I want to return to my earlier discussion of local government and constitutional orders. This will briefly preempt my examination of Britain’s new Supreme Court, which I will resume in a week or two. For now, I want to examine recent and current political initiatives regarding localism and the “restoration” of power to local constituents/constituencies. More specifically, I want to link localism with ERD’s previous entry Constitutional Acts versus Acting Constitutionally, and draw some connections between the State, government, localism, and constitutional action. This entry will be of first of three related posts.
A lot of political hay gets made under the guise of “localism.” Discussions of authentic democracy, accountability, transparency, “natural justice,” and appropriate governing action are often coupled with the idea of “the local.” But what does it mean to promote “localism” and local priority for taking decisions and acting? What are the constitutional dimensions of the local, localism, localities, and local people?
Firstly, we need to work out what localism means. Secondly, we need to understand what localism entails institutionally. Thirdly, we need to think about the implications of localism for functions, such as service delivery. These concerns are, of course, not easily separable, but let’s give it a go. Since generalities are most easily treated by attending to particulars, I’ll base my discussion on Britain’s history and experience.
The meanings of localism vary historically, politically, and culturally in Britain. Anglo-Saxon local practices were different from those developed under Norman control; feudal practices varied widely, and were, of course, much different than centralizing state practices of the modern period. Local government and administrative divisions evolved differently between areas of Britain, and along different time scales. Manchester, Birmingham, and Kent, for example, grew up from different conditions and at different times; all were distinct from the growth and development of London, and of, for example, Exeter, Preston, and Porthcawl.
In addition, Wales, Scotland, and England have unique local ontogenies, at least until the regularizing initiatives of the modern era, which began in earnest around 1500 or so. Baronies, manors, towns, cities, commons, squares, markets, regions: Each of these may have been the focus of specific types of local action in any given locale and given historical moment, and each had its own way of administering within its purview. Princes, lords, mayors, councils, city fathers, “big men,” families, guilds, governors, and others have variously been the key positions of leadership and administration. By the late medieval period the British archipelago was characterized by tensions between the exercise of local prerogative and centralizing aspirations by the Anglo-Normans and their descendants. British political history since has circulated in important ways around the tensions of local – central relations, namely administrative and political pluralism, and subsidiarity.
Local government thus has developed over a very long time in Britain, through a long and complex history. Local power preceded and was usurped by central power (a point called to my attention by Elizabeth Dale). This process occurred relatively slowly and in a somewhat staccato way temporally. What concerns me here is the “long decline” of local government, by which I mean the arrogation of local power by central government.
The particular political-legal organization of Britain as a seriated union of Crowns created the “unitary state” (England, with the Principality of Wales formally appended to the English Crown, united with Scotland in 1707, and with Ireland in 1801). The British unitary state, some argue (see also here) is the most centralized (i.e. over-centralized), inefficient, and bureaucratic government in Europe. This is not a new argument; it tends to recur with political retrenchment and austerity moves. What we need to examine is localism as a political instrumentality, as well as the “newness” of “new localism” and how, if at all, its institutional innovations will create novel constitutional and consequential effects.
It should be clear that local government in Britain is uniform or static across time or space. On the contrary, variability has characterized the institutions and practices of local government, in terms of administrative competence, funding, and political responsibility. The role of local government has been one of constant change, from the Anglo-Norman medieval institution of the Justices of the Peace to the Poor Law in 1601, to Victorian experiments with subsidiarity, to the current emphasis on contracting services with local partners. This latter, the “new localism,” is at the forefront of constitutional, democratic, and administrative reforms proposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition Government in London, and the subject of my posts to follow. In my next post, I will take up with some of the institutional implications of the “new localism.”