Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

Sajid Javid: Stop Trying To Build Bridges With Eurosceptics – We Don’t Want You

Sajid Javid - European Union - EU - Brexit - Remain campaign

The anti-EU movement has no further need of fawning, two-faced politicians who talk the eurosceptic talk for cheap applause but consistently vote and campaign for Britain’s continued participation in political union

Apparently, Sajid Javid is suffering from an acutely troubled conference after renouncing his much-vaunted euroscepticism and cuddling up to power by supporting David Cameron’s fear-based Remain campaign.

The Daily Mail reports:

Sajid Javid today admitted he wished David Cameron had got more from the EU and he was backing the Remain campaign even though his ‘heart’ was for Brexit.

The business secretary, whose endorsement was a relief for the Prime Minister after six other top ministers defected to Leave, insisted today he was still a ‘Brussels basher’.

Mr Javid gave his chilly assessment of the Prime Minister’s deal at the British Chambers of Commerce conference.

In his address, Mr Javid said he had finally come down on backing Remain because of the threat of uncertainty.

The Business Secretary said: ‘I have no time for closer political union and in many ways I am a Eurosceptic. I am still a Brussels basher and will remain so. I wish there was more in the deal’.

Let me say on behalf of all eurosceptics (I’m sure they won’t mind my presumption in this case) – Sajid Javid can take his Brussels bashing and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

The British people have no further need of oleaginous politicians who make eurosceptic noises in pursuit of cheap applause, but who then side time and again with the political establishment to preserve the anti-democratic status quo, with Britain kept as a vassal state of a relentlessly integration European political union.

Are we supposed to feel comforted and mollified that Sajid Javid has now promised that on 24 June, the day after his own efforts contribute toward a “Remain” vote in the EU referendum, he will once again join our ranks and stand up to criticise the democratic subversion underway in Brussels? Because that would be like a soldier who, on being rotated away from the front lines at the end of his tour of duty, promises his comrades that he will see them again soon, as soon as he is done fighting a stint for the enemy during his R&R break.

Javid is basically saying “Don’t mind the massive betrayal, old chap. I’ll be back soon, standing shoulder to shoulder with you and making all of the right sympathetic sounds, as soon as I’ve finished chucking these grenades into your trench from across No Man’s Land.”

The British eurosceptic movement has had enough false friends in its time – politicians who have been only too happy to embrace the cause when it helped them to win selection as a candidate or to squeak through a tough election campaign, but who have been found singularly wanting when it comes to defending British sovereignty and democracy with their votes and campaigning activities once safely elected.

Precisely why Sajid Javid made the decision to support his prime minister’s transparently fraudulent “deal” with the European Union rather than staying true to his oft-professed euroscepticism – whether it was pure career calculation or a genuine failure of courage and belief in his own country – is an ugly secret known only to Javid himself.

But one thing is clear: every last one of those calculating Conservative MPs who have made the fateful decision to sit out the fight to extricate Britain from the European Union must be pitilessly cleaved from the eurosceptic herd and never permitted to rejoin it.

They should be made to wear their latent europhilia as a badge of shame and dishonour for the remainder of their sorry political lives.

 

European Union - United Kingdom - Britain - Flags

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Sajid Javid’s Perplexing Case For Britain To Remain In The EU

Sajid Javid - EU Referendum

Sajid Javid’s bizarre, fatalistic justification for backing Remain

When it comes to picking a side in the coming EU referendum, it is possible to categorise the many betrayals and disappointments dished up so far by the Conservative Party.

Some, like William Hague’s, are infuriating because of their misplaced priorities and fawning deference to power. Others, like that of Harlow MP Robert Halfon, are depressing because they fly in the face of long-avowed, ostentatious euroscepticism. But none are so perplexing as the screeching U-turn executed by Business Secretary Sajid Javid.

A barely coherent Javid took to the pages of the Daily Mail today with the most bizarre case for staying in Europe yet offered by a turncoat Tory – arguing that Britain would be much better off had we never joined the EU in the first place, but that now we are in the clutches of Brussels we have no choice but to allow ourselves to be slowly consumed and digested, like an unlucky insect caught in a Venus fly trap.

Javid begins by painting a rosy picture of the Britain we might now inhabit had we never joined the European Community back in 1973:

It’s clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the European Union. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.

Had we never taken the fateful decision to sign up, the UK would still, of course, be a successful country with a strong economy.

We would be an independent trading nation like the US, Japan, or Canada.

Over the years, we would have developed trade agreements with the EU and with others, all without surrendering control over immigration or our economic independence.

You might think that this would lead quite naturally to a stirring call for Britain to reclaim all of these squandered benefits of independence. But Sajid Javid proceeds to wrong-foot us by continuing:

If this year’s referendum were a vote on whether to join in the first place, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and say Britain would be better off staying out.

But the question we’re faced with is not about what we should have done 43 years ago. It’s about what we should do now, in 2016.

That’s why, with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.

And so unfolds the most depressing, fatalistic argument in favour of staying in the European Union that you will likely hear this entire campaign. Apparently, had we made the right choice forty years ago we could now be living in the land of milk and honey, with endless prosperity and contentment for all. But we missed the boat, and because of that one supposedly irredeemable mistake, we are condemned to dwell forever in the arid desert of unwanted European political union.

