British Localism: The Counties Solution

Modern localism has been about the devolution of minimal political and economic power to large regional governance structures, like the Northern Powerhouse or the Greater London Authority. This localism is paltry and creates more bureaucracy and regulation. It simply serves a political narrative of supposed localism while in fact maintaining the state’s vast power systems. This isn’t helped by a confused political scheme, with a mess of district, county and town councils that makes it difficult to devolve powers without political power overlapping and becoming arbitrary. It needs to be cleaned up, with clear delineations between political entities, meaning laws and authority don’t overlap and create pointless confusion. The way to do this is to return back to the traditional counties system, as well as making major cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester politically independent authorities. On from this, political authority, when fully decentralised, should be made truly voluntary, with the body and property sovereign and the choice of joining any political authority being left to the individual.

Current localism is paltry, with the most minimal of powers being given to councils or regional authorities. The most recent examples are the creation of a London Assembly with a mayor and the Northern Powerhouse. Both are examples of political rhetoric over genuine action. In the case of the London mayor, a non-job has been created which is basically a political stepping-stone to more powerful positions in British politics. The Northern Powerhouse is even worse, with small powers relating to the health and transport budgets being given over to a collection of councils in the North of England. While being painted as radical, it is anything but. Now there are arguments that say we can’t simply give all political power to decentralised units at once as it would be abused and create massive short-term problems. I am sympathetic to this argument, but in terms of powers given much more could be done, such as the full devolution of the welfare and transport budgets toward cities and councils, as both of these are fundamentally local issues.

To move towards proper, radical localism, we need clearly bordered political authorities. My proposal for this is moving towards the old county system, where the borders were clear, as well as making cities separate centres in this political organisation. Thus county and city authorities need to be organised, having identifiable governance structures and reducing the bureaucratic nature of large regional government, which ignores poorer regions and centralises power. These local authorities would be based around county lines and city districts, with tax, border control, healthcare and policing being devolved. The London Assembly could represent the way such political authorities would be structured. Rather than having a cabinet system we’d have directly elected mayors with elected council/assembly members holding said mayor to account. By having clearly structured political authorities, the devolution of powers would be much smoother, as powers overlapping wouldn’t be as much of a problem. This also means that the state would lose significant political control, with individuals becoming more connected with decentralised governance systems that become more representative of the core issues and their identities.

This concept can and should be taken further to a completely voluntary system. The body and the property would be considered sovereign within such a system, with the choice of joining any political authority being left to the individual/household. These types of authorities would most likely provide security, transport links and dispute resolution services, protecting the property of their members and ensuring their safety. While it may be said these are simply smaller states, their voluntary characteristic completely changes the dynamics of political power, with decision making being based on a social contract and the agreement of a community. It prevents the worst excesses of statism by taking away truly coercive power. Further such voluntary societies would have a web of complex relations, negating parts of the free rider problem by not allowing for individuals to use services without paying their dues, as such individuals would not be trusted members of a community or relationship if they did otherwise. The decentralist feature of these societies means that excessive power would be difficult to develop as a community can secede and maintain the sovereignty of the individual and the voluntary characteristics of political relations. Again the argument against this would be that within this you would have individuals and groups simply leaving if they didn’t like any rules or laws. First, this ignores the complexities and obligations found in contractual law. Second, if an individual consistently did this, he could not be trusted within contractual relations. This would act as a buffer against undesirable behaviour, such as committing fraud or not keeping contractual obligations. It would be similar to a credit rating, which prevents individuals from making ridiculous purchases as otherwise they wouldn’t able to create trusting relationships with lenders and businessmen.

In this structure, political power is fully decentralised and left to the individual. It is limited in its functions by the ability of individuals to secede, meaning the development of arbitrary laws, like we see under the current state-based scheme, would be problematic due to the cost of enforcement and the lack of truly coercive power within a tax system. This is obviously utopian in the current context, however I believe we can move some way towards such an arrangement by decentralising more powers toward city and county councils, making the state’s power more and more difficult to enforce in lieu of local political power. Such arrangements were seen in the feudal era in England, where local law and political power took precedence over the state monarchy. Thus while difficult, the development of this idea is not impossible, as it has historical primacy not just in Britain but all over the world. If political decentralisation and the development of voluntary relations are the goals of libertarians, we need to develop a political background of localism and radical decentralism, which is already being pushed by certain UK politicians. By advocating for a move of power toward local authorities, we can begin this advance in the direction of a truly voluntary society.

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