Opinion: It’s your country, we’re giving it back

All political parties are coalitions. And the messy reality of governing exposes these coalitions for the world to see. Even in the event that the UK economy is running on all cylinders by 2015 (looking increasingly unlikely), we all know that we’re going to be in a tight spot come the general election. So can we expect a debate between Liberal Left and Orange Bookers as we seek to define our message to the country? Between those who think that a distinctively centre-left message will take us back to the heady polling numbers of 2010 and those who argue that we actually need to be playing to naturally Tory-voting middle class southerners?

Whatever your personal inclination, most people don’t care. As this fascinating poll demonstrates (scroll down to the word cloud at the bottom), the average voter is unable to define what the party stands for at all. At the same time, there is an enormous public mistrust of politicians and ‘the system’ in general. People feel remote from government and from the decisions that affect their everyday life. And this shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the UK is the most centralised state in Western Europe.

So we have a challenge – to fight the 2015 election from a (probably) very weak polling position and a need for a distinctive message. And we have an opportunity: the public is fed up with politicians and with government, the system, the establishment, the people who always seem to be on the inside. The answer? Give the country back to the people.

What does this mean? It means that government will treat people as adults and give them back the power to run their own affairs. Real power returns to communities: power to set taxes and deliver education, policing, planning and health. We don’t need regional assemblies: we should just halve the size of parliament and use the money saved to give local government full devolved powers. The population of Kent is larger than the population of New Hampshire, yet we emasculate local authorities with Whitehall meddling. We should shut down all executive quangos, not just the ones we don’t like very much. Every Lib Dem candidate will be chosen in a party primary (that might at least make a few people re-join). Every local council will have the authority to hold binding referenda if 10% of the population signs a petition. The same will go for national referenda.

I haven’t offered a view on whether we should be raising local taxes, offering one type of school over another, or putting more money into healthcare. The Liberal Democrats should have the courage to say at the national level “this is for local communities to decide”. This is an answer that is distinctively ours, different and better.

A campaign that said, “we trust you; the other parties don’t” would return us to being the real alternative. It might even make the UK a better place.

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78 Comments

  • Graham Walker 10th Jun '12 - 2:15pm

    Ha ha… You lot have had it.

  • Theo Cupier 10th Jun '12 - 2:17pm

    No thanks, after the mess you’ve made of it in the last 2 years, you can keep it. I think you’ve voided the warranty

  • Will you be giving us our country back before or after you and your tory chums have finished destroying it?

    Your biggest hurdles, come 2015 will be:

    a) finding enough credible candidates to stand on a LibDem ticket (difficult but not impossible)

    b) finding sufficient numbers of people gullible enough to fall for your spiel a second time (that will be the hard one)

  • Toby MacDonnell 10th Jun '12 - 2:41pm

    Hear hear! Although, 10% seems rather low for a referendum.

  • And the European Union?

    Are we to get our powers back from them?

    Are we going to have any choice on whether we are to continue putting billions into the pockets of people like van Rompuy and Ashton.

    The British people are now powerless – and the LibDems have assisted in that powerlessness.

  • Kevin McNamara 10th Jun '12 - 2:49pm

    this is the sort of stuff we really need to be emphasising. that way we could even avoid the entire social liberal, social democract, orange book liberal, libertarian public fight and localise it!

  • Tony Dawson 10th Jun '12 - 2:53pm

    There are some good ideas worth following here, but this is wrong:

    “we should just halve the size of parliament and use the money saved to give local government full devolved powers.”

    The marginal cost of a hundred MPs is not particularly high and would not fund much. Now, if the Coalition Government were suddenly to adopt a minimalist approach to government (only pursuing legislation if both sides mainly agree instead of pushing through reams of horse-traded stuff) then we could close down large chunks of government ministries, half the Cabinet and government size (and payroll vote) and then have real savings to pass on to local councils. Instead of trying to cope with swathes of useless legislation, which might well have been concocted purely to keep them overwhelmed with work, Members of Parliament could actually start to collectively try to hold the Executive to account in something like an effective manner.

  • Toby MacDonnell 10th Jun '12 - 2:56pm

    Although, come to think of it, localisation would require a couple of things certain people on the big-state side of the board might take umbridge to: localisation of NHS and schools funding, for example. Free schools and GP consortia are controvercial enough, but are probably the most local you can get. I suppose that it’d be up to individual councils as to what level of independence their hospital has: then if certain hospitals do worse than others it’d be “postcode lottery” headlines. Then we get to come back with “Postcode democracy”… sounds worth it. The golden age of liberalism, after all, coinsided with the golden age of town hall government.

  • Brilliant article – should be bread and butter stuff across the board.

  • OK, I’ll leave aside criticism of your ideology – but, the question every voter who cares is going to ask you is ‘why should we trust you?’.

    If you don’t have an answer to that, and you’re going to need a convincing one, you’re in big, big trouble no matter what platform you campaign on.

  • jenny barnes 10th Jun '12 - 3:23pm

    So if your local council decided it didn’t think publicly funded health care, education, roads, etc were a good idea then you just wouldn’t get them? This strikes me as a fairly absurd idea. Some things are better decided at state level.
    Anyway, on the latest polling, LDs would get 7 seats in the next parliament. Somehow I don’t think anybody will be paying much attention to the LD manifesto, nor indeed any solemnly signed pledges. Sort the economy out – see Paul Krugmans for some ideas, rather than blaming Mrs Merkel, and come back when you ‘ve done that.

  • This just sums up the problem with the current political system. The focus is on how to reach out to voters to ensure the best outcome at election time, and it ‘might even make the UK a better place’ – surely that should be the starting point not a hopeful byproduct?! And I would seriously question the ability and capacity of many local authorities to be able to deliver effectively and in a way that ensures a minimum, but required, level of consistency nationally. The old Government Offices very effectively bridged the central/ local divide and contained a regional expertise, coupled with the skills and knowledge to help local areas deliver truly groundbreaking services catering to the local need. Of course the current government closed them down but I am not convinced that local authorities could pick up where they left off.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 3:33pm

    Thanks for positive responses. Toby: I thought a lot about the “postcode lottery” issue and pretty much ended up in the same place as you. At present, there is a lottery because you don’t have any power over your local education, health, housing (etc.) policies. But postcode democracy removes the lottery aspect and (as you note) takes us back to the Liberals’ golden age – Manchester town hall and all that.

