There are lots of good arguments for powerful local and regional government. But one of the strongest points to the way that it can serve to strengthen national government.
As the great 19th century French historian and democratic theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his masterpiece Democracy in America, the U.S’s decentralised federal system gave a large part of the population experience in habits of democratic government, helped sustain democratic norms and values and provided a training ground for able politicians with national ambitions.
De Tocqueville worried about modern democracies’ vulnerability to populist demagogues and he would have hated Donald Trump – a man who had no government experience at all before becoming President of the world’s leading nation. But he might have been encouraged by the way in which US sub-national government remains a hot-bed of political energy. Seven of the 25 odd contenders in the Democratic presidential race are current or former Mayors.
The British state is a much more centralised one than the U.S, but devolution has certainly done much to transform our political culture. 30 years ago literally every national political leader was based in Parliament. There was no life outside the Westminster space-station. But today most lists of the UK’s top politicians would include Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson in Scotland, Sadiq Khan in London and perhaps Andy Burnham and Andy Street among the Metro Mayors.
And now in a way that must have Tony Blair and the other New Labour architects of devolution pinching themselves. Boris Johnson has gone from being a Telegraph columnist, to a not-very-distinguished junior Opposition minister, to a last minute-Mayoral candidate, a two term Mayor of London, and now Prime Minister.
Whatever your views on Johnson, he will surely be a better PM for having spent eight years in City Hall. Boris’s first year as Mayor of London, was by most accounts a bit of a farce, as he went through a chief of staff, deputy mayors and senior aides at a ferocious rate. But by the middle of his first term, he had established a team and a way of working that survived with only modest changes to the end of his time as Mayor. I am a proud Londoner, but I recognise that if he had to learn on the job, it was better he did so as Mayor rather than as PM.
And there is at least some reason to think that Boris’s time in government will have given him more feeling for the cause of municipal government than, say, David Cameron – a man who deep down, one suspects, always viewed anything but national office as a bit beneath him. After all, Mayor Boris was a big fan of devolved government. In case he and his team have forgotten, I thought it might be useful to list some of his big devolutionary policies he championed as Mayor.
The Mayor set up the London Finance Commission, chaired by Professor Tony Travers, and endorsed its final report, calling for London and other cities to be given much greater powers of tax and borrowing, starting with the devolution of the full suite of property taxes.
The Mayor consistently argued that all of London’s local rail network should be given to Transport for London – this would build on the success of the Overground and bring a badly needed boost to South London’s rail services in particular.
The Mayor called for the Greater London Authority and London boroughs to be given more powers over affordable housing financing, right to buy policies, housing benefits and public land, among other things.
Finally, in the last year as Mayor he joined forces with London boroughs in the grandly named Congress of London Leaders to demand more control over a large swathe of public services, including London’s courts, prisons and probation, health and skills.
Boris was always quick to say he did not just want devolution for London – he wanted other cities and regions to have the same powers. All of us who believe in the importance of empowered local, city and regional government now need to do everything we can to remind him of his former commitments and persuade him to be good to his word.
This blog was originally published by Local Government Chronicle.