Monday, May 21, 2012

The Mouse That The News Forgot

"I love small nations. I love small numbers. The world will be saved by the few."
The last words of André Gide (1869-1951)

Fans of Peter Sellers remember with a smile his 1959 film The Mouse That Roared, in which the USA is accidentally defeated by the tiny army of a fictional European microstate, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. With names like Bascombe, Benter, Buckley and Cobbley, the characters are provided with what might well be viewed as Wessex roots.

Another small state, this time in the real world, should have been making the headlines recently but appears to have fallen victim to a conspiracy of silence. That country is Iceland. Would we rather be hearing bad news from around the Med than good news from up near the Arctic? Perhaps it all depends on who ‘we’ are?

The saga has two themes, one dealing with economic causes and the other with political consequences. The economics is familiar to everyone: a neo-liberal free-for-all that went sour, leaving banks too big to fail. Except that in Iceland the banks proved too big to bail, resulting in some major write-offs of debt, at the insistence of voters, who in a referendum voted 93% against paying for bankers’ blunders. People power caused the Icelandic government to resign, and its replacement to launch a radical rewrite of the country’s constitution. The law enforcement agencies have been unleashed on the bankers and the politicians. Now the pressure is on to get the new constitution ratified and to stop the ‘interests’ clawing back ground (which, of course, they are poised to do). Have we been kept informed of all this daily through the media? No! Just the universal lie of TINA, as usual.

The Coalition’s junior partner has been, perhaps rightly, pilloried for wanting to make Lords reform an issue at a time of (supposedly) grave national crisis. Lords reform is indeed the wrong target. It reinforces the idea that decisions taken in London matter, and should matter. Our view, bluntly, is that if they do, then they shouldn’t. Sweeping constitutional reforms are certainly needed to make that point clear to all.

A crisis is precisely the time to reform the constitution, because if the old one had worked then the crisis could never have begun. And that means it needs reform now – before anything worse is permitted to happen. Those who oppose reform because it might make their own positions untenable and their culpability evident are precisely those whose advice we should heed least. And that includes all three of the parties currently propping up the unfit-for-purpose London regime.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Managing Complexity

Dig up ancient gold or silver in your garden and there’s a strong chance you’ll need to declare it as ‘treasure’. Which means, usually, that ownership gets claimed by the Crown, originally under the feudal doctrine that every man must have a lord and so abandoned property reverts to the paramount lord, the Queen herself. A cynic might add that Saxons burying treasure to keep it from the Normans should expect to have it seized, as that’s what happens to defeated folk.

There are four areas only where treasure does not revert to the Crown, areas known as ‘treasure franchises’, where the right to claim treasure has been granted away. In Cornwall and Lancashire, the right belongs to their respective Duchies. In the Square Mile, it belongs to the City of London Corporation. And in Bristol, evidence suggests, it belongs to the City Council.

That is one of a number of ways in which Bristol is strikingly different from other provincial cities. Another is that its Lord Mayor is the only one to be styled ‘Right Honourable’ without official sanction. A third is that about a half of Bristol’s administrative area is out at sea. The authority of most councils on the coast ends at low water mark but the Bristol boundary takes in the deep water channel from Avonmouth to the Holms, in its scale a unique concession. Bristol’s prized status as a ‘City and County’ is by no means unique, though it is the only case in England comprising land in more than one geographical county, and in 1996 Bristol became the only English city with its own Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff. The Great Charter of 1373 which first granted county status resulted from the complaints of its busy merchants that, given the poor roads in the region, it was inconvenient to attend the royal courts at the county towns of Gloucester and Ilchester. And it appears that the text of the charter was more a negotiated deal than simply the centre’s pleasure handed down.

As with any long-established city, the question of who actually runs Bristol isn’t easy to answer. Conspiracy theories abound. The Society of Merchant Venturers, perhaps? Or, equally select, the Antient Society of St Stephen’s Ringers? The Freemasons are always a good bet. (And Bristol’s have a history of doing things their way: in the early 19th century a visiting official from London sent to challenge the way Bristol lodges did things was deftly returned to sender. Some of the Bristol rituals therefore remain unique.) Even the political parties haven’t always shown their current subservience to HQ: before 1974, the Conservatives didn’t field their own candidates for the City Council but stood as the Citizen Party, nominally an anti-socialist coalition.

In being the only one of ten cities to accept the Coalition’s offer of a directly elected mayor, Bristol has added another badge of distinctiveness to the civic collection. It’s not because the case against municipal dictatorship – in the classical Roman sense now re-emerging – isn’t still sound in principle. It is, and the votes elsewhere have shown that it carries weight, just as they have also shown how worryingly wrong the Coalition was to try to achieve a ‘Yes’ outcome through bullying. If Bristol didn’t need to be bullied, if it has made a change it cannot now undo without fresh legislation, however ghastly the experiment becomes, then this speaks to the very nature of the city today.

