It was disappointing to see
Jacqui Smith abandon her plans to introduce direct elections to Police
Authorities this week. The proposals were not only radical but an exciting
breath of fresh, localising air from a Government that has all too often
indulged the politicians’ habit of centralising power.
The Home Secretary’s u-turn
is a setback for those who believe in decentralising power from Whitehall
to localities, civil society and individuals. The debate that led to
her decision contains key lessons that any political movement must be
aware of to truly reform the public sector in a way that will deliver
a smaller state, better services and lower taxes.
First and foremost is the undeniable
fact that: politicians at any level guard their power jealously.
In the case of Police Authority elections, some of the most outspoken
voices against the plans were those of existing Authority members. Currently,
each PA is made up of appointed members of the public, magistrates and
appointed local councillors.
Unsurprisingly, the local councillors
appointed to the authorities came out strongly against any suggestion
that they should be replaced by people elected specially for the role,
and were supported by that stalwart defender of the flawed status quo,
the Local Government Association. Ms Smith should not have been surprised
that people with comfortable, paid and relatively unaccountable positions
of power would object to being replaced by elected representatives,
she seems to have allowed their predictable complaints to undermine
Another lesson to learn here
is that you have to be brave to let go. The Home Secretary’s
public reason for ditching the proposals is that she did not want to
have Conservatives or “populists” running police forces in a way
that she did not like. Whilst it is an understandable reaction to want
everything to be run exactly as you would choose, this is the most crucial
instinct to overcome if one wants to achieve true reform.
As Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas
Carswell MP have made clear in their excellent book The Plan,
it is this centralising, overbearing, micromanaging urge infesting Whitehall
and Westminster that is the very reason our public services are failing.
It might seem the best solution to problems for the Home Secretary to
constantly directly interfere in the way policing is run in any given
part of the country, but actually it has consistently made things worse.
She does not have the local knowledge, the expertise or indeed the time
to deal with every problem herself from her office in Whitehall.
Unfortunately for the public,
who are at the sharp end of crime and the cheque-writing end of policing,
Jacqui Smith seems to have been unable to steel herself to take the
plunge to do the right thing. As mentioned above, it is difficult for
any politician to trust the people and hand power down to them, but
it must be even more difficult for this Home Secretary to devolve
power on this area. After all, the public are considerably more
tough on crime, hugely opposed to politically correct policing and far
less cringing in the face of exaggerated Human Rights Act sensibilities.
Put it this way, you would not see people arrested
for wearing “Bollocks to Blair” t-shirts
or violent vandals given
free Kentucky Fried Chicken
if the public had a say in police priorities.
Fundamentally, it is clear
from the repeated failings in public services, brought on by over-centralisation,
that localism is a good way to improve the running of government. That
does not necessarily mean giving power simply to local councils, but
passing it downwards as far as possible – “from Brussels to Westminster,
from Whitehall to local councils and from the state to the citizen”,
as Hannan and Carswell put it. This recent defeat shows us that it will
not be easy to achieve, and that the politicians who pass such laws
will have to be brave to go through with it, but it must be done. Without
such radical reform, the micromanagement, the unaccountability, the
waste and the inefficiency will never truly cease.