    Some things which are currently very controversial are actually manifestations of localism, such as free schools and GP consortia. In the case of free schools, where there appears to be little public support, I think the answer is that at present it isn’t a democratic process – it’s a process in which well-connected (and often well-intentioned) self selecting groups get together and make a new school, egged on by Michael Gove. But if it was fully in the power of the local authority it once again becomes a democratic question for electors to decide for their community. And, importantly, it allows us as Liberal Democrats to say, yes we have a national policy on education, but we think more important than the policy is giving the community the right to decide in the most democratic way possible (i.e. at the ballot box). Why should Surrey decide that it needs the same kind of school system as Cumbria?

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 3:37pm

    Jenny – I can’t imagine any political party, even in the worst nightmare imaginings of extreme right-wingery, actually thinking it was going to get widespread support by stopping public access to healthcare, roads and schools. And of course, I’m not suggesting that the central government needs to disappear. There will always be some things that are decided at state level, as you rightly say. But at the moment everything is decided at state level and most people don’t trust the state.

  • Many councils would not have “their hospital”. Some would not have “their school”. It rather depends on the level things end up at.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 3:57pm

    B Webber – I strongly believe it will make the country a better place – I was being flippant and I’m sorry if that wasn’t obvious. The problem with the regional offices is that they were opaque and undemocratic, which is a bad idea at the best of times and very bad at a time when turnout at elections and trust in politicians is collapsing.

    I agree with you that, at present, local authorities lack capacity (although we still pay their chief executives staggering salaries). But that must be a self-reinforcing problem as these authorities have been steadily undermined and infantilised over the years. What capacity did the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have at the beginning?

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 4:05pm

    Tony Dawson, I actually agree with you about the importance of parliament. My point is actually more of a nod at the Upper House – which remains huge (although doesn’t cost much). But I like your suggestions and I think they offer an excellent refinement: in any case, real localism would have to mean a smaller central government and therefore much smaller ministries. So there would be savings there.

  • Kevin McNamara 10th Jun '12 - 4:08pm

    i think people are forgetting the principle of subsidiarity which i think all localists subscribe to in that we ask “can it be better decided locally?” if yes, then it shall or if no, then central govt decides it.

  • You aren’t giving us our country back unless you support a Yes vote in 2014.

  • @Charles Beaumont: A great message that every Liberal Democrat should support, and which should be the theme of our next GE manifesto.

  • mike cobley 10th Jun '12 - 4:17pm

    Dearie me. Low taxes, small government yada-yada – this is boilerplate rightwing Republicanism, straight out of the likes of the Heritage Foundation, or the CATO Institute, or the ALEC organisation, or the Koch brothers, standard fare from the greedocrat elite. Because when you have a small, weak central government, that means there is no power capable of withstanding the might of global corporations. Yay, trebles all round!

    In other words – “It’s your country, Mr Murdoch, and we’re giving it back.”

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 4:23pm

    Mike Cobley – how does your argument match the fact that local government in countries such as France, Germany and Spain is far stronger than in the UK? Last time I checked, “boilerplate rightwing Republicanism” wasn’t making much headway in Germany. Having so much power at the centre is what has made it so easy for Murdoch to cut opaque deals with one or two politicians.

  • mike cobley 10th Jun '12 - 4:34pm

    Unions are a democratic institution which can balance the power of corporations, and which just happen to be much stronger on the continent than in the UK – add to which the substantially stronger worker protections in law currently in force in Germany and France etc. Germany historically was a patchwork of distinct regions, more so in the last 2 centuries than Britain.

    And having a powerful central authority does not make it easier for the Murdochs to get their way – its having a flawed or weak democracy, a corporate-owned press, a feeble approach to lobbying and clandestine influence, and an embedded financial elite hellbent on grabbing it all for themselves. Dealing with these enemies of democracy (because that is what they are) requires a power to match them – which your proposals would strip from central government.

  • I’m going to give this one a qualified “yes”. Qualified, because I do support the idea of devolving things to the lowest practicable level of “government” (and I always use the analogy that Oxfordshire is roughly the same population as Vermont) I do think you need to look at how such a proposal might work.

    First of all, for a comparison with the US, theirs is a federal system. States have rights. They originated as separate nations, commonwealths or colonies clubbing together to achieve particular common aims but have a constitutionally protected existence in and of themselves. Here, central government regularly tinkers with local government arrangements. Whether it be on a small scale, such as deciding how committees at the town hall are going to work or large scale such as abolishing some altogether and changing the geography of others (such as in 1974). This would need to stop. Constitutionally. We haven’t actually got such constitutional guarantees against future centralising tendencies in respect of the currently devolved assemblies, have we? We’d need to work that in.

    Second, if you’re going to go for such a big bang, I’d go further, and suggest structures from which power flows upwards an not downwards. In fact, as I’ve often written about before, I prefer the idea of “Cellular Democracy” which has nothing to do with rule from a prison cell, but the idea that the fundamental level of government, from which power is ceded upwards on an ad hoc basis is no more than a few streets’ worth of a neighbourhood. Similar to Jeffersonian ward republicanism. If a “level 1 cell” (level 0 is always in the individual household) decides in its council that it wants a school it has the power either to do it itself, to subsidise places in another school but not participate in creating or managing one or to club together with other level one cell councils to share one. It would then tend to establish management arrangements for such a school separate from any of the founding councils and you’d have a “school board”. Same with any service a locality thinks, democratically, should be provided in common.

    Of course in such a system your “postcode lottery” is going to be very local – OX3 0FF versus OX3 0FE. The difference of course is if I prefer to live in the communist utopian experiment of OX3 0FE it’s easier for me to move there without losing other connections than it would be to move from OX to SN or even from OX3 to OX4.

    By the way in what way do you think “right wingers” (in you response to Jenny) would want to *prohibit* access to roads, schools or hospitals? Not at all, they would not necessarily provide them along socialist lines, but how could they “prohibit” access to ones that were provided by more specialised groups such as roads companies, schools companies or hospital companies? Also note, it is not just the “right wing” (lazy though such an appellation already is): as a leftward facing market anarchist I would not want such things provided by a monopoly of force either.

    In such a cellular system, City Hall, County Hall, Holyrood if applicable and Westminster would only have such powers as lower level cells wanted to cede to them voluntarily for as long as they continued to want to do so.

    One final thing. Even without going to my preferred level of cellular democracy, I would use such a massive and constitutionally guaranteed devolution to get rid of the second chamber at Westminster completely. As in David Hume’s 1754 “Idea of the Perfect Commonwealth” the counties, jointly and severally, could be the revising chamber for a reformed Westminster, with the right to scrutinise, call in, anything that went through central government, and to get a certain proportion of other counties to jointly sponsor new ideas for laws to be debated and passed centrally.

