Thursday, March 27, 2008

Centralisation, it's causes and culprits

There is something of a consensus among political scientists about what the causes of political centralisation are. One of the obvious causes is the demands of pro-market reformers for a 'level playing field'.

So an essential pre-condition for any move to increase the volume of the exchange in goods and services is a harmonisation of regulatory frameworks, standards of measurement, trades descriptions, tariffs and taxes etc. Historically, it speeded the consolidation of the nation state, and, of course, the EU is largely the result of the postwar European demand for growth and stability through increased inter-trading.

This finds an echo in public demands for even standards of public service. If a Mancunian can get that boil on his bum lanced by a pretty nurse within an hour of presenting it, why the hell can't a Cockernee expect the same service? Thus we commonly hear of popular campaigns against postcode lotteries - campaigns that are always bought-off with centrally-set targets.

Another cause is a minor crisis in the legitimacy of professionals, brought about partly by a political decision to control inflation by challenging producer interests in a concerted way, and partly by the willingness of some liberal professionals to assist this process by repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.

A further cause is the declining legitimacy of local government. No-one knows who their councillors are, few vote, the quality and competence of local officials (elected and otherwise) is questioned. The media ignore them anyways and seek to sell any story they do decide to cover by making charges stick to a more recognised target. Media consolidation means that there is a smaller and smaller local press, and a highly competitive global media will always offer shinier distractions. Would that a the residents of Penge could read as much about a local election in Penge as they can about the Democrat primaries!

So if a failing in local government can be blamed on the national government, (and only national journalists report local government anyway) it will be. And if council taxes go too high, central government will suffer from the non-specific dissatisfaction that most people feel when they notice that they have less beer-money.

So - leaving nothing to chance, central government behaves rationally. It says to itself "if I'm going to be blamed because local government looks crap, I might as well make sure that I'm been seen to be doing everything I can to make Town Halls raise their game." And "if I'm going to get the blame for a decline in education standards / unpopular sentencing .... etc " and so on.

The fly in the ointment is, of course, assertive local politicians and outspoken professionals. And so much of the way public life is conducted can be understood in the context of the need to marginalise and neuter these voices. Thus ratecapping. Thus sentencing guidelines. Thus SATS. Thus The Standards Board.

The judiciary and the police have, in different ways, suffered as a result of this process. There are more forms to fill in - ask PC Copperfield. Parliament is being gradually neutered in the same way, and it has seen much of the power that it has sucked up to itself evaporate in the general direction of the cabinet (who in turn have to compete with stronger PM's policy units, co-ordinating departments, and the other arms of the core executive.

This last point relates to another - more two-way - symptom of centralisation. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had a particular fear that her officials were irretrievably 'liberal-bureaucratic'. She wasn't prepared to accept the Mandarin's mantra that they were simply doing their job properly by being independently minded.

The PM (specifically, Mrs T) wanted the civil service to damn well do something instead of obstructing every reform she proposed. So she embarked upon a campaign to remove the least compliant people in Whitehall and replace them with officials more to her taste. It worked. And - in the same way that Mrs T fought to stop her ministers from suffering departmental capture, she also ensured that she poisoned any wells that she was forced to relinquish to her enemies.

I know that I'm practically alone in saying this, but this was Tony Blair's greatest mistake - his greatest failing or his greatest betrayal (you decide). A long way before May 1997, he should have looked at the officialdom that he was going to inherit and he should have plotted the purge.

Instead, he left Labour ministers to tackle a the Whitehall that John Major left behind. Not card-carrying Tories, mind, but mandarins that were well-disposed to blend what they'd learned at the hands of their Thatcherite nannies with Labour's priorities. So political centralisation isn't even the hoovering up of power into the hands of the current Prime Minister.

Departmental capture. And ... hey presto! Managerialism. Labour stuck to much more than Tory spending limits - and for much longer than two years.

Lefty conspiracy theorists can credibly claim that this was no oversight on new Labour's part, and that Tony was always a Tory entrist. And I'd struggle to offer a good counter-argument. But I digress here.

My point is that political centralisation is systematic. It's a function of late capitalism. It is caused by a range of social and economic factors. Public discourse largely ignores this, and a strategic long-term assault on centralisation would find no takers in the UK at the moment.

This systematic trajectory is largely immune to short term party-politics. It was Mrs Thatcher that signed the Single European Act - not Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan. For the most part, Labour have continued Tory attacks on creativity in the classroom and pluralism in local government.

I say all of this now, partly as a second answer to our Shuggy. Because I find so many of the charges of illiberalism that are leveled at the politicians of this government hard to stomach - not because we don't have a government that is really tending to be quite illiberal - but because I've been in the Labour Party man-and-boy for nearly thirty years, and in opposition, it was overwhelmingly liberal-minded. I'm really not convinced that illiberal government is the result of politicians ignoring the urges of liberals.

