Tuesday 7 June 2011

Localism and the machines of loving grace

The first documentary by Adam Curtis (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) a couple of weeks ago was fascinating and timely. It went from the novelist Ayn Rand, via Alan Greenspan, to the doctrine that everything can reach a self-correcting ideal if it is just left alone, watched over by “machines of loving grace”.

The trouble is that the whole idea is being misinterpreted (see Rachel Sylvester’s column today in the Times, behind a paywall) as somehow the philosophy of localism. Not Liberal localism, it isn’t.

The hands-off approach described by Rachel Sylvester and Adam Curtis is more like Woodstock meets Milton Friedman. In practice, it is precisely what New Labour believed in all areas of life and tried to organise, the loving machines watched over in turn by McKinsey consultants and provided by a range of IT consultants, hard men who did well out of the New Labour years.

Lib Dem localism does not mean laissez-faire. It doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means doing a great deal, but doing it locally where it is more likely to work. It doesn’t mean hands off; it means a great deal of work.

The question is then, what is the role of the centre? Because Whitehall and Westminster without enough to do soon get into a panic and feel they need some levers to pull, as they are doing now. The answer is that the role of the centre is to inspire, to catalyse, to lead, to regulate what can destroy local life.

This is precisely the opposite of their current skills. Westminster and Whitehall have few leadership skills and a great deal of regulatory ones, which they inevitably bring to bear on the wrong things – light touch regulation for the big banks; great rafts of rules for people who want to run a local barbecue.

So don’t think that localism means doing nothing. Quite the reverse. It means shaping the world, but in a more effective way than has been done so far.

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