  • I would respectfully suggest that you are overlooking the most significant problem that all political parties will face in 2015 but in especially the LibDems, and that is a lack of voter trust. Whatever the LibDems promise at the next election will be met with a lot of scepticism –to put it mildly. If the LibDems use the slogan ““we trust you; the other parties don’t” then they are asking for a responce from the voters along the lines of “……..but we no longer trust you!……..”.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Jun '12 - 5:03pm

    @B Webber:

    “The old Government Offices very effectively bridged the central/ local divide and contained a regional expertise, coupled with the skills and knowledge to help local areas deliver truly groundbreaking services catering to the local need. ”

    They knew naff all about naff all (other than their own budgets). But t least, being outposted arms of central government, they were a little more accessible.

    Local government provides as good a service (and attracts as good members and staff) as central government allows. Turning councils into bidding agencies for crumbs from Pickles’ table is a step towards the death of local democracy. The only problem is the gross anxiety of central government about a minority of councils in ‘one party states’ with no culture of political opposition/pluralism which would be cured if STV were introduced for local government elections.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 5:27pm

    Jock – I think cellular democracy is fascinating and you could argue a version of it has served Switzerland pretty well. But I think it’s too radical for the UK. The public would be worried and the press would ridicule it.

    Much in my own proposal needs masses of further thought. But my basic idea was to use the existing counties/unitary authorities/London boroughs (obviously with significantly expanded powers) as the main unit of delivery, mostly because a proposal that involved creating vast new structures would probably come up against the prevailing “anti -politics”.

  • mike cobley 10th Jun '12 - 5:31pm

    Sorry, but this is nothing but an argument for the balkanisation of a country – small authorities are much easier to subvert and take over than larger ones.

  • Well I’d at least want you to change your wording from “unit of delivery” to “unit of sovereignty” for if they don’t have constitutionally guaranteed sovereignty in certain issues your proposals are as good as one parliament long (look how many “local government” bills there have been just in the past three decades).

    Still, whenever I see “too radical for xxx” I know my cause is lost. Perhaps as a compromise, if you guarantee county level sovereignty, you could allow counties to decide for themselves how they are going to be run internally. Maybe cellular democracy might work for one or two if they are allowed to try.

    Such decision making *is* a fundamental part of liberalism isn’t it?

    Just as, in your example of New Hampshire, they have 400+ state house representatives because they think that such small constituencies make for good representation where Nevada think 40 is sufficient.

  • I just do not accept that’s the case Mike. Is it worth the effort to do something 50 times, or however many sovereign counties there might be, given the relatively small amount of power and influence each one gives, and in the face of better local scrutiny, compared with doing it once, on a “national” scale, remote and so less well scrutinised by the actual constituents, with all the power regulatory capture of 60,000,000 people grants compared with 1,000,000?

    And, whilst I may be arguing for something much more radical, how many times does Charles have to say he is not proposing getting rid of Westminster/Whitehall, just those bits than can be better done at a more local level. Are you really saying that there are none such functions that can be better delivered by strengthened more local levels of government? Is there *anything* liberal about such a position?

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 5:47pm

    Balkanisation!? Pure alarmism. I don’t see France or Germany about to break up.

    And nor have I seen Wales get subverted since it got devolution.

  • Oh, and more fundamentally, who gets to decide what a “country” is? Were your family, for example, amongst the very select aristocratic few who actually had some kind of a say in whether England took over Scotland in 1707? If not just who did consent to this island being one country? I know I never did. Perhaps offering policies such as this might legitimise your central state rather than diminish it? I see precious little democracy involved in the way nation states have come to be. Why would I want Oxford to be in the same country as Glasgow? I don’t know, but nobody has ever tried to justify it or get consent for it. The bigger the country, the greater the power at the centre, the bigger the prize for controlling it, whether from inside or outside the state apparatus. Doesn’t seem liberal or democratic to me.

  • Charles, the prize has got to be worth the effort 🙂

  • Richard Shaw 10th Jun '12 - 5:50pm

    I very much welcome this post as I am passionate about devolution and empowering local people. I would like to make the author and fellow readers aware of a public consultation by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which is seeking to codify the relationship between local government and Westminster. Councils have been reduced to merely being the agents of central government and the draft code the Committee has produced seeks to restore powers and independence to local authorities.

    See the Local Government Association and the PCR Select Committee website for further information, including the draft proposals, and to respond to the consultation.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 5:57pm

    Jock – I certainly think councils should have the power to decide their structures: if Oxon wants to go cellular, why not? But as a nationally delivered policy I think it would be very challenging.

  • jenny barnes 10th Jun '12 - 6:00pm

    I don’t imagine the proposal being that there will be no roads/education/ health care. Just that some local authorities might decide it was better provided by the private sector. And at least some of it paid for at the point of delivery. Operation now (it’ll cost you) operation next decade for free (if you live that long). The argument about competition of course doesn’t apply – there’s usually only one road – but it still seems that there’s a view it can be provided by “private enterprise.”

  • Toby MacDonnell 10th Jun '12 - 6:14pm

    Jock, as much as I believe that the state is presently over-centralised, I think your suggestions swing the other way. The anxieties expressed by the people here who worry about whether or not a series of local authories could stand against corperate interests without the support of a monolythic government or muscular unions are valid concerns: those who feel disenfranchised are those people who are looking for someone else to solve their problems for them. Your system would force these dienfranchised people to account for themselves in a manner which is sink-or-swim, and if they don’t have the capcity to constitute a political body then they will be subsumed by co-operative bodies more powerful than themselves. Those people need looking after, but they don’t need to be smothered by an over-bearing welfare state, and they don’t need to be sold out by an unaccountable government which regards them as little more than statistics.

    Those who are demanding that central government or muscular unions be the defenders of the disenfranchised are falling into a different trap: they assume that the interests of a centralised state, which is constituted of a multiplicity of interests, or the interests of a trade union, which is constituted by a conservative, risk-averse interest on one side of the supply/demand equasion, will always coordinate with the interests of an imaginary, singular collective with a singular, unified, moral interest.

    A monlythic government is constituted of so many interests, most of which are competing, that it can’t account for them all and can actually use constituent parts of itself as an excuse for fundementally corrupt behaviour, which has lead to the present crisis of confidence in accountable government as a process.

