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Lessons for Scotland as ‘Tarzan’ tries to swing it for the English provinces


A familiar complaint of nationalists is that many English people do not consider Scotland and Wales to be ‘proper countries’, looking upon them instead as glorified versions of Yorkshire, where the natives speak funny and wear strange modes of dress;  checked skirts for men in one case and black pointy hats for women in the other.

Yet north of the English border, a nationalist administration is doing not too bad a job of turning the ancient kingdom of Caledonia into “Scotlandshire”. For example, the former ‘County of the City of Glasgow’ has not boasted a chief constable for almost 40 years and very soon Strathclyde Police, enlarged regional successor to the Glasgow Constabulary, will not have one either following the decision to merge the eight police forces into a single national body. The fire service is about to go the same way. So if these changes can be justified on economies of scale, why not go the whole hog and nationalise the really big spenders in local government – education and social work?

Indeed, in a nation with a population not much more than half that of Greater London, why have local government at all?

Ironically, south of the Border, much credence is being given to a report by Lord Heseltine, the former deputy Prime Minister, which recommends devolving much power (and, just as importantly, money) from Whitehall to the “great cities” of the North and Midlands of England.

As Lord Heseltine – in his heyday known as ‘Tarzan’ - points out, it was private entrepreneurship that turned Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham and Newcastle upon Tyne into such successful places in the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, not only creating wealth locally but providing an economic counter balance to London. One could add that this entrepreneurship was mixed with a (now long-gone) sense of civic pride which produced sound, fiscally-strong local government.

Ironically, those elected to these municipal corporations tended to be hard-nosed businessmen, yet they actively pursued taking essential services like gas, electricity, water and tramways into public ownership and operating them for the good of the entire local community. They ensured councils were run principally for the benefit of their local clientele rather than their own employees,  but this ethos began to be chipped away from 1948 when the Atlee administration moved gas and electricity into national ownership (transport and water came sometime later). More significantly, a move began to make local authorities a procurement arm of national government, with pay scales the same across the country despite vastly different local economic comparisons between, say, Caithness and Coventry.

Therefore, while Lord Heseltine’s proposals have much to commend them they are bound to fail if freeing up entrepreneurship in the English provinces is not accompanied by ending the tentacle-like influence of ‘local’ (sic) government on communities – according to a recent BBC TV documentary, 50 per cent of the working adults in Stoke-on-Trent (once the UK’s major centre for the manufacture of pottery goods) are employed by the city council.

What genuine business start-up will survive if it has to compete with local council wages negotiated nationally with no thought given to local conditions; that and the type of working practices and sick pay and pension arrangements that for many private sector employers (and start-ups in particular) are, frankly, unsustainable?

The answer is only a company with access to a ‘begging bowl’ (albeit cleverly disguised as part of a ‘business improvement scheme’ or something similar), with the largesse dispensed by a public sector wallah totally lacking in experience of running his or her own business.

To give entrepreneurs – and existing businesses – a level playing field, a start must be made (why did the Thatcher government not do it in the 1980’s?) towards tearing up these national agreements and adopting a system whereby local authority salaries, terms and conditions are negotiated on a local basis.

While some may see this as an attack on local government, it is in fact the opposite. In addition to greater flexibility in negotiating wages and working conditions, local authorities should be given the freedom to set their own council tax levels, to borrow money on the open markets and to carry out education, transport, social work and housing policies, based on local needs and voter aspirations, not on party dogma.

The quid pro quo of such an arrangement is that, to discourage irresponsible political elements, the local franchise would need to be tightened so that only households where the occupiers physically paid council tax from their own pockets would be permitted to vote. No more election day harvesting the lumpen-proletariat to vote for policies they personally won’t have to pay for. The added advantage of this would lie in attracting fresh blood to be candidates in local elections, which invariably nowadays tend to be people with a public sector background.

Until about 1970, the ‘working class’ Tory councillor was still common in Scottish burghs, although many tended to campaign under party euphemisms such as ‘Progressives’ or ‘Moderates’.  Typically they worked freelance insurance agents or ran a two- or three-man joinery or plasterer businesses.

It would be great to have the benefit of citizens like these back on our councils again; for one reason it would bring an alternative perspective on life to that of the publicly-salaried and securely-employed teachers and social workers who seem to dominate at present.

But anyone sympathetic to the tenor of this article should not start counting chickens. During this year’s local election a Conservative candidate caused an upset by winning a seat on the City of Edinburgh Council while standing for a ‘Labour-minded’ ward. Initially, I imagined this might signal the start of a comeback by the aforementioned entrepreneurial, working class Tory to the municipal landscape of Scotland – but my heart sank when it was revealed  that the new councillor was, in fact, a twenty-something  employed as a ‘researcher’ for a Conservative MSP.

If this example is typical of how centre-right politics also works locally south of the Border – and there is no reason to believe otherwise – then Lord Heseltine will have a difficult job even kick-starting the revival of Manchester, Birmingham and the other great provincial cities of England.

Ken Houston will be writing regularly for Scot-buzz. His email is [email protected]