Written 27 December 2021
This is the fiftieth and probably the last book for me of 2021, and was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it is one the very few books I have read recently that I have read as a physical book. I got a kindle a few years ago and while I know that many people just prefer physical books I prefer reading on a kindle nowadays and cleared most books out of the house about three years ago. Secondly, I bought the book directly from thelocalists.org via their twitter account @localmattersENG.
The book is short, just 90 odd pages long, digestible and is not an in depth analysis of all the subjects that it refers to. As the title suggests it is a manifesto. It is divided into two sections: Localist Positions and Localist Ideals. The first sets out what Localists are for and against under 11 headings and is I suppose a general diagnosis of what ails our society. The second turns to more detailed policy propositions, of which there are fourteen.
I read the book in one sitting. As it is so short, I won’t set out all the headings, but will pick on a couple that either chimed with me as very strong analyses of issues with which I agree or pointed towards solutions that I felt came up a bit short.
The first thing to make clear is that the book is written by English authors for the English nation. The other members of the UK are mentioned but are held to be separate and entitled to develop their own Localist approaches. The US is mentioned through the fact that “Americanisation” is acknowledged as a real problem. England is regarded as a European country throughout, and ties with European countries as neighbouring states are acknowledged as being of prime importance both historically and in the future (though the authors are unsurprisingly against EU membership).
Globalism and homogeneity are regarded as evils that should be resisted because they are clearly inferior to arranging society by prioritising localities and neighbours. I’ve felt this very strongly for a long time without necessarily being able to articulate it well but it’s become more and more obvious over recent years that I’m not alone in feeling this. I regard myself as pretty lucky to have done quite a bit of travelling and to remember a world in which McDonalds wasn’t ubiquitous. In fact, I remember my brother returning from a birthday party in the West End having been to this strange invention called McDonalds in perhaps the late 1970s. I also remember the first McDonalds opening in Egypt in the 1990s. I agree that a world in which every city has largely the same chain restaurants is second rate: accessible but flattened down, uniform and in the end rather boring and falling short of what humans at our best are capable of. Of course, using McDonalds is a bit of a shorthand for what we see in business, professional firms, university syllabuses and reading lists, the laws that govern trade and investment, the list goes on. Homo Globalissimus self replicates, seemingly without even the knowledge of its participants (or subjects?).
A whole section is dedicated to overpopulation, tied to environmentalism and the ability of an area to support a population while enjoying its consent, and this leads inevitably into immigration, which the authors generally do not support for reasons of its effects on England but also on the countries from which people emigrate.
Taking a couple of solutions that are put forward in the section of the book the authors recognise that the UK is constitutionally set against meaningful localism and propose a British Confederation as a way to recognise the British people’s common destiny whilst holding onto regional difference with the constituent nations kept but powers being devolved down to the lowest possible level beyond them.
The family is recognised as the foundational unit on which localism must be built, and that a philosophy of prioritising individual endeavour in order to improve economic performance must inevitably come into conflict with the priorities of family and community more broadly. The ultimate economic aim should be an economy in which one working parent can provide a reasonable standard of living to support one parent at home with the children.
I’ve picked just a couple of points above which I think give a flavour of what the authors put forward. As we are dealing with a manifesto, but not a particularly detailed one, there is little in terms of really detailed policy, development of which would be a separate exercise. But a couple of parameters within which policy might develop are set out and seem obvious given the stance of the authors: policy should be set at the lowest practical level, it should not be top down. It must be built on structures that have stood the test of time (family, nation, counties, parishes), suit local communities and so will be adaptable and vary from one place and one time to another.
I am very much in sympathy with the outlook of the authors having seen the effects over my lifetime of a generalised flattening out of global culture under consumerism marching forward in tandem with the centralisation of political and economic power wielded by globalist organisations, national governing structures and gargantuan corporations. The spirit of the age is towards centralisation of power, little choice beyond which product to put in a trolley or an online basket and economic extraction by entities that have no loyalty towards the local. We live in an age of community standards but no real community where families are impoverished on a hamster wheel of meeting expectations that are constantly beyond reach. How to stand up to this, well who knows, but democracy when it comes down to it must be a means to say no as much as anything else.
I think it is a very useful contribution to the debates that are likely to shape politics around the world over the coming years. Having said that I am not wholly onside, I think the authors haven’t got a couple of important things quite right. The first is a sense that comes through that Localism is at root a return to a better world of the past. Now in many ways the past was better, and it is important to say so. But it’s not coming back, technological advance is a fact of life and people increasingly live their lives in technological metaworlds with no physical borders that so far appear to atomise and/or centralise most of what they touch. It seems unlikely that this will reverse, so the question really is how to place at the centre of things meaningful local lives in flourishing communities where loyalty is owed and received to physical neighbours while also participating in and benefitting from universalist enterprises like social media, blogging and modern trade. I think that answers will emerge but we aren’t there yet. For what it’s worth I think that the key question to answer is going to be how to harness for local benefit the forces of ever increasing centralisation in business with its tendency to agglomeration but leave behind the current tendency to make local communities reliant on them while simultaneously having value draining away to them. One thinks of Amazon; I don’t think home delivery is going away and in many ways it is a good thing, but Amazon has far too much market presence. Can the amazing efficiencies it realises also be harnessed locally? Or do we keep Amazon but have a local levy? I don’t know how exactly this can be done but I think answers may be found through concentrating on breaking up monopolies (inevitably through central government), local taxes and/or profit shares on monopoly operations. The shape of solutions might come about through further technological advances, for example in public ledgers. Some might say we need an online sales tax; that might be a first step, an approximation, but if the initiative rests entirely with Whitehall which then distributes largesse while retaining power then we are out of the frying pan and into the fire.
I’ve got to say I didn’t really like the authors’ stance on immigration. I do think there are fundamental problems with immigration in the UK, and that there are huge issues to be faced resulting from the unprecedented levels of immigration experienced over the last quarter of a century with no real coherent strategy or democratic buy-in. Huge changes have been made to the country under fundamentally dishonest pretexts and as a society we need a much better debate in this area, but I am still comfortable with immigration on a basis that people come with a wish to integrate into the nation and become full citizens. The Malthusianism on display in some of the text is something that seems intuitive, but that’s the trouble with Malthusianism; it sounds convincing but it’s wrong.
Bringing these two criticisms together, I was quite surprised that a book written from the viewpoint of such pronounced communitarianism didn’t refer to the ideas of Henry George. The idea that there are some things upon which economies depend whose economic rights must never become private property I think lies at the heart of how Localism could proceed. Henry George was writing about land in the nineteenth century United States but his ideas, particularly the extraction of economic rents from localities, have broad application. So many of the problems that the authors identify really have at their heart this privatisation of common goods, which leads on to high levels of regulation and centralisation which are of course anti-Localism and generally democratically unresponsive. I think they need to have a very good look there.
But taken in the round these are quite minor points, nobody with a mind of their own is ever going to agree with everything in a manifesto, and I’m sure the authors are going to keep plugging away and place these ideas more in the centre of national debate. I really liked this book and I’m going to keep an eye out for others like it and keep a copy on my shelf where I expect to thumb through it regularly.