    A trade union hands too much power to people who are pre-occupied with a) preserving jobs which might not even matter, and b) increasing their share of money which might not have even been earnt: my prefered model of union is as a kind of legal insurance which pools the resources of employees to get access to competant lawyers in the event that any one of them suspects they have been victim of a legal injustice. This means that the humanity of individual is protected against the dominating power of the employer, but that society’s collective resources are not held to ransom by people who have no interest in their distribution by the pirority masses of individuals demand. Unions are democratic to the same extent that coorperations are democratic: they seize resources for a self-constituting collective to the exclusion of anyone outside of that collective, which is what government should be there to balance and mediate between.

    The mistake people make by believing that the devolution of the central authority might open the country to exploitation by corperate interest is the belief that because the local authority has fewer resources than the central authority they are unable to persue legal cases against criminal endeavours: the truth is, the multiple local authorities are more likely to bring cases than a single authority is, and the equalising power of the law will ensure a level playing feild in the courts. The local authority can borrow against its taxes, or request extra cash from central government, to persue cases if nessecary: their resources are no so limited as might be imagined.

    By devolving to local authorities rather than expecting people to self-constitute, we provide a framework people can easily access, understand, and live up to without having to re-formulate the last three hundred years of political development on their own. The interests of the locale are stewarded by the local authority, and are held to account by electorate which can live its life free from worries about when and how to organise the next council meeting by themselves (and then argue in that meeting for an expansion of New Road and find extra revinue to prop up Peterborough District Hospital). By giving councils their own fundraising capacity, we also deprive the central government of its ability to starve local authorities of the resources it needs to run an effective institution: this prevents a reliance on the central authority to cover the debts of the federalised authorities, which is one of the problems Spain has faced in trying to reduce its budget deficit.

    Fundementally, by creating a multitude of authorities across the country we create a situation where local interests are better represented and more tenaciously persued without risking the exposure of the citizenry to their own impotence in the face of more powerful institutions. It is a fine way to throw more focus onto the democratic process so that people reconnect with their interests, the positions which represent their interest, and the people who stand for those positions: that reconnection should enfranchise those who are at present so disconnected from their own ability to persue their desires.

  • Since we can’t even agree to regional pay, there seems no chance of the party campaigning on localism writ large, sadly.

  • mike cobley 10th Jun '12 - 6:32pm

    So sad – so much fervour directed against central government and unions, and not a peep about the inhuman, anti-democratic power centres known as corporations. Truly, this comment thread is Hobbiton and I am Bilbo Cobley!

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 6:50pm

    Jenny – there’s always a role for central govt. Setting things like access to healthcare and roads seems a good example of its role. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to do it.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 7:03pm

    Mike – the argument about corporations is not a counter argument to this discussion. A country can regulate and limit the power of corporations at the national level whilst allowing far greater power to communities at the local level. I don’t see any contradiction there. The issue is not about attacking central government but recognising, on the subsidiarity principle, that it isn’t the best placed entity always to deliver what people need or want.

  • David Allen 10th Jun '12 - 7:05pm

    “OK, I’ll leave aside criticism of your ideology – but, the question every voter who cares is going to ask you is ‘why should we trust you?’.

    If you don’t have an answer to that, and you’re going to need a convincing one, you’re in big, big trouble no matter what platform you campaign on.”

    Yes, this gets to the crux of our problem. It is idle to speculate what success Clegg might have if he suddenly announced his conversion to the “give power back” agenda. It is equally idle to speculate what success Clegg might have if he also took on board Mike Cobley’s pertinent criticism, and adapted the philosophy to take more power back from the corporations. Nobody would believe it was real.

    The answer, therefore, has to be a leadership election. Then, a credible winning candidate will have to think big, make a decisive break with our recent history of political and moral failure, return to our roots, and define a purpose which can enthuse our activists and more importantly, convince the public that we have started anew.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the soaring rhetoric and grand over-arching principles of “give power back” will quite cut the mustard in those circumstances – though there is merit in some of the ideas. We’ve done high-flown rhetoric. We’ve done ground-breaking constitutional reform before breakfast in all the Cleggmania speeches, and the public is just sick of the overclaims. We need something much simpler and humbler. By golly, we need to be humbler, if we ever want to recover public trust!

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 7:25pm

    David – my argument is not a “how to rescue Nick Clegg” piece. Whoever leads in 2015 has a big job to do. My belief is that we’ll need something very distinctive and bold to regain trust. A manifesto that committed to giving up a lot of political power might do that. I may be wrong, but a message which says “we’ve decided to limit our powers and our resources” might have some level of credibility. Contrast with electoral reform, a policy (which I support personally) but which is unambiguously to the advantage if the Lib Dems over other parties.

  • @Charles Beaumont
    Although I can understand where you are going, surely one of the problems you have is that this isn’t new. In 2007 Paddy Ashdown was talking about something similar and “……Not about having power at the town hall, it’s about having power in the hands of the citizen ……” regarding all sorts of things (http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_6990000/newsid_6999100/6999180.stm).

    Another problem is the fact that the Town Hall is one of the few places Libs/Lib Dems have been able to exercise power for a number of years, so I suppose it’s human nature that there is a reluctance to give that power away. This has already been seen with police commissioners and education, so why wouldn’t your political opponents just accuse you of waffle and point out the reluctance shown by many in your Party to go along with these sorts of things?

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 9:08pm

    Chris – I totally agree that this isn’t new. In fact it is in some ways old fashioned liberalism. But making it the key message of an election campaign, the over-riding clear commitment would be something new.

  • Charles
    “the over-riding clear commitment would be something new.”
    That may be true, but surely it’s something that you need to start now? If your Party membership is shown to continually oppose any devolution of power (e.g. through direct elections) then who will believe the message when it is presented in your manifesto (especially as your political opponents will be more than happy to point out any previous reluctance)?

    Having said that, I wish you well on your mission to convince your fellow travellers that it is something worth pursuing 😀

  • I’m amused that people think that the state is what ought to stand between us and “corporate interests”. It makes the crass socialistic assumption that “corporate interests” are somehow at odds with peoples’ interests (as opposed to peoples’ interests as perceived by politicians) whilst at the same time repudiating the old Marxian debate (by the likes of Ralph Milliband and Poulanzas) that the state is inevitably a vehicle for capital. I wish people would make up their minds just what it is for.

    FWIW, I agree with Milliband and Poulanzas, and so do many anarchists, market anarchists and even anarcho-capitalists, that the state is a vehicle for the interests of capital rather than of the people.

    I very much doubt, for instance, that were Surrey in complete control of their own health service they would have done anything as stupid as granting a huge monopoly on primary care to Virgin Health. Viewed from the state run health service though it is just a small part, small enough just to be an experiment for the rest of us. Tell me which way is representing the corporate interests?

