Alex Massie

One Cheer for Tory Localism, But Where’s the Beef?

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Harry Phibbs' piece at Comment is Free today makes the perfectly sensible point that the Tories "localism" agenda - the closest thing Cameron has to a Big Idea - is more flexible, even nuanced than is sometimes appreciated. The Man in Whitehall Does Not Always Know Best. Elements of the localist agenda require local councils to have more power; others to devolve power - or choice - to the people themselves.

As Phibbs says, more power also demands more "accountability". But the Tories' definition of "accountability" (itself a notion that can be taken too far) seems to mean only that You Can Find Out What the Cooncil is Spending. There's something to be said for websites that reveal just where government spending - at both a local and national level - actually goes, but that's not actually the iggest or boldest idea in the world.

Responsibility is more important than accountability. Or rather, true accountability follows responsibility. And until local government is responsible for funding itself, "localism" risks being little more than a pretty idea that tinkers at the margins, rather than the more compelling, even radical, transformative project it could be. When central government funds 80% of local government, councils are held accountable by Whitehall just as much as they are by voters. And local government is, understandably, at the mercy of a Whitehall system upon which they are dependent for their income. Unless you change that, some of the rest of it can't be more than window dressing. Nor, mind you, are you likely to have real innovations in local government until councils must raise their own income.

So there's something to the Tory plans that is appealling, but there's not enough to them - yet? - for them to be truly convincing. 

That, of course, reflects an essentially pessimistic, sceptical view, one that says Cameron's Biggish Idea will be quietly abandoned - or watered down even more and, thus, to the point of uselessness - by the attractions of power.

One other point: the idea of Britain as a unified state is so ingrained that, as we've seen, the idea of different policies or systems operating in Scotland or Wales has proved too much for many people to handle. The notion of dozens of little laboratories of democracy flourishing in England too seems almost certain to be too much for the media to cope with, let alone for the Gentlemen in Whitehall to permit.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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