Rebranding Parochialism

Austin Williams | 21 November 2003

There’s a point in most cowboy movies from the Fifties, when the out-of-town sheriff steps in to stop an angry mob from taking the law into their own hands. Even though these films are in black and white – in more than one sense – the townspeoples’ spontaneous anger is usually mollified by the elected sheriff’s insistence on due process. Admittedly, these events are played out in the rarefied atmosphere of post-war Hollywood, but were often intended to represent the foundation of national democratic values; those that take account of, but overcome, small town concerns.

In Britain, Sir Jeremy Beecham ain’t no John Wayne. In his report ‘New Localism or New Centralism?’ he complains that while there is lip-service being paid to local concerns, more power is actually being vested in regional quangos and taken away from local authorities. He wants ‘the local’ prioritised. And he is not alone. Last month’s Local Government Authority (LGA)-commissioned document entitled ‘Maintaining the Momentum’, which reports on the perceptions of the LGA held by opinion formers across various sectors suggested that what was needed was a rise in democratic localism.

Not local democracy, you understand, but democratic localism. This sounds nice, but is a dangerous trend away from engaging people in the difficult issues of national concern. It’s true that local authorities, almost by definition, are meant to deliver services and improvements for their local area, but we should remember that they are also supposed to be the conduit between local and national political programmes. By prioritising ‘the local’ we are losing sight of representative national democracy.

Beecham’s opening line that ‘there is confusion at the heart of government policy’ is undoubtedly true and local democracy is certainly under threat. But the confusion at the heart of government is a confusion of leadership and purpose, not simply a failure of joined-up thinking. It is not a technical problem to be resolved by another tier of engagement. The New Localism mantra not only fail to address this confusion, but actually panders to it, so that, as Dan Corry, chief executive of the New Local Government Network says, ‘every minister seems to have a different version of it.’

One such is Mayor Clarence Anthony, vice-chair of the International Union of Local Authorities, who, prior to last month’s Local Democracy Week said that ‘we are seeing a sustained, almost universal, trend towards decentralisation – and in most places, democratic decentralisation.’ Rather than addressing the drift at the heart of politics, localists and community activists reflect it, by cutting themselves adrift. Commentators are now desperately trying to suggest that this parochialism is what real democracy is about. But by seeing democracy as a technical problem, many commentators end up reinforcing the idea that we should have smaller and smaller units of participatory engagement. Under the guise of New Localism, we are seeing a celebration of fragmentation.

Localism runs away from the core problem. These days, it seems that democracy with no prefixes and a capital ‘d’ is too difficult a concept for many politicians to endorse wholeheartedly. It is often frowned upon as being too elitist and not giving sufficient regard to local issues. So, as the electorate becomes less engaged in the national political process, advocates of localism have become emboldened to suggest that the populace be engaged on the community level. Thus the retreat into, and theoretical endorsement of, parochial politics, where fragmentation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Politicians no longer seem to want to overcome small-town prejudices, but simply indulge and reflect them. The new Big Idea seems to be thinking small; prioritising parochialism over universalism. I would suggest that eulogising community values is making a mockery of real democracy. Demands for elected mayors as a formal solution to the democratic deficit, are adding to the problem by trying to find a short cut to democratic engagement. But the failure of political participation is not going to be solved by a modern-day Audie Murphy.

Exactly sixteen years ago, Margaret Thatcher announced that ‘There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.’ Since then, ‘rights and responsibilities’ have become the orthodoxy. However, in the same interview, she also said that there was ‘no such thing as society…only individual men and women, and… families.’ We need only add the word ‘community’ for New Localists to concur.

First published in MJ, November 2003


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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