Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Looking to Switzerland

The Swiss know how Localism works;
Long ago, the Swiss understood that most things government needs to do and constructively does are at the local level. So, unlike in most modern nation-states, local government has the bulk of the resources and activities, while the central government remains relatively small and less important in the daily lives of the people. In the U.S., roughly two-thirds of government is at the federal level, and one third is at the state and local level. Switzerland is just the opposite, with roughly two-thirds of government being at the state (canton) and local level.
Indeed, in overall state expenditure in Switzerland, the Communes, the lowest level of government, account for 30% of autonomous expenditure, whilst the Cantons have 40% and the Swiss State only commands 30% of total spend. Nor is this just a sharing of a State-determined tax pot; the Communes have the competence to determine property and income taxes, which account for fully a third of the total national tax-take, a power which makes them an equal player with both the State and the Cantons. In the UK the position is centralist beyond belief; only Council Tax, at about £25bn annually, is levied and collected locally. The remaining 95% of taxes are determined and collected centrally, and given that local councils are prevented by law from setting the Council Tax they want, rather than the level set by Whitehall, it's also true to say that 100% of UK taxes are determined centrally.

There is no fixed model either for the size of the Communes, or for the relationship of the Communes to the Cantons; again, such things are left to be determined locally, and thus Swiss government is the most delightful 'postcode lottery' of diversity, with administrative arrangements tailored to suit local circumstances rather than determined by rigid central diktat. In Switzerland there is an average of one lowest tier authority for each 2,700 of the population, with each Commune having real autonomy. By contrast, the UK has one lowest tier 'authority' for every 118,400 of us, with each ruled rigidly from Whitehall and with virtually no local autonomy.

Switzerland isn't alone in terms of democratic access; France has one municipality for every 1,580 persons, and Germany one for every 4,925. My examplar US town of Vail is also pretty typical of democratic access in the US, with one municipality for every 7,000 persons.

There are those who talk of a democratic deficit in the UK as though it were a minor political imbalance. In fact it's off the scale. It's not hyperbole to say that our system of government in the UK has more in common with a South American dictatorship than with a European social democracy - UK government is stuck firmly in a wartime model of central command and control, and our mandarins and metropolitan political class would rather push hot needles into their own eyeballs than surrender a nanogram of power back to us.

My disappointment in Dave's public services white paper is even shared by 'Reform', the mildest and least adventurous advocate of true Localism, and that's a damning loss. And those who suffer are children cheated of an education and the ill cheated of healthcare; you may be astonished to discover that Switzerland has universal healthcare funded by compulsory health insurance and a universal education system funded from taxation, that both are superlative and operate at a fraction of the cost of their UK counterparts. The difference is Whitehall. We've got it, Switzerland hasn't. And Whitehall is directly responsible for generations of illiterate school leavers and inadequate health care - simply because they can't let go. 

We really need to decide as a nation whether, when the cost of the inefficient Central State in human lives and potentials is so high, we are brave enough to embrace the solution.  

12 comments:

Ex-Pat Alfie said...

Sadly, the only real option is jump ship.

Greg Tingey said...

There IS a problem (or two parts of the same problem) with localism ...
Corruption, and entrenched petty jobsworths.

Read Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" section.
Wasn't some female from Suffolk CC shuffled off recently, having, erm, trousered large sums from us?

How do you avoid this sort of thing?

Raedwald said...

Greg - that's the reason Whitehall uses, i.e. that people can't be trusted.

The reality is that the smaller the lowest democratic unit is, and the closer to the taxpayer, the greater the transparency and accountability. Small communes just don't give either the troughers or the prodnoses the opportunity to flourish.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"We really need to decide as a nation..."

Oh, I think we're decided all right.

But the very problem you describe prevents us putting our decision, or any other decision we might make, into operation.

A recursive issue!

