Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Squeezing the nation

28 June 2004

Mr Blunkett's ill-judged decision to try to bounce Humberside Police Authority into suspending their chief constable is a symptom of a deeper malaise at the national tier of government.

Subsidiarity is an unusual word. It popped into the English language almost directly from the original German during the later part of the last century to describe a political concept to which, until that time, little attention had been given in British government circles. After Britain joined what is now the European Union the concept came in handy as successive governments strove to limit Europe's centralising tendencies.

More recently, however, government at the national level has found itself increasingly squeezed between higher and lower administrative tiers as the logic of subsidiarity has begun to take hold. Being squeezed is not something that government ministers take kindly to, so perhaps it's not surprising there's been some friction of late.

The principle - to remind ourselves - is this. Political power should be exercised by the smallest possible unit of government. The power to make decisions is passed to the next (subsidiary) level until the appropriate level is reached. Appropriateness has something to do with relevance; the decision-making body should be that which is closest to the group of people likely to be affected by the decision.

It is easy to see the significance of subsidiarity in the context of German federalism. It helps to establish the relative competence of the federal and state governments. The extension of that to cover the powers of nations states vis à vis the E.U. is also straightforward. But for the majority of those nation states that have strong, centralised governments, their "relevance" to their national populations is generally self-fulfilling. If a government is making decisions at a national level that affect everybody it becomes, by definition, the "appropriate" level for those decisions to be taken. The question whether decisions in a given policy area should affect everybody, or whether different decisions for different groups of people would be appropriate, tends not to get asked.

This is bad news for local government, the relationship of which to national government reflects a tension between conflicting political objectives. For aeons, people only encountered government at a local level. In England the "squirearchy" of landowners dominated local politics and the administration of justice. The vestiges of these traditional power bases in the counties are still to be seen in the county council tier of government, the county police forces, the county courts and the system of localised health service provision, although the latter has been reformed so often that its origins in county administration are vestigial indeed.

The big change came in the nineteenth century with industrialisation, urbanisation, rising literacy and the development of mass forms of communication. These are the conditions that made nationalism possible, and the rôle of the national government had a rising significance for people's daily lives. If people hold national government responsible for the things that affect them it follows that national government will seek influence and control over local government to ensure conformity with its national objectives. In England this process gathered pace throughout the twentieth century, accelerating in the last twenty years to the point where local government has less to do with politics that with the administration of services to national standards and guidelines.

The form, therefore, of local government has weathered better than the content. The sanctity of the form reflects not only the enduring power of localism in English society but also an important principle in the political grammar of democracy. Democratic politics requires more than observer status from its constituents; it calls for a degree of engagement with political process, a form of participation most commonly expressed in relation to local issues. It is at this level that the voices of relatively small groups of people can be heard and acted upon, and for national political leaders, therefore, local government provides a useful bridge to the fulfilment of people's human scale political concerns. The problem is that these concerns must tie in with the national political picture. In other words, the government wants people to engage in local politics but doesn't want them to make decisions with which it disagrees.

All of which points to the latest folly of the increasingly erratic Home Secretary, David Blunkett. His invocation of a poorly drafted clause in the 2002 Police Reform Act, calling upon Humberside Police Authority to suspend Chief Constable David Westwood in the light of criticisms made by the Bichard enquiry into the Soham murders, illustrates the muddiness of the debate between local and central control. The idea that Mr Westwood should be suspended at the behest of the Home Secretary in the interests of public confidence makes a complete mockery of the tradition of a local police force under local control. The whole reason that tradition persists is because of the public confidence that flows from local accountability of this sort.

The new law on which Mr Blunkett is intending to rely in his pursuit of the hapless Mr Westwood is ambiguous because it attempts a compromise between the local control of the police authorities and the desire of a Home Secretary to have the last say. It isn't brave enough to address the central point of subsidiarity, which is that the appropriate level of control is appropriate, that authority exercised at that level (however lowly) should have all the force of authority exercised in more rarefied political atmospheres and should not be easily countermanded.

The conduct of a local police force ought to be a matter for local control. The principle of subsidiarity demands no less. The linking together of local forces to ensure effective co-operation is another matter. Subsidiarity places authority for linkage at the level at which co-operation between forces is most likely to be effective. At present this would be the national level and ,ironically, Mr Blunkett's own department was also criticised in the Bichard report for failures in this area. No Home Office ministers were to be seen lining up to suspend themselves on this account.

Increasingly, however, co-operation between police forces across national boundaries is necessary for the control of serious crime. And other factors, such as standards of evidence or police behaviour, also have a universal application. There is, after all, no greater justification for fitting somebody up in Prague or Paris than there is in Pontypridd. Not surprisingly, therefore, the European Union seeks to take an interest in such matters. Operationally speaking it might be more effective to have, say, regional police forces co-ordinated at European level than to have 25 separate systems with control bottle-necks at the national level in each country.

Such talk is anathema to New Labour (and Mr Blunkett in particular), for whom control remains the overriding issue in the struggle to achieve results. But the question why the Humberside Police Force should be subject to control by the Home Office rather than Humberside Police Authority is one to which any logical answer is elusive. The truth is that the national level is an arbitrary point of control, frozen at an historical moment from which the world (and Europe in particular) is moving on

Subsidiarity demands that more and more aspects of policy are pushed to the extremities of the decision-making frame. Often that will mean either above or below national governments; both smaller and bigger units, each exercising management in an appropriate way. For Mr Blunkett and his national government colleagues the squeeze is just beginning.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004