Friday, July 30, 2010

On centralization

Despite all the talk of 'new politics' it seems that some of the trends that we have seen in British politics for at least thirty years are set to continue. We saw it under Thatcher and I wouldn't dispute for a moment that the Blair years represented a continuation of the accumulation of power to central government at the expense of local.

The trick of the establishment has always been to dress this up in the language of 'choice' and 'empowerment' so that centralizing moves are presented as the exact opposite.

In education this has been attempted in the form of grant-maintained opt outs and now with the academies plan. I'm wondering if Michael Gove will come to realise what his predecessors did - that the oversight of local democracy in education remains irritatingly popular.

Now with this notion that council tax rises should be subjected to local referendums, we have yet another power grab by central government being presented as local democracy in action. It contains all the features loathed by Paul Evans - populist nonsense that undermines proper deliberative democratic control over the provision of local services. The Communities Secretary Mr Pickles said that he was "in favour of local people making local decisions" but even a cursory analysis of these proposals reveals that he is in favour of nothing of the sort. For what 'choice' are local voters to be given in these referendums? To veto council tax rises if they exceed levels set by central government. What business does central government have setting a ceiling on local taxation? Their scope is already limited by the relatively small share of finance that is actually raised locally - now it is to be constrained further.

We already have a mechanism by which local people can exercise control over local taxation. It's called representative democracy. You don't like the level of services and the price at which you are being charged for them? Vote for someone else then.

I used the term British advisedly because we've seen this in Scotland too. Council tax has been frozen for two years - but at least here central government had no power to impose it and was dependent on the cooperation of local councils. The English proposal, on the other hand, is a classic populist technique for circumventing decisions made at a local level that are uncongenial to a central government with a state-shrinking agenda. In British politics it seems there is nothing new under the sun - but you can be sure that this won't deter this shower presenting this as a 'radical' move. Emptying words of meaning - another tiresome trend that goes on and on...

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