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I’ve spent the last week glued to the television. I hardly watch any normally, so this is enough to feel pretty exhausting. There is some opposition already about the coalition government, but – for some aspects at least of the new economics – it seems to me to open up some thrilling possibilities.
Yes, I am also a Liberal Democrat (I think I ought to declare my political leanings at this point) so my heart is bound to leap a little at the thought of Liberals being in government for the first time for 65 years.
But even if I wasn’t, the cancellation of the Heathrow third runway – in the face of all those corporate lobbyists, and all that money – would be enough to make me prick up my ears.
For the emerging new economics, there are at least four areas where things may now move quite fast:
- Tackling the banks: Vince Cable will be doing more than just putting in place the banking levy, the coalition agreement has set out a path towards breaking them up – and creating a more diverse, local and mutual banking system.
- Localism: it wasn’t clear whether there was anything behind the Conservative commitment to localism. Now there is: the coalition has committed itself to large scale decentralisation of power.
- Low carbon economy: did Cameron know what this was when he used the phrase? That isn’t clear. Why did Clegg repeatedly use the phrase ‘green sustainable growth’? That isn’t clear either. It is up to us to define it on their behalf, but it is clear that the political will is there for a major shift.
- Co-production: the same applies to the so-called ‘Big Society’. It wasn’t clear if there was any thought-through policy to support it. Now there is a commitment to devolve power to communities, and – if co-production is not explicitly on the agenda – there is a hole in coalition policy shaped like co-production.
But for some of these, if not all, the political rules have now changed. Two of the new cabinet in particular now control both elements of a potential Green New Deal, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. But if Cable acts on radical reform of the banking system, he will do so in the face of bitter opposition from the City of London and elements among bankbench Conservative MPs.
What he, and those like him, are going to need is explicit political support – as well as research, information and basic cheerleading – if they are going to be able to press forward their ambitions.
Those of us in the voluntary sector, or in campaigning NGOs, who have become used to simply demanding things of politicians, are going to need to develop a more sophisticated strategy.
We are going to encourage and then protect those ministers capable of creating a new economic revolution. Tackling the banks and building a low-carbon economy is a matter of co-production, and our side of the work starts now.
It is hard to tell, because the new Building Britain’s Future website says, as I write, “Error 404: Page not found”. But judging by the prime minister’s statement today, it doesn’t represent a meaningful shift towards localism.
That was the rhetoric – a shift from top-down targets to individual entitlements – but when it comes to localism, Gordon Brown is the victim of a huge misunderstanding. Targets are targets, Mr Brown: you don’t escape the huge inefficiencies they produce by having fewer of them, or by dressing them up as entitlements that people can enforce. And certainly not, as in the case of the NHS 18-week waiting list, by turning them into an obligation.
Quite the reverse. It will mean more administrators employed to shift people through the system and find creative ways of avoiding the various definitions, and it will reduce the money available for just doing the work. Targets are top-down, by their very nature. It doesn’t matter what you call them.
But the real problem is that politicians of all parties are very confused about localism. They gargle with the ideas, but believe it is something about giving people a little bit more, having fewer targets and setting up local committees. They get marooned in the narrow question of where each function of government should take place – a kind of parlour game for politicians before they lose the will to live. They miss the point.
The real problem is that centralisation is far more insidious than they realise. Not only does it make government and public services intensely ineffective, creating vast inhuman institutions – factory hospitals and monster schools – where professionals are constrained from using their human skills to make a difference. But it also reduces us from citizens to supplicants to vast organisations, public and private.
Westminster politicians still don’t get it. Their localism means lots of local administration, while the tentacles of economic centralisation stay intact. Local parish mayors are still supplicants to Tesco or vast hospitals, schools and distant mega-police forces. It means intricate webs of individual entitlements, when the public services we need still don’t work properly. They still treat us as units to be packaged, as potential legal minefields, as one-off bundles of need to be processed, without giving us the individual attention – via long-term relationships with professionals – that will actually make change happen.