That nature is a troubled one, and has been for a long time. The City Council has had seven Leaders in ten years. With the rise of three-party politics in Bristol over the past two decades, no party can secure majority control for long and speak with genuine authority on the city’s behalf. Yet that has been, in terms of a rigorously democratic analysis, the city’s own choice, albeit of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ variety. If it cannot unite behind a single party it is because it is a city whose diversity of outlooks, whose very richness, now prevents that. That diversity will still be there under an elected mayor. Concentrating power in a single pair of hands will enable decisions to be made but many of those decisions will be widely and deeply unpopular. To elect a Bristolian Caesar is to entrench one vision and, for the next four years, silence the others. Bristol’s politics will most likely get nastier now that more is at stake, now that the opportunity for ever-adaptive compromise has been discontinued.

We have always argued that union is not the answer. Division is. The answer is not to concentrate and centralise power but to deconcentrate and decentralise. While pundits love to pore over figures for turnout, it’s a measure of passive democracy, not active. The real measure we should be interested in is how many folk are able to take part in decision-making all the time, not just at elections. How many elected representatives does the area have, making decisions in the community and for the community, about ALL the things that matter locally, not just those that the London regime currently allows us to decide?

In 1972, Bristol’s council had 112 members, for a population of 425,300 (1 per 3,797 inhabitants). Today it has 70, for a population of 441,300 (1 per 6,304 inhabitants). The deterioration in that ratio tracks the deterioration in the city’s ability to make its own decisions. By 2020 the population is estimated to have risen to 460,800. So, pending an electoral review, that means one (largely powerless) councillor per 6,583 inhabitants. Or one mayor with most of the power (1 per 460,800).

An alternative vision for Bristol wouldn’t see 70 councillors surrendering power to one mayor. It would see them handing back power to the communities they represent, by allowing urban parish councils to be set up. Not area committees – puppets on strings – but independent bodies with their own mandate, their own budgets, staff and premises. In Mercia in the 1990s, a breakaway group of Labour politicians in Walsall tried to do just that. They proposed to divide the borough into 55 self-governing ‘neighbourhoods’, based around natural communities varying in size from 800 to 12,000 inhabitants, with an average of 5,000. Needless to say, national politicians soon crushed the idea. (It just wasn’t what Tony wanted to hear.) But it may be on its way back, with the first modern parish council in Greater London about to be set up, at Queen’s Park in the City of Westminster. Parishing urban areas isn’t easy. It’s true that cities are still made up of the villages they grew out over, but boundaries have become blurred and new communities have emerged around major new developments. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what a Walsall-style map would look like, in Bristol and in other Wessex cities too.

Managing complexity demands multi-layered governance, with every wider area respecting the autonomy of every narrower area within and valuing its contribution to the whole. The idea that a directly elected mayor can and should control everything that goes on in Bristol is wrong in two directions. The need for decentralisation is the focus of one. The need for regionalisation is the focus of the other. And that’s because it will rapidly become apparent that there are limits to any mayor’s power, resources and influence that can only be overcome by a regional tier of government. To resurrect Avon might seem a way forward but is in fact a deliberate half-answer, too close to localities to leave well alone, yet not strategic enough to be able to stand up to London bullies. Nothing less than Wessex will do.

Take transport. Bristol should by now be well on the way to building a metro system like Newcastle’s, linking the centre to the suburbs and far beyond the city boundary. A mayor won’t have the means to deliver one. A pathetic guided bus network, maybe, but that’s no way to set the city up for the future. Bristol is the largest commercial and retail centre west of London, a natural communications hub for a self-governing Wessex region. Today it has much less influence over transport decisions than the Isle of Man. The money that used to be ours, the money that could be spent doing what’s needed, isn’t here. It’s in London, being spent on white elephants.

Or take schools. The relatively poor performance of state education in Bristol has been a topic of conversation for decades. No blame can attach to the city’s politicians when one remembers the context in which they strive for improvement. As an old city, Bristol has an astonishing number of old, independent schools, endowed by long-dead merchants (and slave traders). Add to that the London cross-party consensus that the best schools should be hooked out of council control and turned into academies, and money thrown at free schools to further undermine inclusivity, and the new mayor starts with a patchwork quilt full of holes. A Wessex region, if it retained any education powers at all, that could not be further devolved, should use them to support local communities instead.

Not for the first time, the Coalition’s pseudo-localism gives responsibility with one hand while removing power with the other.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Tiny Society

It’s often said, with an air of superiority, that the Russians don’t really get democracy, that they prefer strongman rule. Democracy, in the sense of open public debate followed by free and fair voting, is something we used to do tolerably well in most areas. But recent decades have seen us slide more and more towards the Russian model.