    I’m amused too that in spite of his admission that the central state actually hasn’t done much terribly effective against corporate interests, it only requires a little change here and there suddenly to be able to miraculously do so. No matter how many centuries and how many governments of different political hues may be said to have already tried.

    Einstein’s definition of insanity applies to the state – trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  • Oh, and I think people would be quite insulted to know that some people with rosettes think that some of them are incapable of organising their own affairs such that they need said people with rosettes and overpaid bureaucrats to do it for them.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 10:40pm

    Jock – I have plenty of sympathy for much of what you write, but ultimately my argument here is not about less state (although Mike C seemed to think it was) but a different state: a state closer to the people. The less state debate takes us back to my starting point: the two sides of the party scrapping over ideology as the public shake their heads and dismiss us entirely. .

  • Charles >And nor have I seen Wales get subverted since it got devolution.
    >but a different state: a state closer to the people

    I fear a lot, possibly the majority of people in Wales couldn’t tell you what the Assembly does, or has achieved, bar free prescriptions and a hopeless ambulance service.
    AMs are no more trusted than MPs and plenty of people see it as another talking shop and a waste of money.
    It came into being with 50.3% of the referendum vote: almost half those who voted didn’t want devolution at all.
    And the turn-out for the referendum in 2011 on getting more devolved powers was 35.63%: two-thirds of voters either didn’t know if it would be a good idea, or didn’t care.

    So I’m not sure how much of a vote-winner devolving powers anywhere else would be.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jun '12 - 11:40pm

    Cassie – thanks for your comment. I’m no expert on the Welsh Assembly so I take your points. I was just using it as an example of the fact that a devolved government doesn’t (apparently) immediately get subverted by evil corporations. From what I do know of the Assembly its powers were always insufficient to be taken very seriously by the population. But I doubt they’d vote it away now – there was a poll back in 2010 saying that 13% would want it abolished and most people would like it to have more power. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/wales_politics/8541797.stm

  • Apologies, Charles, if I have partly hijacked the discussion then!

    Although I would say that, depending on how you organise lower tiers of government, you can de facto arrive at a smaller state position. Especially if you can use it to create genuine competition between different authorities (which you would so long as you don’t prescribe centrally so much of their activities). Would you, for example, allow them to choose what sort of taxes they raise – LVT for one, LIT for another, etc?

  • Toby MacDonnell 11th Jun '12 - 1:15am

    Jock: I don’t think that the state should stand against corperate interests. I think the law should stand between everyone and acts of profound injustice, and that a state is nessecary to find a nation-wide concensus on what constitutes an injustice. After that, the courts are there to determine whether an injustice has been done or not. My point is that big states are willing to look the other way if one of its interests violates another less important interest: fewer interests means more focus.

  • Charles Beaumont 11th Jun '12 - 2:25am

    Jock – my view is that taxes are a key part of this. I didn’t put it in my article because it would need a proper analysis of revenues/costs etc. But there is a simple equation that if you do things at the local level you should also finance it at that level. Which would seem to suggest two things: taxes at the centre go down and taxes in the regions go up. I believe that the way taxes are collected regionally should be a matter for those regions to decide. The big question would be whether there would be some kind of limit imposed from the outside, e.g. the local tax can’t exceed a certain fraction of the national tax.

  • Toby, my comment about state as bastion against corporate interests was really in response to Mike.

    However, I’d take you up on the suggestion that a “state is necessary” to discover what we think of as an injustice. I think the state is a singularly bad institution to create and arbitrate on law and justice. It is flawed by characteristics which we would usually regard as evidence of injustice itself – holding a monopoly on arbitration; having a huge conflict of interest by also ruling on disputes with itself; and to top it all off punishing people at the expense of the victims. Most of the history of states seems to have been about wresting arbitrary power from their rulers, and, with activist government creating thousands of new criminal offences a decade, one wonders if we have maybe got complacent.

    The making of law via legislation is the foundation of privilege, of siding with one interest over another. And it continues apace today. Hundreds of years of moaning about that doesn’t seem to have changed it much. It is the means by which corporate interests for instance achieve regulatory capture, to return to Mike’s points above.

    Most people know a malum in se when they come across it. So much so that the state hardly need intervene on such issues, as they are covered through common and customary law and precedent almost the world over. But we give the biggest gang the ability to create mala prohibita of dubious merit and impose its monopoly will. That does not sound like a good system to me. Anyway, that’s hardly the subject of this thread, but maybe Charles could comment on whether his proposed devolution might include, for example, a revival of court leets (with or without an ale taster!).

  • Charles, the poll you referred to was in 2010
    It found: ‘A total of 56% of those questioned said they would vote for full Senedd law-making powers’
    Be interesting to know how widely they conducted that poll (evenly, right across Wales?)

    When it came to the actual referendum, only 35.6% of voters bothered to vote at all.

    Would we get rid of it now? I think there’s a sense we’re stuck with it. Plus it keeps the Conservatives out in perpetuity!!

    On the general subject.
    >It means that government will treat people as adults and give them back the power to run their own affairs. Real power returns to communities: power to set taxes and deliver education, policing, planning and health.

    Do you just mean freeing councils of central rules? Or using your ‘referendum if 10% want one” idea?
    If the latter, how do resolve:
    a) vocal people voting for their pet projects, at the expense of the rest of budget pot?
    b) endless referenda?
    c) if you get ‘the public’ to set council tax, how much would they be willing to pay? (while still expecting good services somehow to be provided)
    c) any planning application for anything now hits the NIMBY factor (understandably: I don’t want a bypass or a block of flats in my back garden).
    Leave it ‘the people’ and nothing would ever get built. So councillors have to over-ride ‘the people’ and they are deemed out of touch, arrogant, riding rough-shod over public opinion, and are as unpopular as any moat-cleaning MP.

    I’m not shooting your idea down, just exploring the issues it raises.

  • I think the debate about localism and smaller state is attractive to Parties when they can’t form viable majorities. Also it’s hard to see how they would work without a change in the electoral system and that I’m afraid is not on the cards,
    Furthermore there’s already too much government by organized vocal pressure groups and that has actually distanced voters from politics,, to the point where policies seem to be decided despite the electorate.. And anyway, politicians choose to listen to what they want to hear.

  • It’s your country, we’re giving it back.
    How about…..
    It’s your democracy, we’re giving it back?
    All three main parties feverishly deny democracy when it comes to the question of Europe. This is why UKIP are doing far better than LibDems in voter popularity. Not because they want Nigel Farage as PM, (who is little more than a stand-up comedian), but because they,… the VOTERS want their COUNRY, and DEMOCRACY, back,.. from Europe.
    If you are truly democrats, and believe in real democracy, then give the voters a referendum on Europe.

