The Left may love to rail against the Evil Tory government inflicting untold harm on the defenceless people of Britain in service to their extreme, worse-than-Thatcher ideology. Of course, it’s all just hysterical, hyperbolic nonsense. This “What Conservative Government?” series will highlight multitudinous examples showing that David Cameron’s rootless, centrist Conservative Party is an authoritarian, Big Government carbon copy of Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Last week, I had the opportunity to debate the Conservative Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, on the infantilisation of today’s students and their ludicrous demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces and the suppression of free speech.
This week, Vaizey pops up in Conservative Home, defending the government’s record on public libraries from left-wing attack (my emphasis added):
When I first became a Minister, we abolished the libraries quango and moved responsibility to the Arts Council. We wanted to join up our cultural strategy with libraries. This decision has been thoroughly vindicated. The Arts Council has made £6 million of new Lottery funding available to libraries to host cultural events and realise their role as important community spaces. Yesterday, they announced a further investment of more than £1.5 pounds, which will help library authorities work better together, and will support a range of national initiatives covering reading, digital literacy and health.
[..] Councils have a legal obligation to provide comprehensive and efficient library services, and must consult with the local population on plans. We are the first Government to review every closure. Central government can and will intervene if a council is planning dramatic cuts.
There is a serious point here, which is that the Labour Party are utterly disingenuous to attack the Conservatives for library closures, when only 11 of 79 library closures in the past five years have been ordered by Conservative councils. And there is probably merit to the implied suggestion that left-wing Labour councils are publicly rending their garments and spitefully shutting down high profile services as a kind of self-immolating protest against the Evil Tories in Westminster.
But what kind of conservative government obsesses about the “national initiatives” feeding into their “cultural strategy”, and watches over the shoulder of every local authority in the country, demanding the right to sign off on every single building closure? Certainly not any government that truly believes in smaller, leaner government or a renewed emphasis on localism and individual liberty.
Now, this centralise-first instinct in British politics is not new. And ironically, it is partly the legacy of the Thatcher government, which faced implacable resistance from rabidly left-wing local councils and believed that the only way to implement its agenda was to circumvent and/or neuter local authorities. But the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did nothing to reverse this process, and David Cameron’s Coke Zero Conservatives are in no hurry to undo the process.
But the over-centralisation of government is one of the biggest problems in British politics and civil life. It kills any attempt at radical experimentation or bold new policy initiatives in the crib, since everything must conform to the same national standards, either by legal requirement or the fear of endless angry “postcode lottery!” headlines in the press.
Why should the four home nations of the UK not have the ability to vary tax rates and bands as they see fit, according to local priorities, so long as all four pay the correct proportional share of their revenue to Westminster for UK-wide shared obligations such as foreign policy and defence?
Why should local authorities not be able to raise (or lower) sales taxes autonomously, in place of a fixed (and brutally high) VAT rate of 20%, returning funds to taxpayers or spending the revenues as local communities see fit?
Why should city councils not be permitted to implement hotel room taxes, as in nearly every major city around the world outside the UK, and use the revenue to promote local tourism in the provinces and regions?
(The one policy standing in David Cameron’s favour is the creation of local Police and Crime Commissioners – though it has been hard to generate any real enthusiasm for this form local control when it is not replicated in other areas of our lives).
A truly radical, campaigning conservative government would be asking these questions, developing policies to answer them, and then boldly implementing them across the nation. And now, after five years of Conservative government, Britain might be starting to feel the benefit of re-embracing liberty, individualism, localism and regional variation.
But of course, all of this would require the Conservative Party to actually govern like a conservative party.
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