Reaping the whirlwind

23 Sep 05
PETER WILBY | To my surprise, I felt a pang of sympathy for President George Bush over Hurricane Katrina.

To my surprise, I felt a pang of sympathy for President George Bush over Hurricane Katrina.

As always, when things went wrong, it was the man at the top who took the flak. Yet the entire US constitution — largely unchanged since the eighteenth century — is designed to prevent the federal government from doing anything.

Even if Bush had wished to make a fist of protecting and then rescuing the people of New Orleans from disaster, he would have struggled to impose his will.

The US has no need of a new localism. It has a localism that is more than 200 years old. States’ rights are paramount. Cross state borders and you will find different sales taxes, different laws on drinking and driving and different attitudes to capital and corporal punishment.

To reconstruct the areas devastated by the hurricane, Washington has so far earmarked $62bn (£34.4bn) and the final total could be four times as high. Such spending is acceptable only because of the scale of the disaster and its impact on national and international perceptions of Bush.

But the president will not be appointing a federal overlord to oversee the reconstruction. State and local leaders, he says, ‘have the primary role in planning for their own future’.

All this has uncomfortable lessons for the rest of us. It is no accident that the US, a country that disperses government power, is also a country that has more inequalities than any other in the western world. Louisiana not only contains lots of poor people, who are vulnerable when disaster strikes, it is also a poor region by US standards.

Big, strong central government can equalise standards between regions; small, weak government can’t. Egalitarian countries tend to fall into two categories: the very small ones, such as most of the Scandinavian countries; and the big, diverse ones that have had a measure of equality imposed by ruthless dictators, such as China under Mao, the Soviet Union under Stalin and France under Napoleon.

We British are somewhere in between — a country of middling size, where regional differences matter, and one that has had Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair but, whatever their detractors say, nothing quite on the scale of Stalin. To accept local autonomy entails accepting a degree of inequality, and that is all the more true and more threatening as the country becomes more ethnically diverse.

The case of the Greater London Council proves the point precisely. The GLC covered an area large enough to encompass both rich and poor, with a population nearly twice as large as Norway’s. In the 1980s, Ken Livingstone, then the GLC leader, levied high rates on the mostly affluent outer London boroughs in order to improve services for the poorer inner London boroughs.

It is sometimes forgotten that, before Thatcher abolished the GLC to stop such quasi-socialist capers (as she saw it), the courts had already forbidden Livingstone from subsidising his cheap fares policy by charging ratepayers who didn’t or couldn’t use public transport.

In other words, if you’re talking about localism — as almost everybody does nowadays — it depends which localities you mean and how local they are. You can, as the governments of the 1970s did, design authorities — based on London, Manchester and Birmingham — which encompass a range of affluence and poverty. But people will still complain of remote decision-making.

And you can’t get away from the English Southeast being far more prosperous than the English Northeast. If you leave Surrey to raise revenue and run its local services as it wishes, it will be able to achieve higher service standards, and probably lower per capita tax levels, than Gateshead. That simply makes Surrey an even more desirable location for businesses and affluent property-buyers, thus increasing its tax base, and depressing Gateshead’s further.

The British Left has never found an answer to this dilemma. It is not likely to do so, least of all under Chancellor Gordon Brown, the most centralist politician of modern times who, far more than Prime Minister Tony Blair, is responsible for the target culture of which everyone complains.

New Labour has conceded powers to the European Union and the Bank of England. It has accepted that most economic decisions should be left to the markets.

Unless they have the powers to intervene in the minutest details of public services and spending, ministers might as well retire to write their memoirs. You will hear lots of fine words about localism at the Labour Party conference. But they are just words; the realities of localism are to be found in the flooded streets and homes of New Orleans.

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