  • Charles Beaumont 11th Jun '12 - 3:01pm

    Cassie – I think the referendum idea is slightly seperate from, but closely linked to, the overall localism idea. I believe making it possible for citizens to get a referendum will improve engagement with the political process and be an important outlet. But there needs to be a suitable hurdle so weed out frivolous or special-interest hijacks. It may be that 10% is setting it too low (as Toby MacDonell observed). There are plenty of places where such a system exists so it would be fairly straightforward to do an analysis of the pros and cons of different systems. For example, only holding referenda at the same time as elections would reduce the costs and improve election turnout.

    The issue of increased localism is related in that it involves giving more power to smaller groups of people, but I didn’t intend that one should depend on the other (sorry if that wasn’t clear). So the localism principle is one of fairly simple devolution – take the powers of the Scottish Parliament as an example (I think the Welsh Assembly is too limited to be a strong example). But, importantly, if we’re saying that education, housing etc. is delivered locally then some of that must be funded locally. Which means, just as people make choices at the ballot box on the national scene, including on the likely impact on their wallets, they will make those choices locally.

    On NIMBYism, a lot comes down to the system. It wouldn’t be democracy to give every individual a veto over planning laws; that is the tyranny of the individual. But it does seem to me to be more democratic to suggest that planning policy can be set and co-ordinated at a local level – so, for example, Oxfordshire, with a population of 650,000 and 1000 square miles can decide what it’s planning policy will be and people can decide if they like it at the ballot box. Maybe the Oxfordshire Tories will run on a ticket of rigorously enforced green belt protection and Oxfordshire Labour will say they want to relax this to help development that will make housing more affordable [NB – the example is merely to illustrate]. That’s then a classic policy question for the voter to decide at the ballot box. Whoever is elected then has a mandate to deliver that, which also means that not everyone gets what they want. But at least people are closer to the decisions than at present.

  • Charles Beaumont 11th Jun '12 - 3:14pm

    Jock – on court leets and ale tasters – I suspect there would be plenty of applicants for the latter :-D. There is clearly a tension in any reform between the ‘whole hog’ approach and the more incremental one. Jock is a self-identified ‘market anarchist’. I think he would probably agree that is quite an unusual perspective (not any the less valuable for that, but I don’t think there are millions of market anarchists in Britain). At risk of looking too (small-c heavily underlined) conservative, I’m more inclined to the incrementalist reform, which is after all what has defined Britain’s constitutional change over the years. Therefore my idea is about giving a lot more power to elected officials in county/unitary authorities and taking a lot of power away from central goernment (that second point being key), but doing so in a way that people find easy to understand.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Jun '12 - 2:13am

    It often seems to me that many Lib Dems are schizophrenic when it comes to localism (as are Labour and the Tories in their different ways, but they tend not to extol its virtues so much).

    What it usually boils down to is that they want more power for councils, in the sense of ‘reclaiming’ some of the powers that central government has arrogated to itself over the decades. So far, so good.

    However they are all too comfortable with centralised power at the EU level, this being justified by guff about internationalism – which gives a noble concept a bad name – and lip service to ‘subsidiarity’. At the same time they are uncomfortable with any concept of citizens exercising power directly by taking control of the public money spent on their behalf (as for example in schemes of direct democracy, school vouchers, personal health budgets etc).

    At least as it is understood and practised in most countries, liberalism is not simply about devolving power from national politicians to local politicians – this is municipal socialism – but about putting power back into the hands of citizens themselves. As David Laws observed in a speech on education reform in 2007: “It is socialists who believe in empowering politicians; it must be for liberals to believe in empowering people.”

    Yet there is little clamour from these soi-disant localists even to decentralise the running of centrally funded public services, and any idea ithat services might be funded differently from one area to another, experiment with different models of provision, or depart in any significant way from national uniformity, is swiftly decried as a ‘postcode lottery’.

    Thus ‘localism’ becomes reduced to campaigning locally against some hospital ward closure or police merger or whatever, blaming central government, when the true absurdity is that government ministers in Whitehall should be responsible for these decisions at all. Yet the spirit of Aneurin Bevan lives on: the sound of bedpans dropping must echo through Whitehall.

    The idea that schools should be able to control their own finances and set their own pay levels (which was embraced even by the often-centralist New Labour in respect of academies) is unpopular with Lib Dems, while there is outright opposition to localising public sector pay more generally. Even if centralised national pay bargaining and pay levels made economic sense (which it doesn’t), it assuredly is not localist. As Tim says, the party’s posture on this does not bode well for any wider commitment to devolved decision-making, since the crux of the objection is that it is unfair for pay to vary according to the local cost of living (although fine in the private sector apparently). As we know, fairness is an even more potent ‘hooray word’ than localism, dubious though this lopsided interpretation of fairness is.

    Any serious commitment to localism must involve a major localisation of the tax base, since until local government raises the bulk of its own revenue there will be no real accountability and its relationship with central government will continue to be that of a supplicant. Yet the only major Lib Dem proposal in this area in the recent past (now happily discarded, but not replaced with anything better) was the bizarre policy of increasing income tax (by adding a LIT onto the existing income tax base) while scrapping the only broad-based property tax (yes, I know council tax has many failings and isn’t strictly a property tax but then nor is stamp duty, which is a much worse tax economically).

    As ever, Jock’s radicalism is a bracing antidote to this sterile social democratic conformism, and while I don’t necessarily go with him 100% of the way (I’m not an anarchist, market or otherwise) I do think we need not merely incrementalism but a ‘big bang’ localism that would break the grip of centralised government in a convincing way.

  • Charles Beaumont 12th Jun '12 - 12:29pm

    On the question of funding it seems to me there are two angles: how you fund locally , and what. On the first I think as a liberal: let voters decide at the local level. Some places will opt for local income tax, others property tax and so on. I dont really care as long as it has a democratic mandate. As I’ve outlined already it is a given that central taxation falls if local taxation is rising. And there should be more flexibility to raise funds in other ways (bonds etc) but with enforced covergence criteria.

    But that ‘s the easy bit. The hard bit is how much? Should local administration be entirely self-funding (in which case poverty in Hackney is your problem) or should their be a range of ‘federal’ fiscal transfers and other programmes on offer? I think most of us would accept the case for some kind of a federal element is strong. You could have 2 options: a set of central govt programmes that Councils could bid for ( but the most successful bidder might not be the neediest); or a set of indeces which qualify for central support (local poverty rate, local employemt rate etc).

