No good to say that Labour doesn't know what it stands for. It can always hide behind the claim that the duty of the loyal opposition is to oppose, or that, after Gordon Brown, it needs time to think through the proper role of a left-wing party. The government is supposed to govern, to take the country in an understandable and visible direction towards a goal it is prepared to defend. This one can't seem to do that, although the road it is travelling is paved with the best of intentions.
One of the best of those intentions is to devolve power from Westminster to local councils. There is, after all, an entire chapter in the Conservative canon about pushing power down to the unit of government closest to the people, and further to "local councils, communities and neighbourhoods and individuals", to cite David Cameron's statement when launching the agenda to implement perhaps his noblest vision, the Big Society. But this government is not engaged in a theoretical exercise: it is dealing with decades in which local governments have become increasingly infected with left-leaning, expansive and intrusive attitudes about the proper role of government; in which councils have become dominated by apparatchiks rather than by citizen-politicians modelling themselves after Cincinnatus; in which multiculturalism and relativism have become the received wisdom. In short, the government is not engaged in the rather standard and oft-practised process of moving the line that separates the powers of central from local governments a few millimetres to the right or the left, a periodic feature of democratic government. It is engaged in a revolution, an attempt to reverse powerful habits of mind and peel away institutional barnacles in which the existing local ruling class has a major stake. Revolutionaries do not succeed by delegating power to those whom it wishes to weaken or destroy. They succeed by recognising that the facts on the ground are nothing like those theoreticians imagined when they called for devolving power to the smallest unit of government. There are times — such as these — when powerful leadership from a democratically — elected centre is necessary to get the nation's business done, being careful always not to cross the line that separates such as Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher from Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.
One of those annoying facts on the ground is that Britain is entering an age of austerity, one in which fiscal necessity demands that there be "cuts" in government spending, to use the now famous expression for what in some instances are merely nominal reductions in the rate at which spending is increased. The needed austerity is, of course, convenient for those who want to redraw the line between government and individual responsibility, shrinking the former and expanding the latter, to revive civil society. They would push for such a change even if the Treasury were wrestling with the delicious problem of how to distribute a surplus. The Prime Minister is one such, and before finances collapsed and hard times hit, he had been hoping to share the fruits of economic growth between expansion of the State (why remains a bit of a mystery, but it is unkind to demand theoretical clarity of working politicians), and the tax cuts that would increase individuals' ability to choose for themselves just how they want to live.
It was not to be, and he now finds himself in the business of distributing pain, relegated to the role of Scrooge rather than Lady Bountiful. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has outsourced a good part of the pain distribution to members of a class that do not share his vision of a future nation in which a revived civil society has essentially replaced them. So it is no surprise that Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is at war with councils that find charitable organisations among the first lambs to shear, his spluttering notwithstanding. After all, the unpaid army of local philanthropists needed to man civil society threatens the jobs and, on a more elevated level, the very philosophy of government that has guided the councillors to whom responsibility for allocating "the cuts" is being devolved. And, because secular Britain does not have the network of churches that perform so many social functions in America, it is unlikely that civil society will spring full-blown from Cameron's head, especially with the local powers-that-be stomping on any signs of voluntarism replacing government direction and compulsion.
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