Monday, 10 August 2009

A Charter of Accountability

Jock Coats has taken me up on the challenge of arguing about 'the social contract'.

More specifically he disagrees with my conclusion that "to deny the social contract is to pave the way for tyrants" and proposes instead that "to create a territorial monopoly of arbitration and force, a state, paves the way for tyrants."

Let me return to my local example. The historical context of the period before the Charter of Liberties was adopted in 1100 is significant as it gives us an actual case to study and from which to draw conclusions.

When William famously conquered England in 1066 it marked a break with the past, as all the earlier traditions and practices of government which had held up the conditions of the country were overturned - all the local lordlings and arbitrators lost their titles as these reverted to the new King who apportioned them afresh according to his will. There was massive turmoil and a massive struggle for wealth and power ensued as the new aristocratic class of Normans began to impose themselves by seeking the favour of the man at the top. Intrigue and treachery was rife, of which the assassination of the monarch was only the culmination. Nobody was immune.

So Henry forged a new compact with his barons which essentially promised 'if you promise not to kill me, then I won't kill you'. He also agree to rebuild the old institutional structures which were known and trusted to work, but had been swept away in the conquest.

This had the effect of enabling him to consolidate enough strength to face-off a multitude of internal and external threats and negated a general state of terror. Henry I was definitely a strong leader, but I'm not so sure he deserves to be called a tyrant.

- So what is the objection to 'territorial monopoly of arbitration and force'?

It is the same principle by which parliamentary sovereignty ensures supreme, independent authority over the land and which has underpinned the ability to retain state coherence in the face of all sorts of attack - when there has been confusion over which body or institution takes precedence in law-making and enforcement then petty disputes quickly spiral into a constitutional crisis.

The 'investiture controversy' was one. It arose out of Carolingian promises to grant Gregorian Church reformers certain rights in exchange for supporting their claims to the crown. The Normans followed their example by similarly exploiting any opportunity to split temporal power and spiritual authority. This battle dogged the whole period until the Peasant's War and the Reformation when Henry VIII famously rejected papal advice over his divorce and the state gradually transformed into a secular entity, though it reached a peak in the years preceding 1100 in England when bishops and abbots were appointed from within the royal clique.

Some of the Norman nobles were certainly less scrupulous than others, but a more tricky problem was the lack of consistency and coordination between different landlords. Soon it became clear that looting, plunder and pillage could be got away with if the gaps between responsible authorities was effectively exploited.

Without an effective chain of command through to the overlord anyone with a grievance could easily be sidetracked into a bureaucratic cul-de-sac, where buck-passing, blame shifting and a general lack of clarity caused confidence in a system to evaporate and extraordinary measures to be taken. It's no surprise that the vigilante justice of Robin Hood proved so popular when accountability was subsequently lost.

So in three ways Henry's charter resolved conflict and established order as it was demonstrated the principle of legitimacy based on accountability could only be ensured with a 'territorial monopoly of arbitration and force', or at least a heirarchy through which procedures could coordinate an effective response to issues that arose - it was no good that peasants and freemen existed under different rules and enforcement policies from manor to manor and estate to estate: if there was to be a country there needed to be an organised and legitimate state which could defend it and those within it.

The Charter of Liberties provided the necessary contract between the ruler and the people.

- And what of today's 'social contract'?

A mixed system had existed for nearly 100 years until the Local Government Act 1972, when it was decided that a uniform two-tiered system should be imposed over the whole country to prevent the proliferation of smaller councils (such as Rutland) who were often beyond the reach of central government and incapable of keeping up with changes in the law.

The rise in left-wing militancy during the following period was partly enabled by these new power bases (such as the GLC), so it was inevitable that they would become a target for new Thatcherite reforms as local democracy was attacked and increasingly neutered.

Berkshire has a particular place in the history of the reforms of the nineties, as it became the only county to be fully divided into unitary boroughs until it was joined by Bedfordshire and Cheshire earlier in 2009 (Cornwall has gone the other way and coalesced). When Berkshire was finally abolished in 1998 the Banham Review recommendations were extensively criticised for the appearance of gerrymandering.

Not only had Berkshire been divided into six (instead of the originally proposed four, then five) unitary authorities, but the increase meant the precise delineation of the boundaries created a host of peculiarities such as Calcot (which was placed in West Berkshire despite remaining a functioning suburb of Reading, within the M4 boundary).

While these changes were designed to help control service delivery it did so by increasing accountability to parliament at the expense of locally elected council politicians. Today, local government finance is strictly controlled by the Treasury (in 2009/10 25% will come from council tax, 28% from formula grants and 46% from specific grants which are ring-fenced out of a total £125.6bn, up 3% [ref]).