    Finally, on incremental vs big bang: ultimately it’s a sterile debate. My proposal would be the biggest change to local govt in decades, maybe ever. But I’ve tried to do it in a way that people can easily understand (no mention of regional assemblies). That’s the incremental bit. I don’t think the public will vote for cellular democracy, sovereignty at the county level or shire leets. I may be wrong of course.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '12 - 1:01pm

    It would be nice if on discussion on local – national – EU governance, some mention was made of the fact that in recent years power has shifted fundamentally from government at whatever level to big business. I find it daft that so many on the political right go on and on about the power being ceded to the EU but seem to care nothing about how their policies push power into the hands of the big global corporations – or actually, I think it isn’t so much daft as a convenient smokescreen. The idea of more power in the hands of local councils is very sweet, but honestly, how much power does your council have when it’s up against a big corporation throwing its weight around?

  • Charles Beaumont 12th Jun '12 - 1:30pm

    “Some places will opt for local income tax, others property tax and so on. I dont really care as long as it has a democratic mandate.”

    A point of clarification – from a policy perspective of re-energising localism I don’t think there should be a national template for taxation systems – this should be a question of what the local party puts in its manifesto.

    > Matthew H – your point has been made elsewhere but ultimately I don’t really understand it. Clearly corporations have immense power in some areas but I’m not sure what this purported ‘battle’ between a little local council and an evil global corporation is going to be about? For example, in my proposal, there’s no reason a council can’t set up its own services in-house if it doesn’t want to be reliant on corporations for things like waste collection. But it’s hard to think of an example where a corporation could hold a county to ransom (rather like Gazprom has to various central European countries). Given that our utilities are already mostly privatised and deregulated this seems all the more the case.

  • There may be what some term “vulgar libertarians” who appear to be sanguine about corporate power, but on what most people would call the very far right, economically speaking, the likes of anarcho-capitalists, they have always criticised the crony capitalism that has seen the state grant vast privilege to the corporatocracy. So much so that people like Murray Rothbard suggested that such corporations should be treated as state entities to be homesteaded by workers or customers, for example as co-operatives, when the state’s support for them is taken away.

    As I am sure I have quoted to you previously, Matthew those of us who call ourselves on the “libertarian left” as market anarchists would say, with Kevin Carson, in a tradition going back 150 years, that:

    …coercive state policies are not necessary to remedy the evils of present-day capitalism. All these evils–exploitation of labor, monopoly and concentration, the energy crisis, pollution, waste–result from government intervention in the market on behalf of capitalists. The solution is not more government intervention, but to eliminate the existing government intervention from which the problems derive. A genuine free market society, in which all transactions are voluntary and all costs are internalized in price, would be a decentralized society of human-scale production, in which all of labor’s product went to labor, instead of to capitalists, landlords and government bureaucrats.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '12 - 10:33pm

    Charles Beaumont

    But it’s hard to think of an example where a corporation could hold a county to ransom

    If County Councils have won the power to take control of factories and offices in their county and stop big corporations from closing then down when its suits them, that’s news to me. It’s also news if County Councils have win the power to stop the Murdoch propaganda machine that, as we have seen, quite obviously is holding our whole coubntry to ransom, with its threats “cross us and we’ll destroy you, do what we say and we’ll back you”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jun '12 - 10:49pm

    Jock, yes, I have seen you quote this sort of thing many times, but however many times you do so, I still find it nonsense.

    I like the idea of using small scale providers, but I don’t in practice. The reason is not, as you seem to be arguing, because the government has forced me not to. It’s because it’s much more convenient to use big supermarkets and services provided by big corporations than it is to use independent corner shops and market stalls.

    150 years ago big chains did not exist – goods and services still WERE largely provided by local businesses. So what was said then under those situations does not necessarily apply in the very different situation of today. Less than 100 years ago, G.K.Chesterton and the distributists were horrified at the idea that a man might own TWO grocery shops. What would they think of Tesco and Sainsbury?

    Sorry, but while in your eyes a starving man who sells himself into slavery in order to get food has engaged in a “voluntary” transcaction, in my eyes, he has not.

  • Charles Beaumont 13th Jun '12 - 1:49am

    Matthew, thank you for the clarification. I didn’t know I was being held to ransom by Murdoch. I don’t like his products and nor do I share his ideology so I don’t buy them, don’t watch Sky and now that there’s a paywall I don’t read the Times online.

    Seriously – I have no idea how “the power to take control of factories and offices” fits with any definition of liberalism I’ve ever come across. So given that this power certainly is not one that I would suggest is given to local councils (and nor is its. as far as I’m aware, granted to central government except in the rarest and craziest of circumstances, such as a war) then I suppose, on your definition, we are all being held to ransom. But since everyone everywhere is held to ransom that suggests to me that it is in fact entirely normal and not something we should worry about.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '12 - 11:29am

    Charles, my point is that the rise of big corporations and the effects of globalisation mean that power does not reside in government at whatever level in the way it used to. So what you say in your last message, which is quite true, contradicts what you said in your original article. There it was all about “power to the people”, now you admit it doesn’t work like that. In a primitive peasant community where people lived largely on their own resources, local community assemblies could be the most powerful aspect of people’s lives. As the economy grows more complex we sacrifice some of that power in return for what more can be done through large scale co-operation.

    I certainly like the idea of “power to local communities”, it has been a motivating factor in my political activity all my adult life. But it would be foolish to ignore the extent to which the scale of modern life restricts what can be done by a local council.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '12 - 12:00pm

    Now let me comment on some other aspects of your article.

    Every Lib Dem candidate will be chosen in a party primary (that might at least make a few people re-join).

    Do you use the word “primary” because it’s a system they use in the USA and whatever is done in the USA is naturally superior to what is done in the UK and so should be adopted here? I am personally very much opposed to USA-style primaries because in effect it means the state forcing itself on private organisations and saying “We will dictate to you how you may present yourself”. A political party is a private organisation of people who have come together with a particular aim. As such, those people should have the absolute right to decide what that aim is and how it is to progress, and who they might nominate from their number to play any particular role such as a candidate in a public election. A primary system in effect means the state takes away that autonomy and itself decides who may form an organisation and choose its representatives.

    Instead of a primary system, we need an electoral system which does not mean people are forced to vote for party in order not to “split the vote” and “let in party Y”. Once we have that, whether a candidate has the nomination of some private organisation or not is not such a big matter. Someone who sort of likes what X stands for but not all of it can still stand as an independent rather than use the state to force X to accept him as their representative, which is what a primary system means. Who needs primaries when we can have STV?


