Localism: where will it end? (with fluffy bunny picture)

The Duncan Borrowman forecast: Clegg – visibility poor with patches of fog, 6, rising slowly. Huhne – visibility good but high pressure band on the way, 8, falling slowly.

An unforgivingly heavy piece for Saturday morning while all sensible people are still in bed trying to summon the will to live. Jock Coats has recently been floating the idea of de-nationalising education. This is all the fault of Herbert Spencer (of course!). Spencer attacked the Liberal Daddy Mill for conceding that education should ever be a matter of state intervention. Spencer’s argument is that a true liberal would never concede, of all things, state control over the formation of one’s world view and economic skills. I think this is an interesting notion and intend to do some Clegg-style thinking out loud, with the caveat that I am hunched in front of a computer in the semi-darkness clutching a cup of tea and wrapped in a blanket rather than facing the nation in a suit, and so the fall-out is less likely to be problematic.

First, taken in context it is a far less extreme position than it might appear. Spencer was writing in the 1880s at the dawn of compulsory universal education, when it was by no means a given that it would be a success. The fact that it has been a way of life in this country for five or six generations should not preclude our considering the possibility that it is no longer as useful as it once was. This is where being by training a medievalist provides valuable perspective (in fact, good gracious, I don’t know how you all cope). When most politicised people say “historically”, what they mean is “back to 1850”, which can lead to a certain proscription of outlook, and is the fundamental reason why we’re finding the whole left-right meme so hard to escape.

The liberal argument in favour of state education is that it provides the essential tools for people to function economically and culturally in wider society; thus by constraining the freedom of children, in the form of a joint trusteeship between parents and the states, you open the way to true liberty in adult life. Jettisoning this argument is nigh-on unthinkable (try it, your mind skitters away from it). It has gained an awful lot of weight in the century and a quarter since Spencer was writing, for the simple reason that there are now few wellsprings for said common economic and cultural background in this country apart from education.

Spencer wrote at a time when British society was coherently samey – pretty much white and English-speaking, heavily jingoistic, monarchical and religious, with a relatively controlled media and still basically locked into a set of master-servant relationships that only war would destroy. This coherence provided a basis for a single working society. All that now is gone; education (and popular culture) is what is left. Education supposedly provides the same skillset to all and the same cultural backdrop to all (if nothing else because you need a communal bike shed to discuss popular culture behind). In the context of British society as it exists today, it is an indispensible tool in the fight for genuine equality of opportunity.

The operative words are “as it exists today”. The more I extrapolate results of this denationalising idea, the more interesting I find it. If I were to appoint Jock the Minister for Education in the People’s Republic of Mortimer, he would instantly give away all his powers, like any good liberal. Local groups would then organise themselves to provide time-efficient education for their children. At first, this would probably create a swing to faith schooling simply because those groups have the historical organising capacity, but it wouldn’t take long for the new “market” to adjust itself.

In the longer term, the lack of pre-existing societal coherence, combined with the fact that education groups would generally coalesce around a shared set of ideals, religious or otherwise, would mean increased specialisation. This specialisation would be guided by demographic make-up of an area, the type of economic prospect available in the area and so forth. Specialisation would result in increasing entrenchment of regional differences, with individuals being ever less able to operate economically and culturally in regions other than their home region, because they had not had the right mix of education. In time, this would lead to less movement of people, more restricted intermarriage and perhaps even things like the re-emergence of regional dialect.

This is probably freaking you out a bit so here is a fluffy bunny picture:


Don’t worry, it almost certainly won’t happen in your lifetime

The great advantage of medieval history is that studying it leaves you with absolutely no pre-conceived notions about the way society should work, and even modern historians know that the nation state is a meme like any other. What once was will be again, and all things pass. Regional states were the norm for the fourteen-hundred odd years between the arrival of the Celts and the unification of England under Alfred. The twelve-hundred odd years that have passed since are currently still in the minority, and it’s only in the last quarter or so of that time that the barriers to economic and cultural cohesion have properly come down. The fact that these early medieval regional states were more frequently at war is indicative of scarce resources and prestige-based warrior-kingship. There is nothing innately unstable or unworkable about the break-up of Great Britain into regions.

And as liberals, democrats and localists, really it is the logical culmination of what we want, isn’t it? It certainly seems to be the logical outcome of Spencer’s extremis liberal position on education.

Having read all this again, I realise that I have invented something like anarcho-syndicalism with a cultural rather than economic focus. Well done, Mortimer, an hour and a half well spent there. Up the Judaean People’s Front!


  1. This was a good post. I cheered when you pointed out that nations are a meme. People really don’t realise that they’re just an ideological construct.

    Under your cultural anarcho-syndicalism, would education still be free at the point of use though?

    Or, would we, like Spencer, not intervene where parents did not feel it necessary to educate their children? Would we not risk parents deciding not to educate girls again, or the poor – and their children and every subsequent generation would find themselves institutionally and permanently excluded from participation in society?

    I need to look at that bunny again.

  2. Alix, and Charlotte, you have to understand that from my perspective (and the world view in which I wrote what I did) you would have a land tax feeding a citizens’ income and people might be expected to use their children’s citizens’ income for educating them. I actively *want* people to have to pay *something* towards education, for I think they’d value it more if they did (cf all the studies in Africa about education which for the most part is fee paying, even if only a nominal amount).

