2 February 2023
Defining the mission.
By John Watson
As we gradually move towards the next general election, the Labour Party is keeping its cards fairly close to its chest. And very sensible too. Good ideas too early disclosed can be stolen by the party in office. Publishing less good ideas – for example those not fully thought through – simply provides the Tories with targets. In any case the day which matters is polling day and it is then that the opposition’s role as a policy making machine must peak. Any sportsman will tell you that the important thing is to peak on the day and not too early.
Still, despite its understandable reticence about saying too much, the party has to begin to push out broad ideas for discussion and the publication by the Commission on the U.K.’s Future of the paper “Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy” published in December has to be seen as part of that process. As you would expect of any commission headed by Gordon Brown, its report is a weighty one; the main theme is the pushing of decision-making from the centre out to the regions. Its reasoning is attractive. Everywhere there is potential waiting to be tapped but the focus on London and the South-East means that much of it is unused. Half the population lives in areas where living standards are no higher than those in Eastern Europe. Decision-making is overcentralised and carried out by officials too far removed from local circumstances. The country is not “ in it together” and local enterprise is strangled. It is unfair, certainly, but, even more to the point, what a waste.
Beginning, as it does, from that analysis it will come as no surprise that the recommendations are strongly in favour of devolving power to local government so that it can itself drive local enterprise rather than merely working as a delivery agent for central initiatives. By doing that the authors of the report hope to restart the economy in a way which would create prosperity and opportunity for all, would rebuild trust in politics and would unite the country as the regions deal with each other as equals. It is heady stuff and at times quite visionary too, pointing to potential clusters of excellence and identifying five drivers essential to their success: private and public financing for research and development; availability of capital to back growing businesses; the necessary transport and communications links; highly educated and skilled workforce; and the encouragement of new business through public sector procurement, tax policy and facilitating exports. The thrust of the report is that to deliver these advantages we need more local decision-making or in the words of the second recommendation:
“The common desire for more local control should be reflected in a legal requirement to require decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practicably possible to the people affected by them, so putting power and opportunity closer to each citizen”
There are other conclusions of course: that the UK should have some form of mission statement setting out its political, social and economic purpose; that there should be a constitutional obligation to spread investment across the country; that the minimum rights of individuals should be guaranteed; that the House of Lords be replaced by a different sort of chamber; that the civil service be reformed and decentralised; that the funding of local government be made more stable; that assistance be given to local authorities seeking to introduce private legislation; that where possible decision-making be passed on below the local authority level under a system of “double devolution” et cetera, et cetera. There is material here for any amount of political debate but in this article we will focus on the general idea which is to push decision-making out to the provinces and ask the difficult question of what you do if they begin to charge off in unexpected and undesirable directions.
This issue does not just affect the relationship between government and local government in the UK but exists wherever one has separate tiers of authority. In the case of the EU, the Treaty of Maastricht specifically emphasised the principle of subsidiarity- ie that:
“the EU does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive jurisdiction), unless it is more effective than action taken at the national, regional or local level.”
That is precisely the model which the Commission is advocating in the recommendation set out above. Yet how did it work with the EU? Did the UK feel that the centre only exercised power to the extent that that worked better than leaving it to locals. It would seem not. Brussels was seen to be using its institutions, and particularly the European Court of Justice, to centralise power unnecessarily to the extent that the UK decided to leave. If the principles of subsidiarity had really triumphed over a desire to promote uniformity we would still be a member but alas it didn’t work like that (and, if you think it did, look at the unnecessary destruction of the U.K.’s imputation system of taxation with huge amounts being paid to multinationals at a time when the country could not afford it under cases such as Metallgesellschaft). It was the fact that Brussels did not live up to the generosity of the subsidiarity principle which did the mischief.
Take another example. By an unscrupulous piece of entryism the far-left obtained control of the GLC in 1981. How did they use it? To improve the lot of Londoners? Well, yes, to a point; they reinvigorated public transport through a low fares policy, but their main energies went into their opposition to Mrs Thatcher’s government and particularly its economic policies and its policies relating to Ireland. Readers will differ on whether the policies so opposed were wise or not but it was hardly a matter for the GLC. The abolition of the GLC was a consequence of the failure to deliver subsidiarity – in this case because of the local authority exceeding its remit.
Let’s try again with local traffic restrictions where, at least in Islington, the consultation process has given rise to enormous amounts of ill feeling. Here it would probably be better if some of the decisions were made further up the chain to reduce the level of factionalism. Some matters are just too serious to be left to the locals!
There are three examples and no doubt you can think of more. How under the increased delegation proposed by the Report will a proper balance be kept between central government and the local government to which power is delegated? What happens when a particular faction dominates an area. Suppose a town becomes dominated by a particular religious sect? Suppose its council is in the pocket of a firm of property developers? Does central government interfere or does it shrug its shoulders and say that this is a devolved area.
Perhaps the decision is easy when the local policy affects outsiders – though it seems likely that the forthcoming litigation over gender recognition in Scotland will be far from straightforward – but what where the decisions are merely foolish? It is not so long ago, after all, that certain London boroughs lost large sums of money through deals in the financial markets which were well beyond their competence and only recently Islington set up an energy company which inevitably failed. How is this sort of behaviour to be restricted?
The Report has of course an answer.
“Whitehall and Westminster must be more open, adaptable and transparent in the way they work and ready to work with the nations, cities and towns of the UK.”
This would be cemented by a “Solidarity Clause”, that is to say a legal obligation of cooperation between the different levels of government and institutions across the UK, backed by a series of committees. No doubt that could all be made to work where all parties were trying to find the best way forward but what if that is not the case. The conflicts within the European Union and Islington Council could perhaps have been cured by a careful definition of the powers being retained or devolved but what about the behaviour of the GLC. No dry rules will work to protect a system where the devolved authority is motivated by extreme politics or cultural or racial agendas.
Perhaps then we should ask a question which is not posed in the Report. How does one prevent local government pursuing activities which although attractive to a local majority are not in line with the general culture of Britain? Suppose some local cult controls the council? What protection is given to those who do not belong to it? The only answer seems to be to limit the delegated powers to prevent them being used in a way which is inconsistent with the national mission. The Report suggests there should be some form of national mission statement. It would be interesting to know how the authors think it might be drafted.