12 June House of Commons
Michael Heseltine was the sole speaker. He has recently submitted a government-commissioned report No Stone Unturned (http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/BISCore/corporate/docs/N/12-1213-no-stone-unturned-in-pursuit-of-growth.pdf).
It was unusually depressing fare, because like the later Bourbons Heseltine has forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He laid out his ancient political wares, soiled by at least three decades of repetition and non-implementation, namely, the decentralisation of power and the spending of taxpayers’ money to local level. To this end Heseltine envisaged the Westminster government, national Civil Service and the Quangocracy playing the role of turkeys voting for Christmas as they happily let power and influence slip away while local politicians in league with bodies representing local business and various non-commercial interests enthusiastically and ably grasped the new responsibilities . Here is the gruesome catalogue impracticality as it appears in No Stone Unturned:
A blueprint for the future
30. All this has led me to conclude that we need a number of significant innovations which,
together, will provide a stable yet flexible architecture for the future:
> a Prime Minister-led National Growth Council, ensuring all parts of government play
their part to support growth and with an independent secretariat to ensure its
conclusions are fully and expeditiously implemented
> a very significant devolution of funding from central government to Local Enterprise
Partnerships so that government investment in economic development is tailored
directly to the individual challenges and opportunities of our communities, and can
be augmented by private sector investment
> a clear statement by government of its priorities to guide Local Enterprise Partnerships
in the preparation of strategic plans for their local economies
> and for central government, a clear policy for each sector of the economy conceived
in conjunction with industry and academia
There are six major problems with Heseltine’s wish to see power and spending devolved:
1. The truly dismal quality of most councillors and senior local government officers. All too often they are simply out of their depth dealing with complex matters. Anyone who doubts this should question their local councillors about complex matters such as planning decisions and the granting of large contracts to private business and go to watch their councillors and senior officers performing in Council meetings. Particularly illuminating are committee meetings where individual councillors are allowed only a few minutes to speak on a subject and important decisions pass through on the nod. The widespread introduction of the “cabinet system” into local government has further degraded the influence of the individual councillor. This “cabinet system” results in the council being run in a similar way to the Westminster Government, with those councillors of the party or coalition holding power who are outside the “cabinet” being left virtually powerless to do anything of which the “cabinet” disapproves. More generally any councillor, whether of the ruling party or not, finds trying to get answers from council officers about any contentious matter is the devil’s own job.
2. The transformation of local government politicians and parties into clones of the Westminster parties with many councillors seeing local government simply as a springboard to becoming an MP. The pathetic eagerness of councillors to compromise their personal beliefs in pursuit of a Westminster seat or even office within a local council ruling group has to be experienced to be believed.
3. In some urban areas, most notably London, politics based on race and ethnicity are emerging. Tower Hamlets is a good example of this –(http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/andrewgilligan/100209215/tower-hamlets-the-mets-new-phone-hacking/). This raises the question of how further power would be used and taxpayers’ money would be spent . Could such areas be trusted to exercise power and spend money for the general good or for their narrow ethnic/racial interests?
4. The self-interest of Westminster politicians in retaining the status quo.
5. The massive quangocracy which provides Westminster politicians with an immense amount of patronage.
6. Fraud – the greater the decentralisation of public expenditure the greater the opportunity for fraud and, as a matter of contingent fact, the greater the fraud in practice.
Heseltine wants to see elected mayors forced on England by Parliament (so much for the recent democratic rejection of mayors) and where there are not elected mayors the function of council leader (a political office) and council chief executive (an administrative office) to be combined. In short he wants to put a great deal of power into one person’s hands. That is a surefire recipe for cronyism and graft.
When it came to questions and observations, I pointed out the risk of greater fraud and corruption and asked Heseltine how he thought the move from centralised control and expenditure to localised expenditure and control could take place and bearing in mind the general quality of local councillors and their attachment by an umbilical cord to the Westminster parties. Heseltine took severe exception to my worry about increased fraud and corruption being a natural result of devolved power. This is interesting. Either he is remarkably naïve or he denies it even though he knows it is widespread, especially in the manipulation of public contracts put out to tender, for example, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/sep/22/oft-fines-building-bid-rigging). The spirit of John Poulson, T Dan Smith and Reggie Maudling is alive and well today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/dec/11/highereducation.biography1).
How did he answer my question of how transformation from the present centralised command and control to his vision of councils, businessmen and local interest groups all operating in harmony to provide a much more focused and efficient delivery of public goods, both through public funding and the promotion of private business would be achieved? He did not have a clue. All offered was banalities about improving the quality councillors and council officers,
There was a time when much of what is now done by central government was a local government responsibility, for example, the provision of welfare (the old Poor Law) water, gas and electricity, and there was a genuine sense of local civic pride and responsibility. But such circumstances are organic growths and it is a sorry mistake to imagine that the mentality and ability found at local level in places such as Victorian Birmingham can be consciously re-created.
The irony of Heseltine’s position is that while he claims that he wishes to see power devolved, the way he wants it devolved is not to give the electorate greater democratic power of over their lives but to create a situation which is essentially that of the corporate state, a political structure which supposedly represents all people and interests directly but which in practice always falls foul of Robert Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, whereby those supposedly representing the interests of the masses invariably end up serving their own.
The most interesting thing Heseltine said was his description of the 1980s as an awful time. Strangely, you may think, he omitted to mention that he was happy to sit in Thatcher’s cabinet between 1979 and 1986, at which point he resigned after having a temper tantrum in Cabinet over the Westland Helicopter affair – Heseltine wanted to “rescue” Westland Helicopters – the last maker of helicopters in the UK – by merging it and British Aerospace (Bae) with French and German companies, while Thatcher wanted Westland to join with the American company Sikorsky, which is what happened.