Alex Massie

Our Localist, Tocquevillian Future?

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Although it's been overshadowed by the fiscal crisis, it remains the case that the closest thing the Conservatives have to a Big Idea is their twinned-commitments to a "Post-Bureaucratic Age" and a future in which local communities enjoy much greater control over their affairs. As Dave has put it, "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state."

Nonetheless, it must be admitted that it remains to be seen whether Tory talk on these matters is matched by real action should they form the next government. It's easy to make good speeches and interesting promises in opposition; rather harder to translate that rhetoric into action once the government machine gets involved.

And let's not get carried away by the rhetoric either. A degree of scepticism is sensible. In his Hugo Young Lecture Cameron talked repeatedly about the need for "strong and concerted government action" and that "we need to use the state to remake society". No libertarian he, no roll-backer neither.

Perhaps this is simply a question of pragmatism. We are not, even if we wished to, going to be living in any anarcho-capitalist nirvana any time soon. Fundamentally, it often seems as though the Conservatives have got half-way there: for all their talk of localism, there's an awful lot of Big Government involved too. So we should remain sceptical.

(And this before one even considers the need for reforming the way local government is financed since that's one of the greatest obstacles to real localism and something that the Conservatives appear to have no interest in whatsoever.)

So it was encouraging to attend the launch of a new report by NESTA this morning which explores lessons that can be learnt from existing localist projects - often centred on reducing carbon emissions - as part of a new distributist future. It's good and thoughtful stuff and this, it struck me, is the main point:

Scale is achieved by having lots of local solutions that collectively have a big impact on social challenges, by providing the infrastructure for local innovation and allowing communities to learn from each other.

[...]This different approach to scaling - supporting mass innovation rather than stretching particular solutions - questions the efficiency of so-called 'economies of scale'. The most cost-effective impact will not be achieved by pushing a single one-size-fits all solution or a limited number of models of best practice, particularly in approaching tough, entrenched social challenges.

More local diversity necessarily results in a variety of provision. But a greater variety of approaches is necessary where specific social contexts, behaviours and networks have a demonstrable impact on people's action and attitudes. Areas differ in the prevalence of certain environmental, heath and re-offending issues. For this reason, we already have postcode lotteries - not because public services are insufficiently standardised, but in part because they are too standardised.

While minimum standards in public services should remain, it is the current fiction of supposedly standardised provision in mainstream public services that generates concern about 'postcode lotteries', more than the fear of more genuinely local and diversified responses that would be much better placed to make an impact on the inequalities that persist.

Much of the talk this morning concerned green issues, but there are plenty of others that come to mind. Policing - as the Tories, to be fair, do sometimes talk about - is another. Ditto re-offending and criminal justice. I'd like to add welfare provision and tax to the list too. And there are many other areas in which giving control to local communities could, potentially, reap great rewards - not least in terms of fostering competition between neighbouring communities.

But that also requires room for failure. Not every seed becomes a rose. And it demands that we appreciate that variations in service across postcodes are a feature of localism, not a bug or proof of failure.

Pleasingly Nick Hurd MP appeared to agree with this. But even he acknowledged that taking such a hands-off approach will be more difficult should the Tories be in power this summer. Easier to have a certain sang-froid in opposition.

In the end, however, the localist idea is a new version of an old one. It's Tocqueville and his local associations. That's the spirit that built countries once before and there's no reason why it can't again.

Cameron thinks that simply stripping the state out of the equation isn't enough - no fan of spontaneous order he! - but I suspect he still under-estimates how much could be achieved by trusting people and trusting in turn that, more often than not, they're capable of making good decisions for themselves, even in the most unlikely neighbourhoods or least promising circumstances.

But it's a start and a welcome one even if, as always, it's imperfect and one's confidence in political delivery must necessarily be less than total.

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.

Topics in this articleSocietytories