England & Wales

Andy Sawford’s Powerful Ideas lecture: Part 2


This blog series is composed of Andy Sawford’s Powerful Ideas lecture. The speech looks at where localism comes from, what it means, in the world we live in and, by commenting on current reforms, sets out how localism can help us meet the challenges we face now and in the future. The second post explores the potential of localism to be a philosophical response to centralism and globalism. The first part of the speech, which focused on the evolution of democracy and government in the UK, is available here.


In the mid 20th century we find the creation of the welfare state as we know it

The 1945 Labour government was notable for having three prominent former Councillors in the cabinet, Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan

Debates about the role of central versus local government raged over these years:

The historian Gerry White gave a fascinating talk to an LGiU audience on this a few years ago, in which he recounted the battles over healthcare in particular.

It was originally planned that universal healthcare would be a function of local authorities, which already administered a large number of hospitals

In London for example, the County Council owned and ran 40,000 of the 55,000 hospital beds

But Bevan became convinced that a centrally run National Health Service was the way forward

Nationalisation of utilities and centralisation of policy in many areas, continued apace

At the same time, we can see a very clear change in the relationship, a shift in power, as local government became increasingly a delivery agent of the central state

So whilst local government’s role expanded in areas like social housing and social services, this was at the behest of central government

Via the major local government structural reforms of the 1970s, the constraints imposed on councils in the 1980s, such as rate capping, and the performance management of the late 1990s and past decade…

Top downism prevailed…

It is no coincidence that over this period we see a general decline turnout in local government elections, and a decline in the reputation of local government.

It’s no coincidence either that local elections and local politics have been viewed in the shadow of what is happening in Westminster.

Today we have one of the most centralised systems of government anywhere in the world

And I believe that we are at a crossroads


When you compare localism to lots of other isms, you’ll find that it’s a newish concept

It is in some respects a philosophical response to centralism and globalism

As national and supranational forces have grown stronger

From big government, to big business

Localism urges us to think more about the local

As I have said, society has organised at the local level since time began.

Many of the exhibits here at the British Museum tell just that story – such as the Saxon finds from my home town that are on display here

Local wasn’t an ism, because it was just how things were done

I am not able to say when and how globalism became such a powerful force, no doubt we could trace its roots back to early explorers, trade routes, colonisation and empire

There is much to recommend larger forces of co-operation, whether that is across nations or across the globe

The sharing of ideas, the sharing of cultures, the sharing of trade, the sharing of resources

These are positive forces

Yet as the world that we live in has grown richer in many ways

as we have been empowered by global communication, global travel, global trade

In other ways we have become less powerful

Our connection with our neighbours is not as strong today as it might have been at any previous time in history

A recent study by researchers at Sheffield University found that communities in Britain are significantly more fragmented and provide a lower sense of belonging than 40 years ago

What’s more – as the work by my colleague Dr Jonathan Carr West, synthesising a wide range of studies, shows –

the level and quality of social capital is changing for the worse

Does this matter? Yes: it strongly influences people’s health, educational performance, crime rate and socio-economic inequality in an area

There is a relationship between globalisation and this decline of traditional community

Our willingness to look out for our neighbours, has in some ways been diminished by the sense that all the world are our neighbours.

Some have raised eyebrows by the Government’s spending on overseas aid whilst we are facing cuts here

But we can all understand, I’m sure, why this internationalism is good for us, for our families, for our communities

But as well as the shared destiny we have with people the other side of the world, what about the people in our street and our town

it’s good we understand that we share our planet with people all around the world

And we understand the opportunities that presents

And its challenges

the melting of the polar ice caps

the wars in foreign lands

the economic turmoil of distant nations – or those closer to home, like Portugal, now seeking our help

We also must do more to understand the opportunities and challenges within our local communities

And how the local and the global are connected

It’s not as if we can choose not to

Global influences are on our own doorstep

Most people embrace this: it brings variety, diversity, and invention

But for some it can cause fear, resentment, uncertainty and conflict

In his famous encounter with the pensioner Gillian Duffy, Gordon Brown showed he didn’t understand how people are concerned

When our labour may be underemployed, or devalued, by people from far away,

producing goods in distant places at prices that we can’t compete with

or offering labour in our communities at a wage we feel we cannot live off

and accessing services, such as health and housing – in a way that some may feel is unfair

We can trace this back to the ‘problems of other people’, which are essentially about how we live together with our near neighbours

Because being part of society is not an altogether altruistic thing

Co-operating with others through neighbourliness, through community, through trade, through government, is generally better for all of us.

When we feel that our co-operation is not working for us, it can be alienating

We must recognise that for all that co-operation on a national or global scale can enrich us

In some ways it can undermine the very things we hold most dear

Our identity

Our power as citizens over our own lives

Our ability to shape our own destiny

I believe that this is the Biggest Challenge facing us in Britain in the 21st Century

How to adjust to being citizens of a fast changing and intimately interconnected world

Abraham Lincoln said

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis”.

the truth is daunting: that the ‘old way’ of doing things needs to give way.

the world is shrinking, the pace of technological, scientific, medical development is astonishing, people are living longer and differently, our climate is changing – whatever the cause or our response

these are complex challenges, that can only be met by collaboration, by pooling our creativity and intelligence and responding through collective action.


This second post looked at the succession of top-downisn and how localism and globalisation can co-operate together to meet the needs of the modern world. The next part of this speech will look at the present and the practical.