of power to our local government in living memory”. So it is, for those whose memory extends no further back than 1990, when the Thatcher government, as part of its poll tax legislation, nationalised business rates, before which they had been set locally for centuries. For Thatcher, this counter-revolution against democracy was entirely justified, to prevent representatives elected locally raising the money locally to do locally what they’d been elected to do. To say that hard-Left Labour councils weren’t as democratic as they claimed to be was a fair point, but one that could easily have been corrected by moving to proportional representation. Now that would have been a radical change. One that would have permanently denied the Tories a majority at Westminster level too.
Not that the Tories have ever been that keen on local democracy, given that collective decision-making is prima facie socialist. But just fine if it involves awarding public sector contracts to national or global business chains with no long-term commitment to the area. When council services do fail, the answer should be to let elections sort things out, as we do when promises made nationally are broken. Not for the Tories, who’d rather undermine, then seize and privatise. Very localist that. With that kind of encouragement, don’t be at all surprised if the calibre of local councillors isn’t what it was.
There’s a theme developing. Labour offered ‘regionalism’ that was nothing of the sort. The Tories offered ‘localism’ that was nothing of the sort. And now we have ‘devolution’. Which is…? Well, usually understood as involving directly elected national or regional assemblies, able to take over whole swaths of Whitehall power, leaving most of Osborne’s Cabinet colleagues redundant. Not the creation of a condition of national amnesia in which the return of recently stolen powers, with strings attached, can be hailed as ground-breaking generosity. That’s quite some conjuring trick and the sad fact is that so many supposedly intelligent and well-read folk will fall for it. The proof of that is that they continue to vote for the London parties that all offer only marginally different versions of the same sleight of hand.
The law of the political jungle being to define or be defined, it’s only natural that the London regime should wish to colonise the language of its enemies. Words like ‘regionalism’ and ‘localism’ can be chewed up and spat out, but only if we deferentially accept the regime’s right to define them for us.
When John Prescott made a mess of regionalism, there were those urging us to find new conceptual ground, untainted by failure. ‘Provincialism’, perhaps, or maybe ‘areaism’. It’s an easy thing to do and the wrong thing. Those who retreat in the face of adversity show only their unfitness for public office. Those who see only a debate about the internal administrative nomenclature of England don’t see that the Europe of regions is about bigger issues in an unstable world. (‘Provincialism’ doesn’t work in that context, where provinces are the county-sized units into which Belgian, Italian and Spanish regions are sub-divided.) Those who think that a little local set-back in the North East referendum of 2004 marks the end of the road don’t see the historical timescale over which devolutionary issues unfold, and have always unfolded. Generations come and go but the battle over power’s location continues.
So when Osborne attempts to present his nannying of local democracy as a ‘devolution revolution’ we don’t just have the right to say ‘hands off a word that means much more than you can imagine’. We have the duty to do so too. The current issue of Plaid Cymru’s magazine, The Welsh Nation, describes Welsh political life today as ‘post-nationalist’. Did we miss something? Enough of this nonsense! Let’s not vote for parties who don’t know what they stand for and therefore can’t be trusted to stick to it. Let’s leave the conjuring tricks to the Blairites and supplant a dishonest past that’s over-run its allotted hour.