    Every local council will have the authority to hold binding referenda if 10% of the population signs a petition. The same will go for national referenda.

    Unfortunately, referendums (I shall not bore you with the grammatical reasons why that is the correct plural) are often a way the powerful manipulate the weak. See, for example, how there is a clamour for a referendum on the EU but not on the NHS. Why? Because there are powerful people in this country who have an interest in this country pulling out of the EU, but none who have an interest in reversing the semi-privatisation of the NHS which is taking place, even though the vast majority of the country opposes it. As we saw with the AV referendum, powerful forces can easily manipulate referendum results, relying on the fact that most people get bored with technical details and so are easily swayed by emotional arguments which have little to do with the reality of the issue.

    Between those who think that a distinctively centre-left message will take us back to the heady polling numbers of 2010 and those who argue that we actually need to be playing to naturally Tory-voting middle class southerners?

    What heady polling numbers of 2010? In the 2010 general election we performed no better than we did in the 1974 general elections. The idea that it was some sort of highpoint is wrong.

    Now, let me tell you about the south. I am a southerner. I was brought up in Sussex. I am not a Tory. You may be surprised to find there are millions of other southerners who are also not Tories. The impression that the south is universally Tory comes mainly from the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Of those who do vote Tory in the south, many only vote Tory because they have been conditioned to think it’s either Tory or Labour, and Labour seems too northern and urban for their tastes. So, the way to appeal to these voters actually is NOT to be just like the Tories, but to offer something DIFFERENT. Which the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats have developed by doing – we have been successful in many previously supposedly “true blue” areas, it is where most of our MPs come form, and they haven’t won in those areas by adopting Tory policies and attitudes. Often in fact it’s the poorer parts of the south, such as the council estate where I grew up, which provide the bedrock of support for the Liberals because the people there are yearning for a voice – and the left liberal line that once was associated with our party is just what they were yearning for.

  • Charles Beaumont 13th Jun '12 - 1:55pm

    Matthew – you’ll note that I referred to polling numbers not election results. During 2010 the LDs at some points polled well into the 30s. Not so on election day.

    As for your point about primaries, ultimately I don’t see conspiracy and control quite as widely as you do. Yes, a fairer electoral system might make a big difference, but unlike my proposals, the public sees electoral reform as a way for Lib Dems to secure more power for themselves. A typical political gambit.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jun '12 - 2:12pm

    This seems more like something the BNP or EDL might want as a slogan, or even UKIP or anti-Europe Conservatives, not LibDem at all. Do people really think the country has been taken away from them? And in what tangible ways will we be able to “give it back” ? Does this message store up disaster for us if people stlll feel powerless a year after the election?

    For some people, this message might mean “give local leaders more power”, which is perhaps the exact opposite of what voters want from national elections. My strong impression is that voters want a strong, national leader, not a mess of local politicians

  • Alex Sabine 13th Jun '12 - 4:54pm

    But Matthew, far from being a brake on corporate power, the remote and opaque EU is more a manifestation of it, which is why big companies have the access and lobbying power to get what they want, and tend to find its edicts so much less irksome than small owner-managed businesses do.

    I am more concerned about state capitalism, about the fusion of state and corporate power reinforcing the advantages of vested interests and incumbents, which is what you end up with when the state intervenes in every nook and cranny of the economy dispensing subsidies and tax breaks and picking winners and consulting ‘both sides of industry’ (ie the CBI and the union barons) and all the other corporatist mission creep.

    You say: “I like the idea of using small scale providers, but I don’t in practice. The reason is not, as you seem to be arguing, because the government has forced me not to. It’s because it’s much more convenient to use big supermarkets and services provided by big corporations than it is to use independent corner shops and market stalls.”

    Exactly, it is your choice based on the value you place on convenience versus other things. The reason you shop at supermarkets is not because the government forces you to, nor is it because supermarkets force you to, but simply for the reason you state succinctly in the second sentence above. Then you blame the nasty big corporations for offering you this choice, and demand that they be cut down to size.

    I dare say many of us feel ambivalent about shopping in supermarkets rather than small independent shops, for a variety of reasons, just as people say they disapprove of media tattle-tattle about celebrities but go on buying the newspapers that indulge in it. This doesn’t seem to me a good enough reason for government (which, unlike supermarkets and newspapers, has actual coercive power and access to the public purse) to make these choices for us or infantilise us.

    The one useful thing it could do would be to distance itself from big corporations and stop feathering their nests through its taxes and regulations and subsidies and sweetheart planning deals.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '12 - 11:03am

    Alex Sabine

    Exactly, it is your choice based on the value you place on convenience versus other things. The reason you shop at supermarkets is not because the government forces you to, nor is it because supermarkets force you to, but simply for the reason you state succinctly in the second sentence above. Then you blame the nasty big corporations for offering you this choice, and demand that they be cut down to size.

    No, I am merely noting that power has shifted from government to corporations. I can surely use the services provided by big corporations and still be free to call for them to be subject to some control of standards just as my using government services should not mean I am a hypocrite should I then make any criticism of government or call for the government to operate within any set of ethical standards.

    The point underneath is that much political discourse is fighting last year’s (or last century’s) battles. I don’t believe the state has the power it used to as recently as my younger adulthood due to the huge scale of globalisation that has taken place since then. Therefore, political arguments and thinking dating from the time when the state really was the biggest player need to be questioned. Back in those days the state controlled water, electricity, gas, there were still exchange controls, and the majority of opposition to the EU came from those who saw it as a capitalist conspiracy to halt the underlying socialist nature of the UK and its people. Jock Coats goes on and on about arguments dating back 150 years, but really, though one can respect what people were saying then, one does need to realise that people then just had no idea of how different society would be when so much was run by people who had no underlying loyalty to any country and the power to play one off against the other. That is rather different from the time when the biggest businessman was the one who owned the local department store, such as, well, see:

    http://www.thepotteries.org/advert_wk/013.htm

    for a real 19th century Liberal as opposed to those Ayn Rand head-bangers who claim to be such today.

  • Charles Beaumont 14th Jun '12 - 3:07pm

    The myth of globalisation as a novelty. Exports as a share of global GDP were higher in 1900 than in 2000. There are many other measures which demonstrate that, before WWI (the heyday of Liberalism which promoted global trade, and also apparently the heyday of Messrs Huntbach of the Potteries) globalization was a real and dynamic force. During that period also the state was far smaller.
    I don’t suggest that the poverty and squalor of the turn of the twentieth century are something we should look to with nostalgia. But let’s not get swept up in this urban myth that globalisation is a new phenomenon.

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