Power to the People: The UK's Faltering Attempt to Create a 'Big Society'

We live in a global world where nations, to an ever increasing extent, are being dominated by political juntas. To escape the stranglehold of these centralised power blocs,

people are now taking to the streets to demand their historic rights and freedoms. Historians have no doubt that when Ronald Reagan won the race to the White House in 1980 he did so by promising that he ‘would get the government off the backs of the people.’ Margaret Thatcher made a similar pledge in her bid for power. She did so with the full support of her close advisor and friend Sir Keith Joseph, who gave a seminal lecture in 1976 in which he characterised private business as a horse which had to carry the national economy to failure or success. In the mid 1950s the equine beast of burden was just about able to carry the government rider, which was consuming two thirds of the Gross National Product. But by the time he gave his famous Stockton Lecture, two decades later, the welfare state was consuming a third more than the private sector could produce. ‘The rider, ‘he warned, ‘is now twice as heavy as the horse.’ The books could only be balanced by heavy state borrowing. This was the disaster the current coalition government has inherited and is trying to solve by creating a ‘big society’ in which power is transferred from Westminster to the regions. To achieve this switch, David Cameron has appointed not one, but two government ministers, a Minister for Civil Society and a Minister for Decentralisation. Both recognize the quandary they face. At a public meeting in October 2011 Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, said the government was ‘absolutely serious’ about creating a Big Society by devolving power to the regions, but openly confessed that there’s ‘something Governments aren’t good at, and that’s giving up power.’ Speaking at the same meeting Micah Gold, of the Big Society, referred to the same failure of central government. ‘Notoriously they don’t tend to give up power or trust people.’ Unlike water, which naturally flows downstream, political power is a force which always travels uphill to the very centre and pinnacle of government control. Its flow is centripetal rather than centrifugal. What’s more, once political power is acquired, it’s never easily relinquished.

One of the most serious long-term effects of war is that it increases the power of central government. A country that has

rallied behind a government that has conducted a successful war is normally quite willing for it to carry on running the nation’s affairs when peace is declared. It doesn’t expect private companies to be able to run the heavy industries that were nationalised during the war, forgetting that during the conflict it was private enterprise that built the battleships, tanks and planes, and it’s those same companies that will be called upon to build the peace by manufacturing computers, hovercrafts and high-speed railways. No government in the world has ever created a single inventor, composer, painter or successful entrepreneur. Nationalised industries fail, and while they exist they paralyse private enterprise by making it conform to its own bureaucratic ethos of grants, permits, licences, planning permissions and health and safety regulations. If the Coalition government genuinely wants to create a Big Society in need do no more than make a drastic reduction in the level of taxes it raises. At present, three quarters of the activities carried out by local authorities are determined by Westminster and, in turn, three quarters of what they have to spend is provided by central government. In future local governments must set their own agendas, and raise their own finances. This would make them both more accountable, and more responsive, to local needs. The great free market economist Friedrich von Hayek wrote: ‘Nobody has yet succeeded in deliberately arranging all the activities that go on in a complex society. If anyone did ever succeed in fully organising such a society, it would no longer make use of many minds, but would be altogether dependent on one mind.’ It’s said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Russian planner came to the US and asked who was responsible for the supply of bread to New York. He was amazed to find that this happened spontaneously and operated far better than that provided in the USSR. There will be infinitely more freedom, variety and growth, and less risk of corruption and lobbying, if power is widely distributed rather than centrally held. The economic risk will also be reduced, for while central banks can fail, a million small businesses will provide some success stories even during times of economic gloom. It will also be more fun, for as the late Steve Jobs, founder of the highly successful and innovative Apple corporation, said ‘It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.’

© www.donaldnorfolk.co.uk

Print This Post