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Mad As Hell

Transcript of part three of Simon Jenkins' series of essays for The Westminster Hour

Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins

In the past two weeks I hope I've made you mad as hell.

You're fed up with micro-government. You thought you'd voted, 25 years ago, to roll back the frontier of the state. Yet you find the state crawling all over your work, your community, your family your leisure. You're smothered in red tape.

But I pointed out that you deplore all this and yet you also ask for it. Not a day passes but you are demanding that ministers DO something: do something about rotten food, unsafe cars, dodgy teachers, crooked pavements, abused children, late trains, hopeless tennis stars; do something about noisy neighbours, hooded children, rampant leylandii. You want less government in general, but you keep wanting government in particular. In fact you don't know what you want.

In the last two programmes I have tried to analyse what seems to me a central paradox of British government. Those crying for less also cry for more.

So how can a sophisticated modern democracy find that perfect line between what people can do for themselves and what they require of government? There is nothing new in this quest: it taxed Adam Smith and David Hume. It taxed de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.

Rather than labour you with quotations from these great thinkers, let me fall back on a simple guiding principle of democracy. This is that it works best when government is closest to the governed. The template for democracy remains the Athenian city state, the community forum. It's been re-enacted throughout history, in the cities of renaissance Italy, Reformation Germany and 19th-century England. It lives on in the vigorous democracies of America's towns and cities.

After the last war, the conquering allies wondered how best to stop another third reich emerging in Germany. They wanted to kill for ever the fuhrerprinzip. They decided to do it by writing a new constitution that made local government strong and the centre weak. The 1949 German state was federal, built on the lander and cities, Central government was put in a boring suburb, in Bonn. This localism, in the view of economists, proved the mainspring for Germany's economic recovery. Only now, 50 years later, are some Germans craving more vigorous central direction: a craving I hope they resist.

The medicine the British occupying power administered to post-war Germany it ignored back home. The wartime command economy was translated into domestic government. The constitution, if it said anything, said that if a government with a Commons majority could do more or less what it liked. Now traditionally it conformed to precedent. It played by custom and practice. It respected county and city autonomy. Ministers treated Parliament with dignity, turned up for debates, listened to Opposition arguments. They honoured the independence of the civil service, the judiciary, the professions, the universities.

As we saw last week, Thatcherism has eroded this custom and practice. Local government has been stripped of virtually all choice over policy. The autonomy of the civil service and the judiciary has been ended. Parliament is a shadow of its former self.

We are not alone in this. Similar processes have occurred abroad. I doubt if any informed citizen in Sweden, Germany, France, even America, would not complain that his government has got too big. French and Italian red tape is more entangling even than Britain's. Scandinavian health and safety is hellish, as is the form-filling of Germany's social policy.

But there is a difference between these countries and Britain and it underpins my answer to the paradox of these talks. Most countries are acutely aware of the condition of their democracy. Their histories are too bruised to ignore the need to keep it in good repair. As they sense power sliding from people and communities, they do something about it. All have decentralised, and meant it.

Let me cite some examples. France used to be centralist state per excellence, direct descendant of Napoleon's directorate. Every public official was employed by the state. Every department had an all-powerful prefet. The education minister knew at each time of day what was being taught in every French school. Not any more.

In 1982 France passed the loi Deferre. Led by a powerful lobby of local mayors and by anti-Paris sentiment, a new socialist government formally decentralised French administration. The prefets were stripped of absolute power. Subordinate tiers of government, regions, departments and communes was told to levy their own taxes and run virtually all public services. The communes, many the size of English parishes, were answerable to directly elected mayors. When the 1982 law was passed it was said that many prefets broke down in tears.

Even more drastic decentralisation has taken place in Italy and Spain. Whereas in Britain ever less public spending is covered by local taxes, in Italy it is ever more. Half of provincial services and a third of municipal ones are funded locally. In Spain centrifugal power has fled Madrid to Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque country. These provinces enjoy virtual autonomy. The local tier decides how much tax revenue to donate to the centre, not the reverse. Spain is even moving towards a state in which central government is subcontracted by local democracy, the exact opposite of Britain.

No less dramatic has been the decentralisation of government in Scandinavia. Back in 1977 the Swedes devolved most public services to counties and municipalities. The latter now run schools, clinics, social benefits and planning. In 1984, when Thatcher was introducing rate-capping in Britain, Sweden allowed municipalities to opt out of the welfare state altogether. They could become what are called "free communes", choosing services they would prefer to run themselves. Intriguingly, top of the list were doctors and clinics. Medicine was the thing people most wanted to bring closest to home. These communes were soon copied in Norway and Denmark, supported by a mix of local property and income taxes. Their policies ranges from old socialism to extreme Thatcherism - such as school vouchers in Stockholm. Central government becomes mostly a standard setting and cross-subsidising activity, ensuring that poor areas do not lack a fair share of resources.

