A frequent objection to decentralisation is that small-scale jurisdictions are prone to takeover by well-organised, highly motivated bands of fanatics. History furnishes examples, from Savonarola in Florence to the Anabaptists in Münster and the Calvinists in Geneva.
The threat is real but centralisation does not remove it. All that it does is magnify its consequences. There are two reasons why the threat is not what it seems.
The first is that small-scale dictatorships are more easily contained by their neighbours and so, unable to expand, they must ultimately implode due to lack of resources to sustain themselves in the face of a hostile world. Professor Leopold Kohr, in his 1957 classic, The Breakdown of Nations, compared the career of Adolf Hitler with that of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana. Both were demagogues, harnessing popular discontent to accumulate personal power, but the boundaries of Louisiana set a natural limit to Long’s. Hitler as dictator of Bavaria would have been a comic, Chaplinesque figure. Long as U.S. President would not.
The second reason is that liberals wrongly assume that a large-scale jurisdiction will necessarily pursue the policies with which they agree. There is no reason why this should be so, and plenty of examples, especially from the Communist bloc, that prove the point. The larger the state territory, the more difficult it is for dissidents to flee successfully. The smaller it is, and therefore the more numerous its neighbours, the more numerous the options available for those fleeing and the more likely it is that one or more of those neighbours will be receptive to refugees. Decentralists oppose world government not because there are no problems that would benefit from discussion at the global scale but because, short of interstellar flight, there is no means of escape from repressive rulings.
As a matter of fact, small-scale jurisdictions do tend to be less liberal. Some Swiss cantons have quite a reputation for it. Put another way though, they recognise that actions – like those giving rise to social security payments – do have consequences. In a small community, these are clear for all to see but in a larger one are blurred by being shared between many more folk, who individually have little influence over what the policy and the payments should be. In a small jurisdiction the link between population and resources is self-evident and the pressure therefore exists to keep them in balance. Naturally, this requires a limit to the size of economic units as well as political ones: tentacular corporations are incompatible with effective local accountability.
If small communities are more ‘conservative’, should radicals seek to empower them? It’s a question that’s been asked ever since the French Revolution, when Parisians opposed regional autonomy because they saw it as creating bastions of reaction.
If we wish to be consistent and avoid the charge of hypocrisy, then we must answer affirmatively. Radical politics worthy of the name has to move beyond substituting enlightened despotism for the unenlightened kind. We are not living in the 1790s, when a reactionary countryside might starve a revolutionary capital into submission. In 2012, all our communities should be free to make their own decisions, whether we approve of them or not.
And how should they make them? That too is their decision. Just as no country welcomes interference in its constitutional affairs, neither should city, town or village. Nevertheless, we as a party active in such affairs advocate the rebuilding of community on the basis of a living local democracy. This is not, contrary to Westminster thinking, something that can be created by legislation, doled out to the trusted few who meet the prescribed criteria. It does not arise from legal decisions but from ethical ones. It is the result of a shared commitment to inclusive participation in civic life. We have to be careful to distinguish traditions that bond a community together from privileges that drive it apart. We want knowledge of our history to inspire us, but not to the extent that it becomes a dictatorship of the dead.
The principles at work here are not limited to the constitutional. A living local democracy, truly empowered, would start to question many things we have always taken for granted. Why do so many Wessex acres belong to doubtless decent chaps who have them only because an ancestor was a crook and flatterer at the court of King Henry VIII? Why do so many other acres belong to financial institutions with no long-term stake in Wessex society? Why are so many of our homes and farms owned by those who made their money in activities of dubious legality in the City of London? To take back the ancient land of Wessex for the folk of Wessex today is the kind of rallying call we need. At the heart of our party’s vision is the idea of ‘the community of Wessex’, resident in most cases upon ‘the territory of Wessex’, an inclusive community that exists for everyone, not just for those who currently make up the moneyed class. And we are growing it, bit by bit.