‘There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.’
These are Lenin’s words on the Russian Revolution 100 years ago that suddenly have a modern relevance. Recent history informs us that generally, major social and economic change follows from major trauma.
The First World War saw the pledge of ‘Homes fit for Heroes’, which saw recognition that the local state had a fundamental role in providing decent and affordable housing. The Second World War saw the creation of a well-funded welfare state and internationally, a new world financial order that promoted growth and co-operation. It was evident well before this pandemic that this social and economic consensus had disintegrated.
History also teaches us that local initiative played a significant contribution to a good society. It may be time to remember the action of local heroes such as James Niven, the chief medical officer in Manchester at the time of the last major world pandemic – the so-called Spanish Flu. Rather than waiting for Government direction, he organised that city’s own lockdown and saved thousands of lives. In the same spirit, the modern-day equivalents of Mr Niven in Greater Manchester sourced six million items of personal protective equipment (PPE) directly themselves instead of waiting for central Government assistance.
Local government is doing all it can to protect its citizens and debate should not detract from this vital task. But there will come a time when we begin to emerge blinking into the daylight from the enforced lockdown, when questions will be asked about what we have learned from this pandemic and what sort of society we want to live in, in the future.
Local government’s heroic efforts over the last few months have earned it its place at the table when that public debate happens. It’s encouraging that one of the first acts of the new leader of the opposition was to open a debate with his local government leaders on what he could learn from their knowledge and experience.
Like many other organisations, the Local Government Association had to cancel its annual conference in July. But this creates an opportunity to organise a virtual event to discuss its role and contribution to a new society. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of the end of dogmatic centralism.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics