It was “Tip” O’Neill, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress who famously said “All politics is local”. This insight is a profoundly Conservative one – one which Labour has shown over 13 years that it just doesn’t get as its policies have disengaged people from society. That’s dangerous not just for society but for democracy too.
Yes, people are fed up with all politicians, but a range of government policies since 1997 have also made them feel powerless and betrayed by a centralised state that claims to know what is good for them better than they do themselves. For others, the welfare state has created not a feeling of security but rather a culture of dependency; the all-powerful, remote State will provide and so they lose all responsibility for their actions.
The debate that began several years ago about the need for a new “localism” was an important one – but it seemed to concentrate on political structures and it needed a human dimension too.
Yes we need to empower local communities to get involved in planning issues. In my part of Worcestershire, nothing has been worse for democracy than the feeling that local people have no say over how their areas will change – the dreadful “Regional Spatial Strategies” rule.
Yes, we need to make sure that major infrastructure decisions are only made after the views of local people are taken fully into account – the Infrastructure Planning Commission must go.
Yes, we need too to make sure that our police force, our NHS, our schools fully engage local people.
Yes we need to give local authorities more power too – we were wrong to take power away from them in the 1980s, but what this government has done to control councils from the centre is breathtaking.
But we also need to empower people and voluntary organisations to take responsibility again.
David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea this week struck a strong chord precisely because it was in tune with that simple but powerful thought. If we do not respond to and nurture local people’s views, aspirations and talents, then we build a remote debilitating state rather than a powerful, strong society.
The era of the Big State is ending – now we need to build that Big Society. It won’t be easy and it will take many years but it must be done.