The EU may be responsible for much of the anaemic state of our democracy. After all, a political culture that allows our representatives to constantly blame “Brussels’ rules” could never foster the responsibility that good government needs. But when Brexit finally takes place after the election, we will notice that the EU is only part of the problem. For over a generation, Britain’s democracy has been withered from within.
After the 1940s, with its power and resources expanded by the centralisation of the British state in the service of “total war”, a bloated Whitehall diminished our local politics. This is no esoteric problem: as the first level of engagement between government and people, the health of local government is a barometer for any democracy.
With the capacities of national government hoovered “upwards” by Brussels, we might expect Whitehall’s reach to have diminished, but the opposite has in fact occurred. Whitehall took power from Britain’s once-mighty local governments in a post-war dynamic of growing distance between rulers and ruled. Councils instead became local authorities.
But Whitehall didn’t simply turn local governments into channels for its own power, it also rearranged them.
Representative government functions when citizens accept the sharing of power with their fellow citizens. This tends to require a high degree of shared identity, which is why the emerging EU state shows no sign of becoming a democracy – France or Germany will not allow the citizens of Poland or Bulgaria to actually decide their laws.
On a smaller scale, the same applies locally. Lancastrians will happily be represented in a county government with people from other Lancashire towns, despite a strong political divide among them between Labour and Conservative, but would hate to share a local government with Yorkshire, because they lack the necessary shared identity.
Democratic government, national or local, functions better when its boundaries match the contours of identity. But since the 1970s, it generally hasn’t.
Edward Heath’s reorganisation of local government under the European concept of “regions” was a quantum leap for the power of Whitehall centre, with little deference to any notion of local identity. The ancient town of Dent in Yorkshire could be reassigned to Cumbria, and the Wirral looked near Liverpool, so why not lop it off the rest of Cheshire into a blob called Merseyside?
These reorganisations have become part of a constant revolution. In the twilight of the millennium, deputy prime minister John Prescott, as overseer of “the regions”, pushed through a mass of legislation to “devolve” Britain’s government.
While this returned local government to London – which had been the only non-self-governing capital in the free world – and created a tranche of assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the eight so-called “regions” of England got short-lived quangos called regional development agencies.
Below these regions, rural counties have also been slashed and merged into “unitary authorities”. Berkshire has been abolished and divided into three of these; it is joined by creations like the Bath and North East Somerset unitary authority, the metropolitan borough of Barnsley and the metropolitan county of West Midlands.
This is a little-discussed cause of the dissatisfaction of people who have less power over their lives and communities than their grandparents.
Last year, adverts in Westminster tube station invited commuters to invest in somewhere called the “Leeds city region”. The people of York will be surprised to hear that they live in it, but the up-country yokels, all much the same to civil service planner, refuse to fit into their new boundaries, rationally organised around urban economic power nodes. It turns out that, being ancient, the county has something of a soul.
Yet the county is not some Pooterish archaism. Rather, it provides the boundaries of local democracy that actually work. In 1969, staff at the royal commission on local government came up with something called the “Marbella test”.
On a beach in the Med, one Brit meets another and asks where they’re from. If they’re from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, that will be their reply. If they’re from England, they will say a city or county. If Manchester or Leeds, that will be enough, but if they’re from somewhere smaller they’ll give two answers at once: “Sidmouth, in Devon”.
In Germany, Italy, and France, the object of identity is the region, having arisen by the confederation of dukedoms. But the smashed, reconstituted English “regions”, inspired by Europe, have no real affiliation. Cornwall, for example, is lumped together with Gloucestershire in the imaginary region of the south-west.
To this Whitehall has added a system of taxation whose centralisation is unique in the West. Local government is financially emasculated and, as Jacob Rees-Mogg and I wrote this year, given that local governments get no new tax income from new residents, this denies them any incentive to build new housing. So our centralised government is considerably responsible for our housing crisis.
Despite imposing government units with no popular affiliation, the psychological ties between people and place have not yet been broken. Local election turnout has experienced a secular but predictable fall, but the rebellious persistence of local identity suddenly became apparent at the millennium. Northumbrians had kept being Northumbrians, not denizens of the “north-east” region, and they turned down a regional assembly in a 2004 referendum.
Reversing the failed centralisation of our once strong local democracy may be the necessary coda to the Brexit revolution. Local government is the lifeblood of democracy, and in Britain it has grown thin indeed.