There was always a less limp-wristed streak in our heartlands of course, but new Labour was largely a triumph of metropolitan centrists and old Labour roundheads. But when you read our only-on-the-internet bloggertarians saying that this is all the product of socialism, you have to reply: Yeah - I wish!
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Oh, and that post of Shuggy's that I'm replying to here - it has developed the usual bloggertarian infestation in it's comment thread. Have a look at Bishop Hill's contribution. You'd think that a libertarian would be well swayed by the argument that 'it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government gets in.' When you read that centralisation is a function of a Labour government, you know you're reading a Tory, not a libertarian. It's a bit like that VI Form essay question in the early 1980s:

"Exactly how much of a tosser was Lord Hailsham when he described a LABOUR government as an elective dictatorship?"


12 comments:

Shuggy said...

Sorry, don't quite get a lot of what you've written here. For example:

Labour stuck to much more than Tory spending limits - and for much longer than two years.

What has this to do with 'Mandarins'? Slightly less than fuck all, I'd have thought. This was Gordon's doing. He was determined to slay the Labour 'tax-and-spend' dragon. What other explanation is there? Are we seriously being asked to believe that a man of Brown's education was unaware that no Parliament can bind its successor? It's the same reason he made the Bank of England independent. He knew every previous Labour government had been derailed by a sterling crisis.

A further cause is the declining legitimacy of local government.

That's because they don't have any power. The reduction thereof primarily a Thatcher project, without a doubt. You'll recall John Smith calling for a renaissance of local government. What happened to that? Which brings us to the last point:

Because I find so many of the charges of illiberalism that are leveled at the politicians of this government hard to stomach - not because we don't have a government that is really tending to be quite illiberal - but because I've been in the Labour Party man-and-boy for nearly thirty years, and in opposition, it was overwhelmingly liberal-minded.

I'm sorry but this is almost pure emotionalism. You find it hard to stomach? Too bad. They were 'liberal-minded' in opposition? Yeah, I remember that too - easy to do when you're in opposition. And how different they are in power. I really wish some of you down south had paid more attention to how they behave when they're in power, as they had been in Scotland for what seemed like an eternity, until recently. Power corrupts - is that too trite, too obvious?

I'm really not convinced that illiberal government is the result of politicians ignoring the urges of liberals.

It's not only this, obviously - but come off it. Surely you can't have failed to notice: the Blairites despised liberals. 'Liberal' became on Blunkett's lips close to meaning what it did when the fucking Republicans used it. You find criticism of this 'difficult to stomach'? Tough shit.

Paulie said...

Your first point is a complete misunderstanding (probably my fault) - I was saying that it wasn't *only* on spending that they stuck to Tory limits - that they also stuck to the limited horizons that the Tories allowed their departmental heads (because they didn't replace them).


On the local government question, I don't think that any PM would decide to simply hand back powers for the reasons that I've outlined. Any perceived misuse of those powers would be blamed upon the PM. Labour *should* have pursued a strategy that would make it easier to hand back power to local government, but they haven't done so with much energy. In fairness, the number of people who are advancing decentralisation in any other way than just saying "give the power back!!!!" are few and far between, but that's not an excuse for a lack of leadership on this.

Look. Most councillors would not be able to hold their own in a 6th Form debating society. You wouldn't let a lot of them run a bath for you. In my work, I see the ability-range of councillors and the quality of local government managment every day, and if it wasn't completly hopeless before Mrs T took the hatchet to it, it is now. And fixing that is no small job. Typically, this lot do it with poxy targets. They thought it would bring about improvement, but for the most part, it hasn't.

And on the final point, it isn't pure emotionalism. I'm using personal experience to make a point. John Smith didn't strike me as particularly illiberal. Neither did Roy Hattersley. Neither did Neil Kinnock. They were the big three during most of the years I'm referring to.

Even Jack Straw managed to stay the right side of not pandering (but not ignoring) the tabloid agenda most of the time.

I'd accept that Blunkett was always a huge exception here, but that's exactly what he was, and everyone in the party knew it. Blair was methodologically driven by the red-tops, and this filtered down throughout the party as the 1990s drew on.

But mainly because Labour genuinely beleived that liberal social policies carried an electoral penalty that would prevent them from doing anything else.

There is no elegant way of saying this. No-one likes the argument that 'we can be bastards today, or you can have Tory bastards tomorrow, and they're bigger bastards than we are' but without a strategic commitment to prepare the ground for wholesale decentralisation, it's the best argument that we have.

Bishop Hill said...

What a splendid example of a straw man fallacy, Mr Paulie!

Where, exactly, am I supposed to have said that centralisation is all down to Labour?

Paulie said...

Here:

"The logical conclusion of Margaret Thatcher's ideas would have been to completely decentralise education by means of privatising the whole shooting match.

You're right about freedom in general though. I'm not sure about your trying to share the blame between the Tories and Labour. Almost all of the losses of liberty you describe were down to Blair."

So Mrs T only centralised education as a prelude to decentralising it by privatisation, so that doesn't count. And no mention of local government centralisation.

Anthony Zacharzewski said...

Well, as someone who for the moment is one of those hopeless local government officers, and has also worked in the Treasury and Whitehall Departments, I think the calibre of officials is not that far apart. Sure, being a councillor is a different proposition from being a Cabinet Minister, but isn't that to be expected?

