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Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Unravelling Thatcher

The stand-off in Erith and Thamesmead between the 279 constituency Labour Party members and the powerful grandees of the central party over their attempt to instruct the locals to accept the 22 year-old Honourable Georgina Gould (for such we must call her, as the daughter of a life peer) as their candidate for the next election is a distant ripple from the Thatcher era.

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.


TheFatBigot said...

I remember the emaciation of local authority powers and I remember why it happened. No doubt you do too.

The Militant Tendency (there's a fine blast from the past) was not just a group of dippy morons, it campaigned vigorously to gain power in councils because it knew few people voted so a hundred or so voters could allow them to take control of a ward and a few wards could give them a serious influence overall.

We must never forget the GLC election resulting in Ken taking command. Whenever asked during the campaign about his intentions he professed loyalty to Mr McIntosh, only to oust him the day after Labour won a majority on the council and start his reign of terror.

It is a brave central government that will devolve power against that background.

Of course things change with time. The times of the day justified Mrs T's emaciation of local councils. I also believe that it is now appropriate to go back to something closer to the old ways, but it is not a course of action free of peril.

Nick Drew said...

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 timenot quite, R: as discussed before, it was Callaghan's 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act that was the start of it

but, consistent with what you say, she didn't repeal it, despite the pleadings of Tory councillors and Chairs of Housing Committees (such as myself) as we saw the inevitable consequences unfold

Anonymous said...

The corpulent one has it right.

Mrs. Thatcher's centralisation was a bad thing, I agree, but it was undertaken for the good and necessary reason of reining in "Loony Left" councils who would otherwise have found ways to frustrate her purposes.

And her purposes, let us not forget, were the necessary changes that enabled the country to continue to function as a modern economy. If she had failed, for any reason, our case would have been too desperate to contemplate.

And btw, it's just a quibble, but Miss Gould does not earn an "Honourable" - that only comes to the children of real Lords - Earls and above, iirc.

Raedwald said...

Nick -

Yes, the '77 Act gave housing authorities a duty to secure permanent accommodation for unintentionally homeless people who had a local connection in the district and who were in priority need.

But as you say, this was consolidated and widened in the 1985 Housing Act and 1986 Housing and Planning Act when it could have been reformed.

A short-lived and partial reversal in 1996 was itself reversed by Blair's government.

Raedwald said...

Anon -

The law of unintended consequences is perhaps the most constant law of politics. In the longer term the loonier councils would have withered and died as their electors kicked them out of office, but as she didn't know she was going to be in power for a decade she went for the short term solution - legislation and central control.

BTW my Debrett's Etiquette confirms 'Hon' for sons & daughters of life peers - I also remember one of the Archer sprogs asking to be so addressed some years ago.