I once asked a senior British health official what was wrong with Denmark's hospital service, which is run entirely by county councils of roughly the same size as those in Britain's. They are the best, the cheapest and win the highest satisfaction of in Europe. The official simply said, I don't believe you. Foreigners could not improve on British centralism.

An example of this arrogance is that British officials think only a single tier of local government is needed - that is needed by them. Yet no other democracy, even tiny Denmark, has just one tier. Imagine telling the French that they must dispense with their communes or the Americans that many of their states are unviable and their cities do not need elected mayors. There would be a justified riot. Yet all that is said in Britain.

The British way simply does not work. Any poll of public satisfaction with government services in Europe now has Britain at or near the bottom. The more totally central government runs a service, the poorer it is run.

The most burning election issue in Britain remains the quality of public services. This is strange. Twenty-five years after Thatcher "revolutionised" these services is surely long enough for them to have bedded down. Yet they have not. Everything to do with them has those who run them and those who use them "mad as hell".

One fact stares us in the face in all this. What people do not in some sense feel they can control they will take no pride in and find unsatisfying. Disempower them, to use a fashionable word, and they will find fault. In America a local school, a library, a fire station even, are source of intense pride. I have no doubt the reason is that they are paid for and run their neighbourhood (at least outside big cities). If something is wrong, local people get together to put it right.

A small town I know well is Machynlleth in mid-Wales. The Victorian townspeople built their school, their hospital, their market and their town hall. Old newspapers tell of mayors and benefactors, meetings and decisions. Today the town is democratically barren. Nothing in Machynlleth is decided in the town, but by a far distant Powys Unitary Authority. The local paper is full of anger and frustration at poor services, broken roads, absent medical care. The town hall, which in France would be a proud mairie, has been flattened. The same is true across Britain. Every community seems ruled from afar.

As government becomes more distant from the people is serves, so democracy itself is withering. Let us look at the size of the lowest tier of proper government. In Britain it is the borough or district council, with an average population of 118,000. The equivalent unit of government in Germany the berg has a population of just 5,000 and in France, the commune, is 1,500. There is one French elected councillor to every 100 voters. In Britain there is one to every 2,000. Britain suffers not so much in democratic deficit as a democratic black hole. Turnouts in British local elections are correspondingly about half what they are on the Continent.

Now I am not starry eyed about local government abroad. It is costly, often bureaucratic and often corrupt. Paying multiple taxes to multiple tiers of government is inconvenient and so much voting can be irritating. But such government is accountable. People care about it and participate in it. And they are more satisfied with their public services as a result, even when there is a wide divergence of standards across the nation as a whole.

I once met a man walking his dog in a small holiday township in Connecticut, the size of a large English parish. He turned out to be a Wall Street banker and the town's elected treasurer. I was surprised at this civic commitment by a busy man. The reason was simple. The town council had the power to levy a local tax of some 20,000 a year on his house. There was no way he would shirk his civic duty. Indeed he was happy to participate. I wonder how many City bankers in England would run as treasurer of Folkestone or Rye. There would be no point.

Localism gave Britain thriving counties and cities over three centuries. Its collapse under Thatcherism came unawares, largely it has never enjoyed any explicit constitutional protection. We have entrenched parliamentary democracy, but never local democracy. Yet it was local democracy that evolved the welfare state out of local charity, and made it the envy of Europe. That welfare state was stolen by London government and is now being bureaucratised and spoilt.

France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia have all shown in the past two decades that modern societies can reverse the centralist drift. Norway has gone farthest. In 2000 it surveyed the health of its democracy and concluded that it had to re-localise or die. It was threatened by an urban oligarchy in Oslo, of officials, lawyers, consultants and party elites, all in exclusive conversation with the media. It's an image not a million miles from modern Britain.

Britain showed in 1997 that it too could decentralise. It devolved modest power to the Scots and the Welsh. But though devolution in Britain has caused much whingeing, in truth it has worked. Nobody would sensibly reverse it.

I would go further I would go flat out for breakneck devolution to all existing units of local government. I would go for a democratic big bang, like the 1988 big bang which deregulated the City of London at one fell swoop. That turned the City overnight from a monopolistic inbred elitist club into a world-beating money market. What was done for the commercial health of Britain should now be done for its democratic health. What brought efficient financial services should bring efficient public ones.

Let's just admit centralism hasn't worked. The second revolution, the revolution of control, needs to be reversed. Diversity checks and balances need restoring. Borrow from abroad what works. Give parish councils the upkeep of primary schools, as in France. Run doctors, clinics and public housing through municipalities as in Sweden. Give hospitals to counties as in Denmark. Let the centre set minimum standards and cross-subsidise from rich areas to poor. But let that be all. Have a bonfire of red tape on every public common. Make every tier of government subject to direct mayoral election. Watch party cliques wither, new people step forward and election turnouts rise. It has happened elsewhere

British people patently dislike the way they are governed and the way their services are delivered. So update the system. Europeans clearly prefer services they run themselves through people they elect themselves. This is not wild speculative reform. It already works. Otherwise we'll go on being mad as hell.

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