And if you are sceptical about devolution of powers, well you're doubtless right to be overall, but the Government is currently making more of the right noises about central/local devolution than it has done in the past, and it has given the local government sector some powerful tools, such as an economic development duty and a power of wellbeing that allow local government to expand its role if it wants to.

Bishop Hill said...

Huh?

There is nothing in there that says centralisation is all down to Labour. There is a bit which says loss of liberty is mainly down to Labour, and that's true. But I haven't ventured an opinion on the division of blame for centralisation. You're making this up.

Paulie said...

Bishop,

If you think that it's possible to have a meaningful discussion of the concept of liberty without touching upon political pluralism or centralisation, then you may have a point. But I doubt that you'd make that argument, would you?

Anthony,

Yes - apologies - hyperbole on my part. Plainly *all* of local government (and officials and councillors) isn't hopeless - far from it - indeed the LGA have been making the case for some time that local government is often a lot better at what it does than it appears to be, and much of the problem is the way that it is *painted* as incompetent, when it is actually a lot better than the centrally-directed alternative.

But - as the LGA also acknowlege - perception is reality here. Poor publicity for individual examples of bad management tars over 500 councils in the UK with a dark brush.

And there *are* councillors can get re-elected even though anyone who has ever met them would have no confidence in their ability to do anything.

I've posted quite a lot elsewhere on this blog about how over-caution in town halls, the low public status of elected representatives, the poor quality of local reporting and the stifling hand of over-powerful politicial parties makes this happen.

Paulie said...

Sorry Anthony - one other thing I meant to add...

You say...

"the Government is currently making more of the right noises about central/local devolution than it has done in the past, and it has given the local government sector some powerful tools, such as an economic development duty and a power of wellbeing that allow local government to expand its role if it wants to."

I'd like to see an article by someone in government in which they claim to be pursuing a strategy that is designed to make more devolution of powers to local government possible - and I'd like to read the responses that such an article would get about how far such a strategy represents a token commitment, and how far it represents any genuine resourced enthusiasm for the subject.

Shuggy said...

John Smith didn't strike me as particularly illiberal. Neither did Roy Hattersley. Neither did Neil Kinnock. They were the big three during most of the years I'm referring to.

They were in opposition, Paulie - easy to be impeccably liberal when in opposition. What we're concerned with is how they've behaved since taking power. Ignoring much of what John Smith argued for in opposition. Reform of the Lords - remember that?

I don't agree Blunkett was an aberration. Certainly he was much worse than Straw but he had himself been the most illiberal Home Secretary since, um, Michael Howard. It's not then a partisan point - it's just that here, as in so many other areas, we get no break from the past.

Related but a sort of aside: I feel about your pro-politicization of the civil service much the same way you do about direct democracy - it's a completely potty idea. We've already got a sort of American style stripping of the top layer of the civil service - think of the PM's press secretary, the head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate... Look at Jonathon Powell's role vis-a-vis the invasion of Iraq. How can anyone read Hutton and/or Butler and conclude, "The politicization of the civil service - yes, more of that please."?

Bishop Hill said...

"If you think that it's possible to have a meaningful discussion of the concept of liberty without touching upon political pluralism or centralisation, then you may have a point. But I doubt that you'd make that argument, would you?"

OK, so I think we have a tacit admission that I didn't say the things you accuse me of. I'm sorry you don't feel able to withdraw your accusation more publically.

You clearly feel I should have said something about centralisation as part of my contribution to the conversation. I think that the difference between local government and central government running something is pretty marginal, so I didn't feel the same way about it as you.

This doesn't change the fact that you accused me of saying something which I didn't.

Paulie said...

Shuggy,

My own view is that we have a constitutional lack of pluralism that leads to a increasing systematic illiberalism in the way that government is conducted. I think that Labour cared about this a bit in opposition but not enough to do much about it when in power.

I also think that the Tories care about it less than Labour did when in opposition. If an equivalent of Charter 88 were to launch again today, I doubt if it would have anything like the engagement that it had from Labour at a similar stage of the political cycle.

But the key point is that it isn't really important what politicians think that much, because the people who are elected to run the country - for the most part - don't.

On the question of 'politicisation of the civil service', you'd be right about how bad an idea it is if I were proposing a similar one to the type of politicisation that Mrs T did and that the Mr Bs have copied.

That isn't what I'm arguing for. At the moment, 'politicisation' is a centralising force. It allows the PM to control the cabinet more strongly than it used to. I'm saying that political parties need to be helped to develop a policymaking counterculture, and that individual ministers shold be able to call upon a larger group of civil servants that were answerable to them - rather than the current pecking order:

1. The PM's office via the special advisers
2. The permanent civil service
3. The minister (who is, in turn, entirely answerable to the PM who awards the sinecure).

I outlined it in more detail (sorry) here:

http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2006/05/why-state-funding-for-political.html

Actually, the 'state' in state-funding is a bit of a red herring. I'd be happy if it were funded from anywhere really. I just can't think of anyone else who'd pay for it.

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