Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Power of the State

It gives me no pleasure to see the way in which the role of local government has changed since the 1970s. The centralising tendency of the State, under both Tory and Labour governments, has robbed local government of much of the autonomy it once enjoyed, and has turned it into little more than an outreach arm of the Central State. It has lost the confidence of local populations; councils are lucky if one in five local electors can be arsed to vote in local elections. Local parties are dying, their memberships elderly and moribund. Some can't even find enough members to stand as councillors. The LGA 2000, which restricted local government executive power to no more than 10 councillors, has effectively disenfranchised the bulk of local councillors. Small wonder then that council officers look directly to the DCLG for direction and leadership.

It is Whitehall, not the Town Halls, that determines what range and level of services a council will provide. It is Whitehall, not the Town Halls, that determines what elements of the policing of the Central State will be carried out by local police forces, what will be carried out by these outreach arms of government and what will be carried out by national policing agencies such as HMRC. With weasel words we can disguise the policing as 'enforcement' but at least on the forums let's be honest and call it policing.

And because local policy is set by Whitehall, and to meet short term political targets, local long term priorities are swept away. So local parks and roads degenerate from want of maintenance, putrescent waste rots in bins that await a fortnightly collection, and street paving and lighting degrade slowly into that state that prompted the birth of modern local government in the 19th century, when town councils sought legislative power to pave and light their streets for the first time.

In place of these core local functions, the policing functions of the Central State take priority; local councils monitor hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras, issue millions of parking tickets that even the chairman of the LGA admits have everything to do with raising revenue and nothing to do with easing congestion, licence everything from tattoo parlours and barbers shops to bouncers, and such is the zeal with which they implement the policing of the joyless Central State, have destroyed the benison of a few musicians playing in our deserted pubs and crumbling clubs.

The State school system has failed, and is in a terminal state of decline. The local education authorities do no more than implement the bankrupt panacea of central State control. So when parents seek to use the system to ensure the best chances for their children in the few decent schools that have managed to survive, the most illiberal and draconian local policing is brought into play to ensure that the sharp elbows of the articulate middle classes give them no advantage over the uncaring single mums from the sink estates.

And are we a better, happier society for all this? Are we horsefeathers. Once the nine-to-five council police have disappeared, leaving only a few dedicated souls to follow milk floats in the dawn hours, or chase underage paper boys, the bullied populace retreats behind its doors and sedes control of streets and communities no longer theirs to louts and thugs.

And no one stands up to shout that the King has no clothes on. No one protests that the emasculation of local government has robbed them of control over their lives, their families and their communities. No one points out that Central Statism just doesn't work, it makes things worse, that Whitehall micro-management that determines exactly how many pieces of litter may accumulate on a 100m stretch of street doesn't give us communities that we feel we have a stake in any more.

Council numpties will always be happy to don their sunglasses and stake out some take away food shop they suspect is putting his waste cardboard in the local recycling bins; it's the natural instinct for those on the lowest and most powerless rungs of State bureaucracy to magnify their pettifogging 'powers' to their most pathetically laughable extent.

But the whole thing is desperately sad, a dreadful indictment of the failure of national policy over the past 40 years that has robbed families, local institutions and local communities of authority and maximised the power and reach of the Central State.

The American conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote "The war between the family and the State is very old; when the authority of one is weak, the authority of the other is generally strong". That black rogue Rousseau was so jealous of the countervailing authority of the family that he wanted to remove all children from their natural fathers to better claim them for the State. In Zanu Labour we have central Statists par excellence - every little bit of policy is designed to facilitate a direct relationship between the State and the individual, with all intervening institutions neutered and powerless.

They've certainly done a damn good job with local government.

3 comments:

yokel said...

It may be possible to understand why all this is happening, from the viewpoint of your article.

And because local policy is set by Whitehall, and to meet short term political targets, local long term priorities are swept away. Thus the local council is impotent.

But why are Whitehall behaving like this? Later in your piece you say: it's the natural instinct for those on the lowest and most powerless rungs of State bureaucracy to magnify their pettifogging 'powers' to their most pathetically laughable extent.

But isn't that what has happened to Whitehall? They have given away most responsibilities, duties and powers to the National Government in Brussels (at the Berlaymont Building). At least 70% of all our law now comes from our National Government. The only real powers left to the Provincial Government in Westminster is to micro-manage the local authorities. And it knows that they will soon (I'll open a book on 2010) be "devolved" to the Regional Governments (such as that of Red Ken - London is a Region within the meaning of the EU, which explains why he has a foreign policy, but I digress). So the Provincial Government might as well do as much (damage) as it can, while it can.

Guthrum said...

Whilst I agree with much of what yokel is saying, the rot set in under the Thatcher administration, the dear Lady neutered any power base that opposed her revolution, that is why nobody should expect anything different from the three main parties that are wedded to the State and Super State.

yokel said...

Guthrum, I'd suggest that it started as soon as there was any of this "pooling of sovereignty" nonsense. Which must mean at least as far back as Edward Heath, and his lies about the the EEC. It has only come to the fore because so much power has drained away to Berlaymont, leaving the Provincial Government machine with so much spare time on its hands. And who makes work for those with idle hands?

But because the three main parties are the big ones, it will need a great supply of clothes pegs to enable the others to work together to do anything except submit. We must now be working on a loose electoral alliance between all the small parties.