    Second, Alix, I think you can overplay the regional differences. I have to say I think I like regional differences. If we weren’t all so flitty we’d probably have more balanced healthy economies where now we have some regions suriving on a majority state aid and others overheating with horrible consequences for the quality of life of some members of those regions. Remember in Spencer’s day Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Dublin (at least) all had flourishing financial sectors, including Stock Exchanges and local banks, as well as London. It by no means then necessarily led to entrenchment of poverty and I don’t believe it would today.

    Also, I think the mechanisms for the dissemination of knowledge are so significantly different from Spencer’s time – most regions would probably turn to the same set of materials. But what we do apparently find today is that for all there is a national curriculum and so on, we are not providing all the skills local employers want anyway. I’d expect local employers to want to help shape the education available to people too – just as here in Oxford BMW are taking a stake in the partnership about to run our first “academy” and have wanted an education input since they acquired the Cowley plant, not to produce “grunts” to work on the production line – because the production line is now a pretty skilled technical job, but also to skill those people up into engineering design and so on that would become transferrable skills for them as well as a local pool of talent for our biggest industry that is not being produced locally at present.

    There is a big question of how you would get from here to there. Clearly the Citizens’ Income idea would take a while to get up to its maximum payment, as you would take quite some time to reduce the other government expenditure to make that possible. You also have to understand that land value taxers view communities very differently – land value tax will encourage the savvy middle classes to move into currently poorer areas, because they would have lower taxes, and so the mix of incomes in an area, and therefore a school area, would be more balanced.

    Going slightly away from Spencer then, you could insist that in return for acquiring valuable school premises for example, the new providers of education in those areas have to make bursaries available (perhaps by means testing – which is a wholly different thing when it’s done outside of government) to poorer households. IN my experience most educationalists are in that profession because they want to nurture young people. I could imagine, say, St Pauls school buying out a number of inner London schools and cross subsidising fees from their richer parents in Barnes to poorer students in Peckham. Whilst the land value tax slowly brings up the economic vitality of Peckham (partly assisted by the fact that there is a branch of St Pauls School there of course!).

    It seems to me that our current system aims to be protectionist – it aims to provide compliant semi-skilled workers (at 16 or 18) and reaonable managerial potential at degree level. And at the lower levels signally fails to do even that. It is providing neither a good education for education’s sake, nor a good skills base for employers’ sake.

  3. Local differences and local identities are good things, because they’re not exclusive. Anyone can become a Scouser, Brummie, Geordie, Cockney etc. simply by virtue of being born in a place (or even just living there for a while). Contrast with ethnic or caste identities and you’ll see why this matters. If the Lib Dems are serious about pushing the localism message, it will have to be constantly reformulated in each region or city (‘Liverpool decisions taken by Liverpool people’, for example), so we should probably be treating such regional identities as positive things to be proud of and to encourage. Civic pride can be a powerful force for altruism, something which has suffered under the centralised state.

    I suspect these regional identities are a lot more fluid than ethnic identities, and it’s much easier for new regional identities to appear than it is for new ethnic identities to appear (Alix probably has a much better grasp of the history than me though ;)). This alone should make support for (or at least permission of) strong regional identities, with the democratic powers to back them up, part of any liberal agenda for change. Top-down government has failed miserably at addressing the challenges of community cohesion, and Gordon Brown’s utterly absurd ‘Britishness’ campaign will never achieve anything close to what could be achieved by local leadership around the country.

  4. Jock – I too like regional differences (as I thought was clear), and I wasn’t suggesting in the slightest that it would result in poverty. I am envisaging basically balanced mini-economies that serve themselves perfectly well along the lines you describe. But I still think the demographics and cultural mix is so different now to how it was in Spencer’s day that it would have a significant effect on the development of regional economies and divergence would proceed that much faster.

    Charlotte, I think (I certainly hope) the historical analogies of choosing not to educate girls etc are just that, historical, born of a different culture. There’s nothing inherent in the idea of non-state schooling that would encourage anti-feminism. The one exception might be among minority groups who see women as inferior to men, in which case I agree a degree of compulsion for all is required. As to funding, I suppose I was envisaging regional taxation, but yes the Citizens’ Income is a much simpler idea, I had forgotten how this fitted in to Jock’s Grand Plan, and it can come with the element of compulsion attached.

  5. Rob, I hadn’t considered ethnic identity as opposed to regional identity – I think this is an excellent notion, because if regional identities were stronger immigrants would feel more inclined to become a part of, say, a Brummie culture or Scouser culture than this vague overarching Britishness thing. It would be easier to assimilate a lot of the information that forms the backbone of integration, because there would be a practical, local element to it – this is how we’re taxed, this is where our annual cheese-grooming festival takes place, this is where the places of worship are, that’s where you get your housing benefit and this is what time the pubs shut etc.

    It also, as you say, has a more instinctive visceral appeal. I’m certainly a lot happier (if slightly inaccurate) describing myself as a Londoner than as a Brit (ugh!) or Englishwoman (aaaargh! even worse!)

  6. Is ethnic identity any less of a meme than national identity though (and will those who find it difficult to associate with Britishness really find it easier to associate with their supposed regional identity)?

  7. Some totally interesting points made for and against different veiw points and it has to be said very well written. You are a credit to reality😀

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