Why? Because Sajid Javid is afraid of the potential short-term cost. Or rather, because he values democracy, sovereignty and national self-determination so little that the mere possibility of short term economic disadvantage is enough to make him turn a blind eye to the very real failings and even more anti-democratic future direction of the EU:

As I’ve said before, a vote to leave the EU is not something I’m afraid of. I’d embrace the opportunities such a move would create and I have no doubt that, after leaving, Britain would be able to secure trade agreements not just with the EU, but with many others too.

The great unanswerable question is how long that would all take – and at what short-term cost?

Take this logic and flip it around. Suppose it were possible that by becoming a fascist dictatorship for decade or so it would be possible for Britain to increase GDP by three per cent over and above current annual forecasts – by forcing the unemployed to build houses and weapons in exchange for benefits, riding roughshod over pesky planning regulations, and generally doing all of the autocratic things which democracy rightly prevents us from doing.

According to Sajid Javid’s logic, we should toss democracy aside and eagerly embrace strong-fisted dictatorship, just to reap the potential economic gain. Nothing else would matter – or at least, everything else would be secondary to the GDP question.

Javid continues:

The negotiations would end well for Britain, but we have no idea what the economic cost would be in the meantime – how much foreign investment would go elsewhere, how much domestic investment would be deferred or cancelled.

Even the most committed members of the ‘leave’ camp accept that there will inevitably be a short-term cost to leaving.

The question is whether it is balanced out by the long-term gains. It’s a very reasonable question – and I came incredibly close to answering ‘Yes, yes it is.’

Javid even admits here that “the negotiations would end well for Britain”. Ignoring the fact that a plausible plan for Brexit exists, which de-risks the entire process and eliminates much of the uncertainty, Javid is willing to throw away an eternity of democratic self-governance in exchange for what he himself believes to be just a couple of years of potentially increased economic security. This is an almost pathological level of risk-aversion.

Javid’s half-hearted apologia concludes:

My heart says we are better off out. My head says it’s too risky right now. For the past six years, I’ve been doing everything I can to repair the damage Labour did to our national economy.

I’m no europhile, but nor am I prepared to risk undoing all that work and casting aside all the sacrifices we asked of this country while the post-Brexit talks drag on and investor confidence wavers. Staying in the EU for now doesn’t have to mean accepting the status quo.

[..] For me, this referendum does not have to be a once-in-a-generation event. The fight for reform is not over and if Brussels fails to recognise that, I can see a time when walking away may be the right thing to do – but in a more benign global economic environment and under a UK Government that makes a credible case for leaving.

And so ends the most bizarre case for remaining in the EU you are ever likely to hear. Apparently we are now to make existential decisions about the future of our governance and democracy solely according to where we happen to be in the economic cycle. Want to restore sovereignty while the economy is booming? Go for it! But want to make a bid for freedom during a downturn – or even just a potential downturn? Sorry, GDP projections say no.

This atrocious argument for Remain encapsulates everything that this referendum should not be about. We are talking about the future governance and sovereignty of our country. If there was ever a time for us to think as fully engaged citizens with an eye on the future – and the ability of our children to exercise control over their destinies – then this is it. Now is certainly not the time to think and act like fearful, petty consumers, concerned only with the fatness of our wallets today while sparing no thought for the future of our democracy.

Yet this is exactly what Sajid Javid asks us to do. I agree with you, the EU is totally undemocratic and resistant to reform, he essentially tells us. But the pound might briefly dip against the euro if we leave, so screw securing democracy for tomorrow, vote for the status quo to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of cheap flat-screen TVs today!

What a pathetic, insular, insulting argument to make. How disgusting that the supposed rising star of the Conservative Party would thus attempt to appeal to the scared and avaricious consumer within us, rather than the enlightened and noble citizen.

Make a passionate case for a federal European state and I will respect you, even though I profoundly disagree.

Make a wobbly-lipped, pant-wetting case for clinging to the EU’s skirts out of sheer terror at the Big Bad World and I will roll my eyes at you and move on.

But if you dare treat me like some kind of mindless automaton who thinks only with tomorrow’s bank balance in mind – if you tell me that the EU sucks, but that I should vote to remain because to leave would cause a brief macroeconomic blip – then I will tell you to go direct to hell. And I will hold you in seething contempt for a very, very long time.

When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss the portentous issue of separation from Britain in 1776, the committee chosen to draft the famous declaration was – astonishingly – not myopically obsessed with the impact of independence on GDP.

Thomas Jefferson understood, when he wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, that something far greater than 1777’s economic forecasts was at stake. That democracy itself was at stake.

Sadly, this democratic ideal – or indeed the concept of anything being more important than minimising the risk of disruption tomorrow, even when the status quo is crying out for disruption – is totally anathema to many of those who argue against Brexit today, including many supposed eurosceptics who should know better.

The Conservative Party has served up its share of gut-wrenching disappointments and betrayals in the build-up to this EU referendum. But none of them are proving quite so difficult to stomach as this steaming pile of nonsense from Sajid Javid.

 

Sajid Javid - EU Referendum - 2

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.