A persistent and increasingly popular critique of the Blair government has been its centralisation of power, both in London and in the hands of a deeply unrepresentative elite. Ross McKibbin makes the charge in his recent, and charmingly disgusted, LRB article, and it is a theme that runs through Anthony Sampson's 'Who Runs This Place?'. Both decry the destruction, not just by this government one should add, of a variety of quasi-representative institutions which served to mediate, disperse and oppose the power of the central state: local government, the trade unions and, in Sampson's case, although with some surprise at himself, much of what used to be described threateningly as The Establishment. The tone of their complaint can be judged from McKibbin's comment on the new education proposals by the government:
The proposal effectively to neuter the LEAs and to encourage the supposed independence of secondary schools, whatever form their independence takes, turns citizens into supplicants... As citizens, we approach the state not as supplicants but as people who claim a right because we are citizens. We do not, however, approach schools run by faiths, or businessmen, or universities, or crackpots, as citizens. We approach them as people seeking favours. And that gives the ‘providers’ social authority incompatible with a democratic state.
Perhaps McKibbin is unnecessarily worried about the power that the non-governmental service providers will exercise over those who they are allegedly serving: I'm not enough of a sociologist to say with much confidence, although I can well see why he is skeptical. The point that he and Sampson make though, that isolated individuals, unable to compete in terms of economic, social or political resources with those raised above them, will become supplicants before those powers in the absence of institutions which enable them to collaborate or somehow represent them. The understanding of France's history since the expulsion of the English as one of centralisation and attendant atomisation that motivated De Tocqueville's 'Democracy In America' is effectively identical, and Robert Putnam's work on social capital, which allegedly found some correlation between quality of governance and civil society activity, shares many of the same concerns.
De Tocqueville in particular stresses the role of local government - the famous view of the New England township as a school of civic virtue, quite apart from being a bulwark against over-reaching central authorities. Local government, other than the creation of a Mayor of London, admittedly one without adequate control over its transport system, has been progressively emasculated over at least the past twenty years: David Blunkett is, so far as I know, the only significant national political figure who came up through local government. Re-empowering local government, as perhaps the rather vague ideas hinted at here might do if the economic powers for cities are of much consequence, would surely then be a good idea because it has the capacity to create those kinds of schools of civic virtue, and - although presumably Blair is less likely to look at this as a benefit - oppose central government. Furthermore, it would eliminate much of the injustice associated with what get's lazily called the postcode lottery. This is since, if the health authorities are independent of central government and accountable to their taxpayers, presumably it would be less problematic if they did not offer the same services. Obviously, there are problems with the differential services insofar as they reflect a failure to provide that which citizens are entitled to, but at least the unaccountability of the failure is eliminated.