In 1974 the number of councillors serving on principal local authorities was cut drastically. In many areas it has since been cut drastically again. A climate of sneer has been assiduously built up until we have come to believe that councillors are all in it for themselves and we’d be far better off without them. Leave it all to the experts. We can’t be bothered to ask searching questions any more, as they salami-slice our liberties.

Local government has withered as a consequence. The years since 1974 have not been its finest, but it’s hard to do good with the London regime on your back, stealing your powers, dictating how to use the few that remain, and making sure that no-one locally can have any real idea of just how powerless their local elected representatives now are.

The culmination of these attacks on civic virtue is the belief that discussion ‘holds things up’, when ‘everybody knows’ what needs to be done. It maybe even halts altogether things that enrich the few at the expense of the many. Let’s have strongman rule instead. Elected mayors. Elected police commissioners. Everyone else is doing it. All those countries we ‘compete’ with (dictatorships included). They all have strongman rule. That Mussolini makes the trains run on time, don’t you know.

The reality of David Cameron’s Big Society is responsibility without power. Get the volunteers to do all the hard work. But get them out of the debating chamber and the committee room. It’s not for them to shape the future. Real decisions are for the Tiny Society, the cabal of powerful personalities that folk without self-esteem can look up to and be impressed.

Assuming that Thursday’s referendum results are already in the bag, Cameron announced back in March that he plans to set up a national ‘cabinet’ of directly elected big-city mayors that will meet at least twice a year. Other council leaders are not invited. Behind the thinking is a vicious urbanism that belittles the contribution of all who do not live in cities. In the globalist ideology, territory has been abolished (and with it any concept of space-defined democracy). All that matters are cities as the consumers and remoulders of wealth into profit. They are seen as creative powerhouses that will drive reinvigorated growth. But it’s all an illusion. We’d like to see a city anywhere that can feed itself.

An illusion, yes, but one increasingly believed. The idea of city mayors is part of a bypassing of democracy that is redesigning institutions around dominant economic interests. City mayors are expected to speak and act not just for their core cities but for the wider city-region, for areas that had no say in electing them. It’s an idea that may well appeal to the chamber of commerce. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with democratic accountability. Lord Heseltine (remember him?), interviewed on BBC Radio 4 last month, suggested that Newcastle needs an elected mayor to compete with Alex Salmond. Bristol presumably needs one to meet the challenge from Wales. It’s astonishingly easy to get away with such completely fatuous comparisons. Salmond is not the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Provincial cities in England need provincial parliaments, reflecting their true strength, drawn from their hinterlands. Elected mayors fall short both in terms of powers and in terms of the territory they can lawfully control. But in their obsessive desire to exorcise the spirit of regionalism, the Coalition are happy to disenfranchise the whole of the rural English electorate. For some, that’s a necessary first step towards reorganising local government on city-regional lines, in an unholy alliance between city hall and Whitehall to spike the case for provincial parliaments. It seems that wiser counsel is being largely sidelined. One of the sharpest critiques happens to have come from the South West Communists. (The Communists? Championing localism? Well, stranger things have happened.)

If Bristol votes for a directly elected mayor, the first will be elected on 15th November. There will be elections that day whatever happens, because that’s the day we all go to the polls to elect our Police and Crime Commissioner. Well, maybe not all of us. Turnout is hardly going to break records. At least, not at the top end of the spectrum.

Where did it come from? Is there some decree from the U.S. State Department that all our local institutions have to be remodelled on American lines? If so, we await with interest the introduction of a federal constitution. But why, oh why, the change? Why get rid of local police authorities, made up of a range of councillors who know their widely differing areas and can speak with deep local knowledge of the problems they face? Why replace them with a celebrity from nowhere? The idea has been sloshing around Tory think-tanks for years. Oliver Letwin was promoting it in Iain Duncan Smith’s day. But not one credible argument has emerged as to why it would be a good thing. The best that Letwin can come up with is that a mechanism is needed to enable the current micromanagement of policing by the Home Office to be removed. So just do it?

What passes for our democracy is being hollowed out as fewer and fewer opportunities for effective involvement in the political life of our communities are allowed to remain in place. More and more decisions are being made without even the legal possibility of immediate scrutiny and direct challenge.

Passing power from collective to individual hands is a proven way to tighten central control. Bullying one high-profile personality is a lot easier than bullying 50 councillors, some of whom will assuredly be too bloody-minded to be bullied by anyone. Start with a ‘voluntary code of conduct’ for mayors and commissioners. Then make it statutory. Require them to comply with ministerial directions on how to carry out their tasks. Force them to get their plans and programmes signed off by the minister, ‘to ensure better co-ordination’. And when, at last, elected mayors and commissioners come to be replaced by appointed ones, ‘in the national interest, but still fully accountable through Parliament’, claim that no-one will notice the slightest practical difference.