Lord Phillips joins regions debate

WORDSWORTH said of love, “distance lends enchantment to the view”, but in politics it's the reverse. Modern disenchantment derives most from centralisation of powers, not just from town to county, county to region and region to London, but from London to Brussels.

By Lord Phillips of Sudbury

Liberal Democrat

WORDSWORTH said of love, “distance lends enchantment to the view”, but in politics it's the reverse.

Modern disenchantment derives most from centralisation of powers, not just from town to county, county to region and region to London, but from London to Brussels. Nearly everyone feels bereft of political influence. Look, right now, at how people feel about hospital closures, or the proposed abolition of the Suffolk Constabulary.


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That's dangerous, because disconnectedness easily becomes resentment. To work, democracy needs the allegiance of its citizenry. But, although Labour has a big overall majority, it is only supported by one in four of the electorate. Yet they legislate like absolute monarchs - 13,000 to 14,000 pages of new statute law every year - as if new laws alone solved problems.

Eight active years in the House of Lords have confirmed one thing. Democracy really does need to be bottom up. Today it's mostly top down. We no longer have government 'of the people, by the people and for the people' but government of the people by professional politicians for the metropolitan elite.

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Perhaps that's hard. We are still blessed with largely uncorrupt politics, and MPs and peers who are overwhelmingly decent and well intentioned. But I am convinced that we must urgently decentralise and localise powers as far as practical.

We must kill the suffocating managerialism which now dominates government. We must challenge “big is best” and the assumption that larger units ensure economies of scale, rationalisation, consistency and so on. We must look at proposals for change with down-to-earth eyes and not permit its exponents to compare the worst of what we have with assumptions of the best about what is being foisted on us.

There is another iron law. Distance of government creates bureaucratic complexity and problems of implementation. A bird in the local hand is worth several in the Whitehall bush.

The 'blue sky' planners of Whitehall, with no hands-on knowledge of that which they are (yet again) reforming, do their theoretical best, but those on the ground usually know better.

As it is, 20 plus years of reform - of endless diktats, circulars, audits and reviews - have led to ever increasing demoralisation. If you doubt me, ask health and education professionals.

The Suffolk I grew up in was vastly more autonomous than that of today. Until we return power from London to our market towns and counties we will not attract back into local politics enough of the natural leaders of our communities. That's vital. In the process we must accept that that will mean differences in services and their delivery. If that is the price of a revitalisation of civic life, it's well worth paying, and will in any case encourage experiment and emulation.

The latest talk, of effectively abolishing County Councils, is but the latest Whitehall farce. Counties are deeply etched into our history and, invaluably in an increasingly loyalty-free culture, people really do identify with them.

No country is more beholden unto its democracy than ours, and now is the time for every man and woman to come to its aid. Like charity, it starts at home.

Lord Phillips is Chancellor of Essex University, a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and sits in the House of Lords on the Liberal Democrat benches.

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