The way to have a good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it amongst the many
– Thomas Jefferson
So far, in this loose series on centralisation, we have brought in the Scottish Government, the local councils and the European Union; all bodies that have displayed centralising tendencies.
Economists, when speaking of centralisation, usually concentrate on where the money comes from and assume that where the money comes from is the centre and where the centre is so dwells the power: and mostly they are correct.
Recently, Holyrood decided that our council tax payments had to be frozen (only a little unthawing now) and this meant that we all paid less in direct council tax but the downside was that it took some power from the local councils and placed it with Holyrood. This was in conflict with the recent Smith Commission report which stressed both the desire and need for local authorities and local communities to have a greater input in the running of their neighbourhoods.
Glasgow trailblazed in 2014 as that city secured what could be termed a devolution deal aimed at giving the local politicians more control; in England cities like Liverpool and Sheffield went even further. In this respect, moving power from London to Edinburgh does not go far enough without some of that responsibility being passed onto the local councils.
But, in turn, the size and authority of local councils has to come into consideration; as the extent of local councils grows, so the direct control people have over them lessens (Highland Council and Inverclyde being prime examples). Paradoxically, in recent years, we have witnessed the rise in influence of community councils as a result of local authorities amalgamating and becoming less directly accountable to the electorate (and thus creating a vacuum in local affairs).
Nothing wrong with community councils; they work hard and the people involved are (generally) conscientious and committed – but community councils are not democratically elected.
Getting the balance right between centralised and local power is the key – and an extremely difficult task. Russia stands as a stark example of where matters can get (or are) out of hand if the balance is wrong.
The Soviet Union was so highly centralised that corruption (both petty and great) was an almost accepted part of life. After the collapse of the Union, Russia broke up into a highly decentralised system where regional and local government gained considerable power and autonomy. This was under-scored by the fact that 60% of all Russian taxes levelled were paid locally – the central government then being considerably under-funded. The regional and local governments, corrupt for years, were often controlled by little more than gangsters (well, actual
As Russia's finances collapsed, the corrupt local leaders attempted to gain control of the Duma and the national government (this between 1999 and 2000). With the country facing lawlessness, aggressive secessionist movements grew and, almost daily, acts of violence occurred; with the economic crisis rapidly developing to mirror the situation on the ground the Kremlin, under Vladimir Putin, eventually won back control.
The Kremlin's control of the regions began with widespread public support. Elections for regional leaders were disbanded in favour of the Kremlin appointing specific individuals. Although there is much more freedom in Russia today than in the Soviet era, Russia is still very much governed from the centre with the regions tending to look towards Moscow for approval and leadership; a swing from far too much decentralisation to far too much centralisation
As opposed to Mother Russia, the European Union is yet young and could still be considered as undergoing teething troubles: yet there are a few basics that the EU cannot afford to ignore.
Firstly, we do not speak the same language throughout the EU. It is sometimes not appreciated that the success of the United States rests much on the fact that a Californian resident can speak to someone in Connecticut without an intermediary. Secondly, and related to point one, is the fact that we all come from differing cultural backgrounds in the EU and have different codes of conduct and, significantly, different habits.
More importantly, we all have varying standards of wealth. Points one and two could well be considered 'challenges' to be overcome but not the fact that our levels of wealth and value of our currency (whether Euros or not) vary significantly from nation to nation (you can get a good steak meal in Romania for under £5 – and buy a detached house in Poland for £5,000). These marked differences have allowed employers to import and use cheaper labour throughout the EU at the expense of indigenous labour (minimum wage laws can be got around).
That gives healthier profits to businesses and to us, the customers, supposedly enjoying cheaper goods and services. It also leads to unemployment or, rather, these days of eight-hour contracts or less, under-employment and, consequently, places more people onto benefits and into food banks.
That is not to say that the poorer countries of Europe have to be slighted but, given the right controls, their standards can be raised without impinging on the general level of wealth enjoyed by the richer nations.
Certainly co-operation between the nations of Europe is necessary and lifting some of the barriers and restrictions, the initial reason for the European Common Market, had advantages but big, international business concerns are now taking too much control from the centre whilst the voices of the people of Europe are disparate and little heard.
The many have to take charge for Europe to work... Can that be done?
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Clydebank