Boards of experts with little local knowledge calculate their sums without appreciation for any facts on the ground, and as local needs are increasingly determined from the top-down councils are increasingly treated as a means to implement the central agenda. The restricted space to manoeuvre (council tax rises are capped at 5%, central target-setting and assessment etc) is only matched by the lack of practical accountability in the structure of the services. The fact remains that most individual councils simply aren't capable of fulfilling their responsibilities alone and even where they are wider issues require cross-border cooperation.

The 'social contract' has effectively been rewritten so that legitimacy no longer rests on direct accountability, but on their power of enforcement. The cumulative effects of changes in sub-national government undertaken by successive Labour and Conservative regimes have undermined local government and clear divisions in territorial authority have been broken up as power was absorbed by the centre and a new monopoly seeks to impose itself.

- Some local examples

Housing developments are a particular bone of contention in Berkshire (as in many other places). The Local Development Framework was agreed by the bureaucrats according to the guidelines set out for them and they have undertaken their statutory requirement to consult the public on it. But more engagement is seen with individual planning applications (around 1,000 for the Pincent's Hill, only a couple of hundred county-wide for the LDF). The consequence has been that West Berks and Wokingham concrete over greenbelt without investment in physical or social infrastructure, because they are happy to be a parasite on their neighbours. These communities are left with many problems, such as particular crime profiles and other consequences of commuter-belt isolation which take generations before they start to be mitigated effectively.

Recently Wokingham and Reading were criticised over the state of their childrens care (lack of effective management controls and communication among other things). The conclusion was that the only effective way to prevent each authority's different failings in different areas was to club together and integrate the Local Safeguarding Children's Boards for Wokingham, Reading and West Berkshire to create an umbrella authority, despite the fact that this put it beyond democratic accountability.

The massive timescale and investment for effective waste service management has also seen a coalition of councils club together. This time Reading, Bracknell Forest and Wokingham are spending £610m on a 25-year plan after having taken ten years to redevelop two waste disposal facilities.

Another ongoing issue is the question of a third Thames bridge which requires not only a cross-border consensus, but also a cross-river agreement.

On the other side of the coin the lack of accountability in the board of the county Fire Authority (comprising a 'politically-balanced' selection of 25 appointed councillors from across the six unitaries) has been allowed to drift from our attention for so long that Windsor Fire Station is being closed to pay for an increase in their expenses!

And as if to demonstrate the powerlessness of local councils there is the 2M group which is representing the almost universal local opposition to building the third runway at Heathrow.

As far as Jock's example of local communities independently hiring service providers (a group in Southampton are funding private security in their area because they think the Police are failing), I am concerned it is part of the trend of stopgaps. It strikes me as being being an extraordinary measure (along with gated communities) which could be allowed to slide and become the norm.

Independence may initially seem like a good thing, and it is up to a point, but in the wider scheme of things we all live in an interconnected world where we are mutually dependent with mutual shared interests. The plain fact is that although we can create our own rules for social interaction which have there consequences, we also live in the real world where nature and the laws of physics will not be overthrown any time soon.

- Conclusions

Where it's argued that the 'social contract' is an authoritarian means of creating compulsion, I am more than slightly cautious. The libertarian position against compulsion may be a valid criticism but it does not make a coherent argument when faced with confusion in general day-to-day business. Compulsion is not an end in itself, but is used as a means to an end.

The chaos and disorder which exists where there is no social contract (or a distorted understanding of one without consequent accountability) creates the unrestrained conditions where arbitrary rule allows the strong free reign to act according to their whim. That's freedom for an individual, not freedom for the individual.

Where a pluralist or democrat can be weak and ensure policy is enacted by agreement, a monopolist must certainly be a 'strong leader' to ensure resolutions are enforced by will. The tyrant is either a weak leader who creates dissent because he fails to reach agreement or a strong leader who stimulates opposition by abusing the power of office.

Either way accountability can only be ensured by a so-called 'social contract' between rulers and ruled which enfranchises both sides into participating in the politically process on an equal basis.

Liberalism has a strong history on constitutionality, which is largely based on the principles of legitimacy and accountability enshrined in and proven by the Charter of Liberties. We should not forget it.

Does this mean elected councils should correlate with service authorities to ensure the politicians who stand in elections can be brought to book by their employers (us, the electorate), or does it mean we should give up with democracy altogether?


Incidentally I see James Graham has argued that the lack of accountability engendered by central control creates the postcode lotteries for local services which is so often the cause of complaint.
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