Liberista said...

the secret of switzerland success is not only localism, but mostly competition. cantons and cities (gemeinden) are in competition to attract people. object of competition are the services offered, the taxes, the schools, and so on. if your family has a decent income, you can even strike a tax deal with a gemeinde and you can move there.
even breaking up a country in a million smaller units wont solve the problem as long as taxes and services are "harmonized".
unfortunately even in switzerland the federal government is hell bent into "harmonizing" canton laws, and small power grab by small power grab, is slowly taking over more and more power.
another secret of success of switzerland, in my view, is the widespread presence of assault rifles. the rulers in switzwerland are still afraid of the people and respect them.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1568607.stm
unfortunately also in this federal government, together with cantonal polices, is hard at work trying to disarm the population.
another secret of switzerland is stability. we dont have crazy changes of laws every fortnight. here a train timetable change makes the news.
surely, switzerland is for many things an example to look at, and imitate.

Liberista said...

the hope however that UK (or any other european nation) government will suddenly wise up is wishful thinking. in a place where entitlement recipients are majority, you cannot expect anything else than several socialist, statist, EUcentric parties with different labels. the only hope for productive people is to move out, or to secede.

Liberista said...

and at the risk of being pedantic, is not that "Long ago, the Swiss understood that most things government needs to do and constructively does are at the local level."
a quick look at how switzerland was founded will show how things happened. from swissworld.org:
"The year 1291 is traditionally regarded as the foundation of the Swiss Confederation, when three rural communities made an alliance to protect their freedoms against encroachments by would-be overlords."
the swiss federal state appeared only in 1848. switzwerland was born "localised", it was not a political choice.

English Pensioner said...

I consider that the United States is now a far more democratic country than Britain. They have locally elected officials such as Police Chiefs, the individual States have more independence from central government than Britain has from the EU. All senior government appointments have to be confirmed by the Senate. Their Senators & Representatives are more interested in properly representing their states and communities than they are in toeing the party line and contrary to popular belief their President isn't all powerful as demonstrated by the current impasse on the US debt. Most Americans are more concerned about their State Governor as he is likely to have more effect on their lives than the White House.
I'm all for the US system!

Liberista said...

as Tyler durden said, Today’s democracy is nothing more that pseudo-authoritarian rule by an elite few, executed by legions of self-deluding freeloaders who have convinced themselves that their current bureaucratic roles are both necessary and honorable… as well as a stepping stone into the next job which will be even more necessary and honorable.

or as an anonymous said:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

democracy has failed and this should be self evident. hoping that it can fix itself is delusional to say the least.

Ed P said...

It would be very wrong to advocate "the Norwegian solution", but if Whitehall were to be demolished entirely, the UK would be much better off. Undoubtedly the Civil Service parasites will not relinquish power without a fight.

Greg Tingey said...

It isn't just coruption, and of course, corruption is ALSO rampant at "higher" levels as well (think Murdoch and Maxwell).
There's also petty local vindictiveness and spite. Wasn't there a recent example of this in Cardigan or Pembroke, where a woman was corruptly arrested for taking pictures of a council meeting?

right_writes said...

My two penneth…

Switzerland's localism is all about jaw-jaw rather than war-war (as some bloke once said)… The tribes that inhabited those mountains had been fighting amongst themselves for centuries… A bit like in the Balkans… But I believe that the first move was a decision by two warlords to build a (real) bridge between two mountains… They could charge pilgrims, merchants etc. for crossing the bridge and make some dosh… Better than fighting.

The rest of the world could learn an awful lot from that concept.

As it has evolved and matured over the past 8 or 900 years, many lessons have been learned and we could just nick them…

God… even the EU would work if it was organised like Switzerland!

I remember reading about an incident a few years back… The Swiss president was attending a meeting with the EU (it might have had something to do with Schengen), and the usual suspects… Kinnock, Santer and the rest could not believe it when this prez turned up in his "own car!" which he was driving himself…

When he got out some bloke ran up to him and started yelling at him and waving his hands, and the prez stopped to have a word with him…

The EU mob asked him what that was all about??? He just said, oh that was some bloke that thinks I shouldn't be here talking to you lot.

Oh, and guess what? There is ONE political party in the UK that has always had the Swiss democratic system (which guarantees localism), and that is the UKIP.

Here:

http://www.ukip.org/content/ukip-policies/1454-the-constitution-ukip-policy

"· Introduce ‘Direct Democracy’ whereby 5% of the national or local electorate can demand a binding referendum on any issue. At national level, people will have to sign up for the referendum within six months, at local level, within three months."