Politicians urgently need to understand that localism also means devolving power to frontline public service staff, to give them back the initiative to make things happen. Or devolving responsibility to public service clients, delivering broader services alongside professionals, tackling our distant, burgeoning monster institutions, the huge schools, hospitals and jobcentres that manage us, and tackling the monopolistic centralisation of business.
Taken together, the implications of centralisation are that we have become supplicants to a combination of increasingly distant government systems, working with increasingly distant and monopolistic private corporations. That is the Supplicant State and one look at the key points in Building Britain’s Future shows that we still live there. This is all about what they are going to give us. Keeping us as supplicants isn’t going to work – we have to find ways of handing real power and responsibility downwards.
David’s new pamphlet, Localism: Unravelling the Supplicant State, is available to download from the nef website.
I was looking for some English honey in Sainsbury’s in Crystal Palace over the weekend.
I have to confess, for the purposes of this blog, that I do occasionally shop with the monopolistic supermarkets, but there we are. Let’s leave that on one side for a moment. The point is that, in this supermarket at least, one of the fake ‘choices’ before customers is between identical honeys. English honey is no longer considered an appropriate choice for us.
All we have to choose from is a selection of honey from other countries and some blended honeys, which use any bits and pieces that manufacturers can knit together from anywhere they can find it. Which are also heat-treated to destroy any local diversity and naturally occurring enzymes.
Bland, over-screen, de-natured honey, that’s all we are allowed, as if we hadn’t noticed that the bees making honey nearer home are disappearing.
Now, I think local honey is an absolutely vital symbol of everything we stand for – in this blog at least – and it is a big worry if it is suddenly unavailable.
Local honey is at least a potential cure for hay fever, because it provides a homeopathic dose of the local pollen, if you keep taking it from the previous autumn. But its continued existence, in the face of all the new diseases that are threatening our bee colonies, is some guarantee of continued diversity.
We need bees to do their pollinating in our country, not just the handful of places where supermarkets decide to source their honey (Brazil, Canada and Australia).
So this is my suggestion. That we try very carefully to buy absolutely no more blended honey, no honey which isn’t from anywhere in particular, and chase down local honey – at least regional honey – where ever we can. That we insist on real, local honey, on such a scale that its production continues in the face of whatever peril the bees are facing from the modern world.
The more we insist on buying local honey, the more we keep the craft of local beekeeping alive and the more we hold out – not just against the systems that are destroying our bees – but against bland, identikit, technocratic food, and bland, identikit technocratic honey in particular.
We may not be able to regulate banks all by ourselves, or wrest the pension rights from Sir Fred Goodwin, or to cancel the new Heathrow runway. But at least we can make a stand and shun fake honey.
Find out more here: http://www.beedata.com/localhoney/
Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
We all loved the snow. Well, mostly. We loved the time off work, the snowball fights between boys and police officers, the artistic and obsessively moulded snowmen, the smiling between strangers.
All of it good. All of it heart warming and affirming. But there was something else which lightened up last week, something less obvious but even more subtantial than enjoying each others company.
People started relying on the local.
They couldn’t do anything else. It was most pronounced in the rural areas but it happened in the towns too. The snow brought with it the mantras of new economics – sharing of skills, time banking, local reliance, small scale acts of collaboration – to make the whole continue to function.
In a village I know the snow economics of localism were measurable. The village shop, put together when the post office closed, and run as a community enterprise, is the fairly new and successful centre of the community. It takes around £10,000 a week (there’s a popular café attached). But on the day the snow started to fall, and no one could get to the supermarkets four and six miles away, the takings shot up to £2,000 a day.
It was fantastic. That was the true value of people’s spending on food and essentials and all the money stayed in the village. People, in spending locally, re-discovered gossip, mutual reliance and environmental sanity.
Now there were no Kenyan green beans to be had, but plenty of local veg, delivered manfully by the woodman in his Jeep. Our week of snow was a trail run of the near future, when peak oil and carbon caps will have limited some of our more exotic choices.
What it showed too was that in time of emergency there had better be the bones of a community structure and the outline of what is recognisably a neighbourhood or locality. This is why nef is so keen on diversity in all things: it is nature’s (and our own) insurance policy.