The year 1979 was indeed a watershed in British politics. Thatcher began a process of ruthless centralisation that lost the Conservative Party over a million members and robbed local government of everything they had fought for since the mid nineteenth century. The disempowering of local party associations and control by central office has made the parachuting-in of apparatchik blow-ins such as Ms Gould by both main parties the norm rather than the exception. Thatcher's centralism also provided the perfect platform for the growth of Labour's Leviathan State; had local government retained the powers it had before 1979, the effects of Brown's mismanagement of the public sector would now be much reduced.
Whether the good of her economic and labour reforms outweighs the bad of her central Statism remains to be seen; and don't forget that needs-based letting and the duty-to-house which has created ghettoes of squalor, crime, idleness, ignorance and illness in our large council estates was a Thatcher creation. Against all the advice and urging of Conservative councils at the time.
As Thatcherphile readers now retreat with a box of tissues in dismay to watch à la Richard Timney their endless replays of the 1979 election, unravelling the effects of Thatcher's and later Brown's neutering of local government is quietly being undertaken both inside and outside Parliament.
The Communities and Local Government select committee have since July last year been looking at the relationship between central and local government. Now at oral evidence stage, Hazel Blears' recent transcript proves the truth of previous expert evidence; that Brown's government is deeply committed to ruthless central control whilst mendaciously throwing meaningless sops to localists within their own party. As the LSE's Prof. George Jones said in diplomatic language to the committee:
It depends on what view you have of the proper role of central government and its relationship with local government. What has been happening for the last 30 or so years is that increasingly the central government has seen local authorities as their executive agents, no different from other parts of the central government departments. They are there to carry out the wishes of central government departments in particular services. They are very service oriented whereas local government must be valued as providing opportunities for local people to govern themselves, to shape the development of their own local communities and not just to be executive agents of central government. This is the choice that has to be made: do you want to go in the centralist direction or the localist direction? The government has been fudging, in its rhetoric, by speaking out for decentralisation to local government and to communities and people, but the reality, despite the reduction in certain targets and indicators, is that it is still dominated by the desire to control what local authorities are doing.These arguments are no mere ideological nit-picking; the future of core services such as health and education are utterly dependent on the outcome of this debate. The excesses of Labour's Leviathan State have failed to secure meaningful service improvements and the whole country knows it. The State must be shrunk, and the nation realises this also. The failure of central Statism is manifest. Only a root and branch devolution of control to the lowest level at which services can be designed and managed has a hope of squaring this circle.