If I ruled the world, I’d try to recognise my limitations and deal with the local—my family, my community, my local council, my country. I’d hope that by doing so I would inspire others to do the same, and so help construct a more rational world.
Robin Cook described Britain in 1994, as “the most centralised state in Europe.” Nothing much has changed since, despite Scottish and Welsh devolution. I recently travelled to Rome sitting next to an MP who talked to me about his constituency workload. When we dissected his responsibilities, he agreed that local councillors should be dealing with over 80 per cent of what he is doing.
Why are those councillors fuelling MPs’ postbags with issues that should have been resolved at the local level? It is largely because they are powerless, poorly paid (if at all), and almost invariably have a mandate of often well under 30 per cent of those eligible to vote. They are, in any case, subject to the whims and wills of central government and can do little or nothing to resist. Neither they nor we wield much influence on our local lives.
I would change this by giving local government the capacity to raise revenue in taxes. The current level of council tax is centrally influenced and capped. It represents little more than 20 per cent of local authority needs. Local taxation raises the awareness of the taxpayer to local expenditure. If voters felt they had the power of local influence, would they not become more politically engaged? Doesn’t the capitalist system tell us that money is power? The central provision of health, education, and security seems to leave political control feeling remote, incapable of responding to local need and demand.
In my new localised world, beyond defence, foreign affairs, and strategic economic planning, national government would be about handing power back to the people. Organic, bottom-up reform would deliver local leaders and town halls with real influence. The United Kingdom would thus become the sum of its parts, rather than the current disempowered parts of it sum. As the experiences of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution indicate, dispersing power from the centre works.
This is a model that would work internationally. If we continue to ignore the power and importance of the local, we shall inherit a very dysfunctional global community. I would toil to concentrate the European Union on its original concept—a Europe of the regions. History speaks well of Catalonia, Bavaria, our own Highlands and Islands regions and Devon and Cornwall. These are regions that have profited from European economic development, but they are also the spheres in which political association is made possible. This is not about the Big Society; this is a rediscovery of the Small Society, the community, and the extended family—humankind’s most natural organic existence.
For myself, in my present locality, where I do not rule, I live, work, and nurture the NGO that I chair in one London borough. But my dealings with local power, such as it is, are limited, and almost all such dealings are driven from the centre. At home, my council tax is essentially centrally ordained. I have never been offered the chance to affect how money is spent in my local neighbourhood. The project for the homeless I chair has warm relations with local power, but the money we receive is largely centrally dictated and directed, even if delivered by local officials. Many of them yearn to change to the rules, but those rules flow from Whitehall. Our project works with young homeless people. We provide “day support” that is accepted by our local council as vitally needed, but Whitehall’s funding is only interested in the hostels to house them.
The school where I was a governor, and where my children were taught, has been largely purged of either local regulation on funding—the ministry is God. And my doctors’ surgery, and the hospitals it feeds, are governed from the centre. The individual doctors guarantee its brilliance in spite of the burgeoning bureaucratic burden flowing from the centre.
If I ruled the world I might have to keep going back to the drawing board, but at least I’d be sharing power and engagement with the people I live amongst. I might even find myself having to talk to the neighbours about what we could do together to manage and improve our lives.