David Boyle

What is to be done?

Liberator, July 2005

There used to be a member of the policy unit team at Cowley Street who would cast your horoscope in return for a light lunch.

He peered closely at mine as we ate our omelettes and picked out something which he found in many Liberal Democrat birth charts. “I think it means unreasonable optimism,” he said.

This struck me as profoundly true of us, and it isn’t a weakness either. I intend to keep my optimism as unreasonable as possible.

But we should beware of the times when mild kneejerk optimism gets in the way of us perceiving either threats or opportunities or prevents us from achieving our ambition.

There is one mighty threat we seem currently too lazily optimistic to face. The story about the infinite number of monkeys with typewriters eventually producing Shakespeare plays also applies to the Conservative Party.

Eventually, they will produce a leader capable of rising above the contradictions we optimistically assume will prevent any kind of revival.

As I write, the Daily Telegraph is devoting the week to a series of articles on localism by leading Conservatives: it is a sign that an outbreak of sanity in their party may not be far off.

There is also one mighty opportunity that we are missing, as we engage in the traditionally optimistic Lib Dem business of deciding whether we should concentrate on attracting Labour or Tory votes.

The truth is that for the kind of tectonic shift in UK politics we aspire to, we simply can’t afford the gently optimistic view that we have a choice.

If we are serious about turning the system upside down – and we have to be to make any more progress – then we will need to construct a new electoral alliance drawn from both sides.

That doesn’t mean shifting to the right or the left. It means articulating a recognisably Liberal Democrat idea capable of attracting the various hopes projected onto us from across the political spectrum.

And exciting enough to attract enthusiastic loyalty. And important enough to explain the problems the nation faces, and to provide the ‘narrative’ we need.

It also needs to be one that is so obviously Lib Dem that the other parties can’t go there themselves.

And it needs to be real: a promise of genuine change for all those intractable post-war issues that governments dare not mention. And we have to believe it enough to articulate it uncompromisingly.

But listen to the zeitgeist for a moment, and you’ll find that there is such an idea growing in importance, and it is ours. And, as long as we articulate it in as broad a way as possible, it is the key to effective public services and more control over our lives.

Not just decentralisation, or even ‘Big Bang Localism’ – Simon Jenkins’ proposal that most power should be radically decentralised on one day – but something that goes to the heart of why so little works in Britain.

Let’s call it, just for this article, ‘Decentralisation Plus’.

This is not decentralisation as we have known and loved it so far – an abstruse debate about the precise administrative arrangements and boundaries for timid devolution from Whitehall. Nor is it just the dramatic shift of power to parishes, districts and cities. Nor just the abolition of quangos or the devolution of the NHS to elected counties.

It is a policy that articulates a whole critique of centralisation that goes deeper than we have done before: recognising, for example, that:

  • Big administrative systems and institutions are deeply inefficient and ineffective.
  • Local people and frontline staff have invaluable experience and skills and are more able to solve problems than diktat from Whitehall.
  • Far from efficiency savings from centralisation, we are stuck with horrendous externalities – damaging mistakes and hospital bugs in big hospitals, disaffection and failure in factory schools.
  • People want relationships with their local doctors, police, teachers. They know face-to-face institutions deliver, while centralised institutions and private monopolies don’t.
  • Nothing that professionals do to make us well, educate us or tackle crime will work without the active involvement of those they are trying to help.
  • People want their towns to be distinctive and to defend their high streets against identikit monopolistic megastores.

Decentralisation Plus is about why government is so ineffective – why prisons are so useless at reducing crime, why the NHS is so useless at preventing illness, why the welfare state is so useless at reducing poverty.

In short, it is about public services and why – despite some of the investment we have demanded actually being made – they still do not work.

There will be arguments ahead where we have remained for too long on the sidelines. Will decentralisation mean more varied service quality? Will it mean more inequality?

We will argue that the reverse is the case. There will be more varied services, because local people want different things. But the role of the centre will change: from disempowering bullying over details, it will develop a new kind of inspectorate that raises standards through training, and through working with local institutions where they need it – and through legal minimum standards.

The old lie that centralisation means more equality can be demolished with a quick look at some of the health service deserts that now exist – under the most centralised system in Europe – in the poorest areas of Britain.

The truth is that centralised control means that the elites are better able to capture more than their fair share of resources.

Nick Clegg and Richard Grayson’s fascinating 2002 pamphlet on education systems in Europe showed that the most decentralised administrations, in Holland and Scandinavia, were also the best funded and the most equal.

But Decentralisation Plus is about more than just why public services are so intractable. It is also about why our towns are so ugly, why our pubs, banks, playing fields and post offices are dwindling away. This is a policy designed to confront centralised corporate monopolies as well as centralised public ones.

It is about the failure of government monopoly policy to reign in the destruction of small shops at the hands of the monopoly supermarkets – a policy carried out in the name of choice, which actually restricts choice to what a handful of distant corporate buyers decide we should have.

If you don’t believe me, try buying English apples in Safeways, or local honey – a well-known antidote to hay fever – almost anywhere.

Government support for corporate centralisation is undermining choice, grubbing up our agricultural resources, and transforming once-proud and independent towns and high streets into identikit clones.

Impoverished clones too. When there is a healthy proportion of locally owned business, then local earnings stay circulating locally. When there isn’t, they shoot straight off to the corporate headquarters, leaving local authorities wondering why their expensive regeneration schemes failed to work.

Decentralisation Plus is an attack on the assumptions of technocrats everywhere, but it is more than that. It is about devolving responsibility as well as power.

Inside all this lies a radical new offer from politicians to the public. Not any more ‘ask and you shall receive’ – nobody believes that any more, least of all the voters. It says: we can achieve these things, but not without your help.

As politicians we can assist, we can provide leadership and some resources, but – they must say to the public – we can’t do it without you.

Decentralisation Plus is radical, but not so radical that all other European countries have shunned it. It is neither obviously right or left, and it has the distinct advantage that neither of our opponents can quite get there.

Labour mouths the tenets of localism, but dares not let go. Tories are clearly shifting in this direction, but will never take on Tesco and Wal-mart as well as Whitehall – and will therefore make the whole thing meaningless.

Even the various euro-sceptic parties are vulnerable to this approach. It is as bureaucrat-sceptic as they are, but provides a philosophical depth which they can’t – though it would, from our point of view, imply a strong European framework.

Yes, Decentralisation Plus carries risks. It means that local institutions and people with responsibility might get it badly wrong. But we will be campaigning there to make sure they don’t – it’s democracy.

Yes, the technocratic wing of the party will worry about it. Because they do not quite believe people and communities can be trusted without professional help from London.

But we should remember Gladstone’s watchword: “Liberalism means trust in the people tempered by prudence…. Toryism means distrust in the people tempered by fear.”

Let’s make sure it stays that way.


  • Wholesalers, on which small shops depend, are closing at the rate of six every week.
  • People who live in strong social networks are healthier and less likely to die prematurely.
  • London alone has lost 1,500 football pitches since 1989.
  • 60 local and cottage hospitals closed in 2002 alone.
  • Britain lost a third of its local bank network from 1992-2002.
  • Medication errors, a symptom of giantism in NHS hospitals, now costs the NHS £500 million a year. Hospital infections, another symptom, costs twice that.
  • Up to 20 traditional pubs close every month.
  • 520,000 people are re-admitted to hospital because there are no social networks to make sure they are secure at home (cost £3.6 billion a year).
  • The average person now has to travel 893 miles a year to buy food.
  • Only 18 per cent of urban parks are now in good condition.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers