Today is the last chance to book a place at the ConservativeHome/ ConservativeIntelligence conference on the Tory 2010 manifesto. Contributors to the conference include Michael Fallon MP, Daniel Finkelstein, Paul Goodman MP, Jill Kirby, Oliver Letwin MP, Peter Lilley MP, Neil O'Brien and Ian Taylor MP. A full guide to the Tory manifesto will be published including essays on Cameron's big themes. One of those essays is the piece below on localism from Dan Hannan MEP. Click here to book a place at the conference or a copy of the manifesto.
Localism is more easily proclaimed in Opposition than delivered in office. It’s all very well to demand the devolution of power when Conservative councils want to escape control from Labour ministers; but things look different when you’re handing power away to loony Left boroughs. It’s easy to demand a bonfire of the quangos when they’re stuffed with socialist placemen, but not so easy when your own supporters are clamouring to run them.
Do you remember the very first episode of Yes, Minister? As an Opposition MP, Jim Hacker had set up a Freedom of Information petition. By a quirk of timing, the general election intervened just before it was delivered, and he now finds himself as the minister who must receive his own petition. Suddenly his attitude is very different.
“Are you accepting it or rejecting it, minister?” asks a journalist.
“Yes,” replies Hacker carefully.
“Yes you’re accepting it or yes you’re rejecting it?”
How would an incoming Conservative Government measure up against Hacker? We’ll know within the first three months of the administration.
David Cameron has gone further than any previous Tory leader in proposing a shift in power from Whitehall to town halls, from standing bureaucracies to elected representatives and from the executive to the legislature. He has adopted large chunks of the Direct Democracy agenda: open primaries, referendum mechanisms, more power for local councils, the devolution of social security, parental choice in education, scrapping quangos, democratic control of policing, abolition of Crown Prerogative powers, fewer MPs, secret ballots for select committee chairmen.
True, there are one or two areas where he has adopted a different approach, notably on the EU and on healthcare. None the less, if even half of the measures listed above were to be implemented, they would revolutionise the British state, forever altering the relationship between government and citizen.
So will they be? It all depends on whether the new administration sees localism as a way of delivering budgetary savings, or as a distraction. The priority of an incoming Tory government will, quite properly, be to reduce the deficit. This can be done simply by ordering every minister to identify savings, or it can be done by tackling the structural cause of high spending.
The reason budgets continue to grow in the United Kingdom is simply stated: they are set by members of the executive, whose livelihoods depend on government spending, rather than by members of the legislature, who must answer to taxpayers.
Ponder the extraordinary truth that, when Gordon Brown decreed the largest per capita bail-out package in the world, setting Britain on course to double its national debt, he did so without so much as summoning Parliament. Not only was there no vote; there wasn’t even a debate – not, at any rate, until after the event. So much for the principle, established in blood by our seventeenth century ancestors, that only the House of Commons might legitimately raise revenue for central government.
Will the next Conservative Government give parliamentary committees more control over the expenditure of their respective departments and agencies? Will it transfer to elected representatives the massive patronage powers enjoyed by the Prime Minister and the standing quangocracy? Will it underpin the independence of local councils by allowing them substantial fiscal autonomy?
The one thing we can say definitively is this: all these things will become progressively harder as a new government becomes embedded, as its Jim Hackers become more reliant upon their Sir Humphreys. If you start reading press briefings to the effect that the public finances must come first, and that radical devolution might have to wait until a second term, you can fairly surmise that it will never happen.
As things stand, though, I am cautiously optimistic. David Cameron has already delivered on one of the few things that party leaders can do in Opposition (as opposed to promising that they would do them in office): open primaries. This, in itself, implies a welcome readiness to have a far more independent set of MPs. David Cameron was quicker than most politicians to understand the sense of disempowerment and frustration felt by contemporary voters, and often says that the remedy is a radical redistribution of power away from the central state.
The first test will come with policing. The beneficiaries of the status quo – unelected Police Authority appointees, Leftists who fear public opinion and a number of senior policemen – have already launched a campaign to water down Conservative policy. Sir Hugh Orde has spoken of mass resignations by chief constables if the plans go ahead.
If we see the new Home Secretary entering into urgent negotiations to find a solution acceptable to Sir Hugh, we shall be able to infer that localism has been indefinitely postponed. If, on the other hand, the new Home Secretary announces that his party has a clear mandate, and politely accepts the resignations of anyone who doesn’t like it, we shall know that we are in business.