David Robertson: Too much centralisation too little democracy

IT’S difficult to understand how ‘big government’ decides where to flash the cash, writes David Robertson

IT’S difficult to understand how ‘big government’ decides where to flash the cash, writes David Robertson

Glasgow got one in 2014, Aberdeen is getting one in 2016 and Edinburgh probably doesn’t need one. My city, Dundee, could desperately do with one. What are we talking about? A government funded city deal – some £250 million for Aberdeen and more than £1 billion for Glasgow. The idea is that government steps in to help cities facing some kind of financial crisis.

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There are many questions that arise out of this. How much will this apparent government largesse really help, and for how long? Why is Aberdeen in financial crisis and needing a government bail out? I remember visiting a home in the city a few years ago – I had never seen so many Porsches in one street! The oil boom ensured that house prices became the most expensive in Scotland and car dealerships had a great time. So why does the city now need a bail-out? Did it not prepare for these times? Is there no accountability?

The key question is – is this really the way we want our cities to be governed? There is a real threat to local democracy coming from the centralised State based in both London and Edinburgh. Logically, you would think that the electorate would be most interested in local councils because after all, they affect us most directly.

But the turn-out for local government elections is usually the lowest. Being seen as a local councilor has gone the same career route as being the local teacher or minister. Respect for politicians is about as low as respect for priests.

One of the problems is that people perceive that local politicians really have little power (and they are concerned that what power they do have might be used in an unethical and dishonest manner). With more than 40 per cent of council money coming from government grants, with the Scottish government putting an effective lock on local councils raising their own income and with national highly organised parties (at least in some cases) determining what local politicians do, it seems as though the era of big government is here.

As Christians, we thank the Lord for government – we accept that as Paul tells the Romans, “the authorities that exist have been established by God’ (Romans 13:1). We know that we are to pray, “for kings and those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. We expect our governments to protect the people, punish evil and provide for the poor. But like all the good gifts God has given us, governments can go wrong. The main area where this happens is where government forgets its limitations and starts to believe and act as though it were the supreme and only authority. We are all in trouble when the State believes it is God.

We are in an era when the old balances and checks that existed in our country are being threatened by an increase in big government, run by parties funded by big corporations who purchase big media, and led by politicians with a Messianic complex. Despite the cries of democracy there is an increasing trend towards centralisation whether to Edinburgh, London or Brussels. And the victims in this are local communities and local councils.

There is no doubt that many of Scotland’s cities and councils are in crisis. They are being compelled to make savage cuts in basic services while being restrained from cutting others. My own city, Dundee, has to make a budget cut of some £28m. We all know who will be affected the most. The poor. Those who can afford to will go to private gyms, buy their own books and send their children to private schools. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is enslaved to a policy which seemed like a good idea at the time but is now handicapping councils, whilst subsidising the rich. The Council tax freeze worked well as a temporary populist measure, but to have it as an indefinite policy in a time of austerity is the economics of fairyland.

The removal of the abilities of local politicians to raise their own taxes is a removal of accountability and a denigration of local democracy.

It also means that civil servants have more power than elected officials and therefore reap the rewards. Glasgow city council has over 100 managers who are earning more than £100,000 per annum. In what world does it make sense to have one tax-funded employee earning more than three and a half times the salary of the Prime Minister or the First Minister? David Crawford, the executive director of social care services, has a total package, including a redundancy payment, of £486,303. At a time when social care is being slashed I’m sure the poor are delighted to know that the person who is being paid to look after them is being made rich.

And that is the trouble with big government, big corporations and big salaries for a big bureaucracy. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In order to avoid that we need a return to a more balanced, and localised politics. We need an intelligent, committed and educated electorate. We need co-operation between the state, voluntary organisations, community groups and the churches.

In the up coming Scottish parliamentary elections I wonder if any of the political parties will be prepared to set Scotland’s councils free.

• David Robertson, Solas CPC, www.solas-cpc.org