It is the growing custom to narrow control, concentrate power, disregard and disenfranchise the public.
– W E B Du Bois (American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist)
Centralisation is the process whereby the activities of an organisation, particularly planning, financial control and decision-making, become concentrated within a particular location and/or within a particular group. Advocates of centralisation (like the SNP) generally talk of economies of scale stemming from the increased co-ordination of effort. Sometimes the pressures to centralise arise when some form of crisis hits the functioning body.
An example is the American Civil War when Lincoln took more powers into the presidency to cope with the emergency. The present president is trying to use his central powers to permit more deforestation in Alaska, despite the warnings concerning what that would do for the climate. In this country, the political battle is, effectively, over what power the government has viz-a-viz the elected representatives of and the will of the people.
Centralisation however is not always a 'bad thing'; in fact sometimes it can be a positively good thing and, in other ways, it is the only way so it must be endured. For example, if the command of the military power of the UK was not centralised, then the country would be a tangled mess with regards to its defence. Indeed, when the military were not under a centralised command, back in the Middle Ages, the various sections that then made up the armed might of the nation fought each other as often as they fought any foreign threat (and, even at that, some sided with the foreigners).
Centralisation of the military is not without risks, however, as witness those many countries where the military uses its muscle to take over and establish some form of dictatorship. They always do this on the back of the civilian government being corrupt and they are always correct in saying that. Indeed, had Britain been a much smaller country the recent scandal concerning the parliamentary expenses of a lot of our MPs could have been an excuse for a military cleansing of the system.
Another 'good' centralisation process, and one often over-looked because it seems so natural, is the unified collection of taxes. Taxes are decided upon by a central point and we all pay them to a central point. Once this was not the case and petty lords could impose their own taxes upon the locality they ruled (actual tax collectors were sometimes murdered though). The centralisation of the tax gathering system placed everybody on the same unified basis and removed the very arbitrary elements. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not until the early years of the last century that the US tax gathering system became centralised (opposed by one or two states at the time) as the power of the president grew in relation to that of the senate.
That is another characteristic of the centralisation process; it can take a very long time to evolve; so long that those at the time are unaware of it happening. The early Roman Church was hardly centralised but, over the centuries, Rome and what it stands for has become the unchallenged spiritual and administrative head of the Catholic Church.
On the other hand, it can happen within a lifetime; many town and county councils in Scotland have disappeared within living memory and much larger and more centralised local authorities have taken over (look at Inverclyde and Highland Region). And there are two aspects to that: as the seat of power moves away from people, they begin to consider that they have less direct influence on it. 'We
want to do this' becomes 'They
want to do that': the remoter the centre, the less personal involvement.
The other aspect is that the individuals moving into the now enlarged power centre become, perhaps unconsciously, captivated by it and are often its strongest advocates – dwelling on the savings in scale the larger unit can (supposedly) achieve and the wider knowledge pool that it offers. But when the centre becomes too big and too remote, that can impinge on the effectiveness of the centre and a feeling that it is not coping with the problems of the immediate area – and how, indeed, can a councillor from Skye feel emotionally involved in an issue in remote Caithness?
That the centre is too powerful is how many feel about London and its role in UK Ltd – one of the factors fuelling the rise in Scottish nationalism. People do not like to think they are being dictated to rather than engaging in a decision-making process. Ironically, many now feel the same about Holyrood, as it secretes more powers to itself and away from local councils and uses 'efficiency' savings as a reason to provide us with a state police force (the unelected committee that oversees it costs around £700,000 per annum – but that is another story).
What we have witnessed over the past years since the arrival on the scene of Holyrood is, in fact, a considerable attempt to decentralise from London; fine, but we must not now allow Holyrood to become the total centre, removing powers from local neighbourhoods. Canada has, in recent years, been a trail-blazer in this regard with its central government actually returning some of its responsibilities back to the provincial assemblies. Already, in England, we are hearing of demands for more regional autonomy and why many are afraid of the growing power-base and centralised bureaucracy that is the European Union.
Enough for now, more another day on the centralisation process.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Caithness