“All governments are more or less combinations against the people. . .and as rulers have no more virtue than the ruled. . . the power of government can only be kept within its constituted bounds by the display of a power equal to itself, the collected sentiment of the people.” – Benjamin Franklin Bache, in a Philadelphia Aurora editorial, 1794
Richard North, EUReferendum, following his post on MPs (here and here), has now tackled the subject of local government. I waited to comment on the MPs post as I wished to see that which he wrote about local government, coupled with the fact that the two are ‘related’.
It is accepted by all attendees at Harrogate and those commenting that while politics is not for amateurs and that the scrutiny of government, the vetting and approval of legislation, and other activities in a properly functioning parliament, require considerable skill and aptitude, that does not mean that the end result should not (a) have had input from the people nor (b) that the end result should not be subject to the approval of the people. As Richard North noted in MPs Part II, a few quick fixes are not going to address, much less solve, the deep-seated problems. I do not believe that I am alone in my assertion that the model of representative democracy, as it presently exists, is not fit for purpose which means that if changes are to be made then we may as well start with a ‘clean sheet’.
When discussing the separation of powers, there would appear to be a preponderance of opinion that this means a separation of power between the executive and the legislature within a system of representative democracy. However, if we are of the opinion that we accept the need for ‘people power’ and power rising from the bottom rather than descending from the top; is not the question of separation of power not also one between the people and the political class?
Another point that was suggested was that dependent on the size of a constituency, perhaps more than one MP is required. This raises three further points, namely (a) are we not concerned with the cost of government, in which case why are we suggesting increasing the cost even more; (b) just why is an MP concerned with mundane local matters when he/she should be more concerned with matters of state; and (c) why do we elect and pay for local politicians who are no more than office clerks to central government, coupled with the question what exactly do they do besides acting as nodding dogs?
This neatly leads into Richard North’s latest article, following Harrogate, in which the question of local government is raised. To repeat the question posed earlier: just what do local politicians do and what is their purpose? As Richard North quite correctly points out:
“Local government units are centrally defined, by Act of Parliament. They owe their existence, their boundaries and their powers to the diktats of central government. They are funded primarily from the centre and the nature of monies which are collected locally are directed by the centre, as well as the amounts and terms of collection.
This, by any definition, is a top-down society. And, as a result, local elections have become little more than extended opinion polls on the performance of central government. There is little point in getting excited over the election of local officials when almost the entire extent of their powers is determined by national law.”
It must therefore be accepted by all that local government ‘per se’ does not presently exist and as Richard North suggests, how can something that does not exist be reformed? If there is a need to build it anew, ground up, providing the British people with something which is truly local and which is also government in the proper sense of the word and not just local administration, then why not continue the process and take it to its logical conclusion – which is national government? If we are to have true local government, a system which would involve local politicians, as at present, answerable to a few hundred people in their ward – and national politicians only having responsibility for a small number of matters, then why do we need 650 of them?
The subject of taxation is tackled in Richard North’s article and the point made that local authorities would become self-financing bodies. What ever the merits and demerits there are between a ‘precept’ model compared to two tax demands – one from central government and one from local government – the mechanics can be discussed at a later date. Either way local authorities would become self-sufficient in that they could raise funds by means of a sales tax or a land value tax (again the merits or demerits of both can be debated later). Immediately the cries can be heard: oh, not another tax; don’t we pay enough? Consider: the amount that central government presently provides to local authorities by way of a grant is virtually that which it collects in VAT – so with the abolition of VAT, the ‘cost’ to the public will be the same. As with national government having to provide an estimate of expenditure for public acceptance – under referism – so would local governments. This means that local people would decide what ‘services’ they are prepared to fund – coupled with how and to whom said services would be provided.
There is a ‘bonus point’ about local taxation that may initially escape the notice of readers in that if a local authority sets a sales tax, or land value tax, higher than that of its neighbouring county one can imagine the effect that would have on people’s behaviour. To give an example, were Berkshire to set a higher tax rate than say Oxfordshire, it is not illogical to presume that a goodly number of people from Berkshire would travel to Oxfordshire for shopping – and may even make the decision to move home. Likewise with the business rate, companies would have an incentive to locate to Oxfordshire, rather than Berkshire, thus increasing the ‘wealth’ of Oxfordshire. This scenario would provide something that we have never had in this country, namely a downward pressure on taxation. To coin a phrase – whats not to like?
During my attempts to promote the adoption of direct democracy an impression has been gained that it is felt I am suggesting that we should perform a ‘cut n paste’ job – this is not correct, in fact the Swiss system is quite complex. However the basic principle of Swiss direct democracy is that the people are the supreme political authority; and consider their system where the separation of power is concerned. The legislature, the executive and the judiciary are separate in terms of their personnel, but are only divided in terms of their function. This means that no-one may belong to more than one of the three federal authorities (parliament, government and the Supreme Court) at the same time.
A brief guide (2012 edition) to the Swiss system of direct democracy can be accessed here - it is worthy of study as there are many aspects contained therein which are of importance when considering the questions we raise in our discussions. It is also worth noting that because of the ‘people veto’ that can ultimately be employed, political parties of differing ideologies are forced to work together for the good of the country and that politicians are forced to consult far more with local government and the people in general to ensure that proposals they wish to introduce have majority support before they are tabled.