|ON THE OUTCOME OF THE REGIONAL GOVERNMENT REFERENDUM :
20 August 2004
We have a reprieve. They tried to do away with local government in 1996, and failed miserably. They’ve had another go by offering us Regional Government as a Trojan horse to get us to agree to the end of local government in North Yorkshire. Now that’s failed too. The referendum is off in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humberside – but not in the North East. The excuse is something to do with postal voting, which nobody can understand. Why should postal voting be any more acceptable in one part of the country than another? Are voters in the North East any more honest and reliable than voters in the North West?! Why have postal voting at all (except in the old limited cases), when we’ve seen the chaos of the last US presidential elections and of our own last EU and local elections? And why should the system for counting votes have any relevance to what is being voted for, anyway?
The truth is that the mandarins have been rumbled again. Political parties may come and go, but the government always wins an election, and the government is not the politicians, but the men behind the politicians – the Whitehall Mandarins who never change when the government changes. For them democracy is an inconvenience. If the man in Whitehall knows best, why should he have to waste his time arguing with recalcitrant district councils? In 1996 they tried to tell us we should all get together into something like County Boroughs – however inappropriate this might be. This time they offered us Regional Government – a toothless organisation with few powers, a controlling cabinet of six, less elected members than there are MP’s for the Region, and possibly only two (if we were lucky) for North Yorkshire out of a total of thirty. They thought we were so stupid that we would give up our Rural Democracy for the nebulous benefits of this urban dominated monster. So, when they found opinion was going against them, they got cold feet!
But it is only a reprieve. Some people in authority believe the threat has gone away. They think that a Labour Government with a reduced majority won’t dare take on the Tory Shires, forgetting that last time it was the Conservatives who made the changes – including doing away with the two tier system throughout Scotland and Wales - and that, at a national level, there are a few Liberal Democrats who would sacrifice everything for anything with the promise of Proportional Representation.
Others believe what we are told, and expect a new date for a referendum for Yorkshire and Humberside to be given soon after the result of the referendum in the North East.
I don’t accept either view. I think it is naïve to believe the mandarins have simply given up and given in to popular opinion. They are a lot more cunning than that. They will seek subtle ways of getting what they cannot achieve by open argument. They have ways of getting what they want from Local Government. They introduce their changes by stealth, so that we don’t realise what is happening until it is too late.
They have a system called “Best Value”, which judges local government performance “impartially” according to criteria which are set by the Government, and designed to get what the Government wants – mainly in terms of administrative efficiency rather than democratic accountability. So, for example, Councils are awarded “brownie points” for entering into “joint working” arrangements with other councils. So, one might expect this to appeal to local government officers with a career path ahead of them – the chance to get greater responsibility and money from running bigger departments covering a wider geographical area than just their own authority. You don’t have to be a genius to see where all this is leading.
So, what is the way forward? However imperfect democracy is, I believe in it. If we believe in rural democracy, it is something worth fighting for. If we don’t want to be run by a corporate state under the control of an elective dictatorship, we should find ways of resisting every pressure that is put upon us to drive us in that direction. We should stop and think before we do the next thing central government tells us we have to do. We don’t have to break the law, if we become selective, and choose only those government initiatives which we think are to the advantage of our district and of our county – and worry less about “brownie points”. Ryedale District Council, in particular, should think very hard, before it enters into any more joint arrangements with Scarborough.
If we want to keep our local rural democracy, we should make it as difficult as possible for the mandarins to dismantle it. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.