April 9, 2008
The UK is missing a tier of Democracy
Simon Jenkins, the Guardian correspondent, is a fierce advocate of local democracy. In this piece he argues that our society has no tier between individuals and the central state – and that as a result the enforcement of communal discipline is left to the police.
Unhappy days are here again. This is the season of a ghoul-on-every-page. Each February Britain opens Pandora’s box and out leap a hundred serial killers, multiple rapists, child molesters, “scumbags”, stabbers and feral bingers. The BBC adores them – it even sexed-up Monday’s news with footsteps of a stalking killer – and so does the press. “Collapse of society as we know it” is the nation’s annual X rated movie. As for Pandora’s last gift, hope, we wait in vain.
Reaction comes from the familiar army of moaners, platitudinisers and retributionists. To the tabloids, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is too good for modern Britain. Where are the parents, the teachers, the moral leaders? Apparently they should all be lined up and shot for dereliction of duty. Ten years ago, I bet a Labour government would be so terrified of the far right as one day to bring back internment, torture and hanging. I already win on the first two.
The bromides are always delivered in the passive voice. Yesterday the nation’s supposed moral leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote on these pages about what “ought to be done” about young people in public. They should be made welcome. Others suggest something should be done about parents, the police, teachers, social workers and the latest guardians of the social contract, alcohol salesmen. Something should always be done by the government. Responsibility is never active and first person singular.
Something is missing from this cacophony and I know exactly what it is. A tier of social control has been lobotomised from British public life. There is nothing between the individual or family unit on one hand and the central state on the other. Britain has fallen into De Tocqueville’s trap of an atomised society, where “every man is a stranger to the destiny of others. He is beside his fellow citizens but does not see them … while above them rises an immense and tutelary power, that of the state”. We have lost the habit of association.
The nearest any British community has to local government these days is the police force. Local leadership is a 999 call. Whether it is a rape epidemic, an unruly school, trouble with immigrants, a released paedophile or bingeing teenagers, the community appears before the world as a police officer. There may be walk-on parts for a firefighter, a priest and, bringing up the rear, a national MP. But the figure of reassurance and authority in any British town nowadays is in uniform (which is why Muslims turn to their mullahs).
Go to any community abroad, whether in America or France or Germany or the Netherlands, and that figure will be a locally elected official, normally a mayor. He or she may represent a city, a village, a neighbourhood or just a block association, but they will be known by their people and trusted. Mayoral name recognition in France and Germany is 80%-90%. Legitimacy rests not on a uniform but on a vote.
The renaissance in US cities over the past quarter-century has depended on civic leadership supplied through election. The same applies to the newly confident cities of Spain and eastern Europe. It is to mayors and councillors that parents, businessmen, farmers and teachers naturally turn in time of trouble. It is they who barter local power, cut deals, express civic pride, reward and punish, as they have done through history.
The still stumbling urban revival in Britain requires anonymous party-based councils to plead with regional offices of central government. Local elections no longer make an appreciable impact on policing, health, education or economic development. Councils retain no fiscal discretion to aid communities with social clubs, sports halls, libraries, parks or playgrounds. In my London borough, not only have we no neighbourhood council but we are not allowed to elect our own councillor lest he or she “represents” us alone. We are merged with neighbourhoods elsewhere. This is no incentive for civic leadership.
In France there is an elected official for every 120 people, which is why French micro-democracy is alive and kicking. In Germany the ratio is 1:250; in Britain it is 1:2,600. In France the smallest unit of discretionary local government (raising some money and running some services) is the commune, with an average population of 1,500. In Germany that size is 5,000 people. In Britain the average district population is 120,000, and even that body can pass the blame for any service deficiency to central government.
Cynics sneer at the “calibre” of local councillors. Yet nobody will exercise leadership in a community if denied the power to make it effective. I do not believe that British citizens are unique in Europe in being incapable of taking responsibility for their communities. They may prefer to sit at home and blame others but if you reduce local institutions to consultative status, consultation is all you get, not leadership.
Of all nationalisations in British history, none has been so corrosive of the public good as the nationalisation of social responsibility. I am not starry eyed about the vigour of local democracy abroad. It is messy, bureaucratic and often corrupt. But it appears to yield communities more able to discipline themselves and their young, and more satisfied at the delivery of their public services. They do not throw nearly so many people in jail. Local newspapers are not, as in Britain, filled with impotent whinges against central government. Local leadership is considered a duty by citizens permitted to exercise it.
Britons have come to regard democracy as they do weddings and funerals, a ritual to be endured as briefly as possible. In every other part of the world, however poor, community coheres round some forum of elected, appointed or anointed body, where grievances are aired and redress is sought by people living and working together and, to an extent, governing each other. In Britain this is found in some rural parishes but is virtually unknown in urban and suburban areas.
In recent years, a phoney mantra about civil society has been preached by Gordon Brown, David Miliband and Hazel Blears, usually presaging an expensive and meaningless “conversation with stakeholders”. Such top-down paternalism is not self-government and never will be. Democracy bites only when it votes, taxes and delivers. Only then do its participants have the legitimacy to enforce social responsibility and communal discipline. We can moan as much as we like, but all else is for the birds.