Social Localism, Not Local Socialism
Guest Contributor, Michael Merrick, on the perils of unthinking devolution
There can be little doubt that the most fashionable idea in contemporary political debate is that of 'localism'. Part of its popularity lies, on the political level, in its call for the electorate to have a more direct influence on the shape and direction of the political process. Though on the social level, too, the localist narrative has exciting potential; to renew and strengthen social relationships, to engage alienated and isolated pockets of society, and to help cultivate a pride in those 'little platoons' that so often prove the glue for any healthily functioning society. For this reason, the fact that the localism agenda now challenges the default methodological statism of so many of the political classes is surely a development to be warmly welcomed.
Or is it? That is, could it not equally be suggested that localism is not really the antidote to the state authoritarianism of recent years, but rather risks becoming a radical continuation of it?
Of course, there is an element of mischief to this question, and one possible response will always be 'it depends what you mean by x.' Nonetheless, the notion I am trying to explore is whether a localism that confines itself to tinkering with political structures and processes ('from Whitehall to town halls'), and neglects to argue the positive case for local involvement in formal and informal social institutions, runs the risk of further entrenching precisely that which those exasperated with the burden of an over-mighty state have for so long sought to counter. In short, could it be the case that localism without a coherent notion of 'society' risks becoming that which it seeks to repudiate?
Why is this so? Well, if the civic realm is moribund then any dispersal of power from the centre merely entrenches locally that which is dictated nationally - without a vibrant social sphere in which to situate it, localism is essentially a provincial version of statism. A battalion of local officials will inherit those powers that once belonged to civil servants in Whitehall, thereby replicating those same political oligarchies that occupy the centre. Localism thus becomes a stale political methodology, rather than a vibrant social philosophy, and the winners and losers will tend to be the same. Here, it is always the most actively engaged that will win out - vociferous and highly involved pressure groups will have a disproportionate effect on local priorities, and single issue politics would rule the political roost.
This risks exacerbating the feeling of alienation, of detachment from the political and social landscape, rather than alleviating it. After all, the inefficiencies of Whitehall make it a more cumbersome proposition than the highly targeted mechanisms of the local council, and those living under the threat of the latter might well long for the relative anonymity afforded by the distance of the former. With power dispersed locally, the roots of public sector power will naturally embed much deeper, so that disentangling oneself from overly zealous officialdom, for example, may well prove as odious a task as ever it was. In sum, if localism merely becomes centralised governance in Lilliputian form then it will aggravate frustrations, not soothe them.
As such, it should always be emphasised that the localist agenda has to remain a cultural and philosophical project, every bit as much as a political one. It requires a critique, and a coherent response to, the 'broken society', even whilst it is part of the proposed solution. The argument has to be made why civic engagement is valued, why it behoves the individual to become actively involved in the formation and support of local associations and structures of society, both formally and informally, and why this can make a genuine difference for everybody involved - and the space has to be cleared to allow this to happen. In short, localism needs a vibrant society to uphold its benign form: and it reinforces that vibrant society when it is successfully adopted.
Accordingly, any embrace of the localism agenda must be coupled with a commitment to a renewal of 'society', because it is this that underpins the whole project - and which stops localism becoming the vehicle for either detached libertarianism, or localised statism.