Local Autonomy and Local Policy in Party Philosophy


Historically in Europe the prime argument for the development of local self-government tended to stem from a concern about the centralisation of political power rather than the delivery of services. In other words the aim was the extension of democracy rather than administrative convenience.

Sometimes this was expressed in terms of safeguarding freedom, expressed most powerfully by J Toulmin Smith in a report as far back as 1849:

Local self-government is the rock of our safety as a free state; the only absolute security for the maintenance of the fundamental laws and institutions of the land, on whose maintenance wholly depends our peace, prosperity and progress.1

Although support for powerful, centralised government has tended to come from the more rightwing conservative political parties there is no ideological reason why this should be the case. Indeed Friedrich Hayek, whose writings are regarded as the source of much of the current neoconservative economics, wrote in his 1944 book:

Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the important decisions rest with an organisation far too big for the common man to surveyor comprehend. Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government.2

There are no definitive hard and fast solutions to the perennial questions concerning the separation of powers. Neither from history nor from theory can one acquire a blue-print that can be simplistically applied to each and every situation. I examine the various areas of tension below and seek to draw out guidelines that can help to determine where the lines should be drawn between the centre and the region, the city, the village and the neighbourhood, and the powers appropriate to each.

If the decisions are to be made in the right context the over-riding aim must be the enhancement of the political process. WIlliam Thornhill, a British specialist in local government expressed that aim as follows in 1971 in a standard text-book on, the subject:

The true role of local government lies in its political potential rather than In its technological and administrative accomplishments. There Is no special case for local administration per se, especially with modern communications and management techniques. The functions of local government are largely a matter of convenience - derived primarily on the basis of giving an institution, which derives its true value from other principles, a range of useful tasks to perform; "useful" in the sense that they allow a meaningful exercise of its real purpose. The value of local government is political; it is to be seen in the contribution it makes to the character of our political life as a whole.3

A. Local Government and Central Government

Checks and Balances

Those who hold power tend to use it. No-one with four aces asks for a new hand. Because the luxury of starting from scratch with a constitutional conference is rareiy available, decisions on the spreading of power have invariably to be agreed by the central government. It is consequently difficult to persuade elected members of a national parliament to vote for measures that appear to diminish their powers. It is often possible to get national politicians to agree constitutional change in theory only to fail to secure agreement on the legislation on specific details.

This tendency is not confined only to government party members; opposition politicians also are often reluctant to diminish parliamentary scrutiny of items that currently come before them.

The reality is that, with the increasing complexity of modern government, and the amount of detail required in legislation to try to cover all eventualities, government management and opposition scrutiny is becoming less effective. Both sides connive to give an appearance of efficient parliamentary democracy but the reality is all too often long sittings, excessive detail taken in full parliament and a consequent failure to deal well with matters which genuinely require parliamentary concentration.

Thus the development of local democracy actually assists central government to fulfil its legitimate role rather than being clogged up with matters which are far better dealt with at a different level of decision making. A British writer expressed it thus:

... one cannot consider the reform of local government apart from the reform of central government or cure any paralysis at the extremities without also trying to cure the apoplexy at the centre.4

The difference between "devolution" and "decentralisation" needs to be noted. I am not arguing for a spreading of administration, say to appointed bodies or simply to officials, but a spreading of power to councils elected on a full franchise. Very few parliamentarians would regard a transfer from parliamentary accountability, however stretched, to non-elected bodies as being an extension of democracy. It is the elected nature of local government that gives it its authority and which confers authority, indeed the influence of an elected constitutional body extends beyond its direct administrative powers. The effect of the debating forum, backed by the electors, can be salutary, whether or not the body has executive powers over the subject under debate.

It ought to be noted here that the transfer of powers from national governments is not only downwards. The increasingly supranational nature of. the economy and the demands for global action on ecological imperatives, are producing transnational politics. National governments can, if they wish, pretend to retain their national sovereignty but will inevitably be progressively marginalised as finance, business and technology increasingly ignores national boundaries. Just as the European. Community has to accept that a sharing of national sovereignty is the only way for a country to maintain its influence on such matters, so the Pacific basin countries will find it necessary to develop more co-ordination and joint action.


A good measure of the health of a democracy is whether pluralism is encouraged and the amount that Is visible. The active encouragement of debate, the promotion of competing ideas and the existence of autonomous statutory - and voluntary - bodies Is a good indication that the current ruling party is confident in its ability to govern by persuasion and acceptance. US Senator William Fulbright made the point in relation to his own country:

A nation which not only allows dissent but encourages it is adult and confident. A people which fearlessly exercises the right of criticism is civilised and intelligent.... In a democracy dissent Is an act of faith, and a criticism an act of patriotism: a higher form of patriotism than the familiar rituals of adulation.5

The existence of local self-government is fundamental to pluralism. Because it exists within a constitutional framework it provides a far healthier expression of pluralism even than voluntary bodies. Valuable though these are, the fact that voluntary groups do not normally have the authority of public election on a full franchise can render then volatile and less influential. Protest and direct action often tends to stem from a lack of constitutional channels for constructive opposition and eventual change. The availability of the means for peaceful change is a powerful argument against attempts to force violent change.

The existence of strong elected local government units, which Korea's 4 Special Cities and 9 Provinces would be, creates inevitable political tension. The existence of the Greater London Council in Britain, from time to time controlled by a different political party to the national government, so annoyed Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government that she abolished it! London is now the only capital city in Western Europe without a city-wide elected council. The point of the democratic system is that elections confer legitimacy, and that the benefits that local self-government bring with it may also bring different political parties into office at different levels at the same time. The United States deliberately built such tension into its constitution and its electors apparently support it, judging by the last two Presidential elections when they elected a Republican President and Democratic Congress.

It is therefore important to make the crucial difference between processes and values. Political parties should always differ on values indeed their existence depends on demonstrating distinctive values - but should always agree on processes. In other words, unless there is a widespread consensus on the processes of politics, a state will always be precarious because each party will endeavour to entrench its power whenever it can by tampering with the processes, ie the system of election, the timing of elections, the role of the civil service, the relationship between central and local government etc. Left wing Professor Bernard Crick put it thus:

The idea that there is a consensus of values has gone. I have long argued that representative democracy does not need a consensus on substantive values at all, indeed it is itself a device for governing in a civilised manner societies with different values. But we do need consensus on procedural values. We do not need to agree on what decisions should be made, only on how decisions should be made.6

As a general rule no powers should be unilaterally assumed that one would be unhappy if one's opponents had. For example, Britain has, in theory, a politically neutral police. There is a separation of powers to assist that neutrality. Below a certain level the elected Police Authority has no power over the Chief Constable's exercise of authority - except the power to dismiss him personally. From time to time individuals on both Right and Left wish to "interfere" in the police command structure, but it is generally accepted that, although each might wish to have such powers, they would not wish the other to have them; therefore the hazy line between democratic accountability and police practice is maintained.

Thus, although the existence of different levels of local self-government, each having defined areas of autonomy, can be frustrating they are an indicator of the democratic health of a country.


All democratic politicians assert that they wish to encourage the fullest public participation in the democratic process. At the lowest level this means voting every few years and, as in the recent American Presidential election, even that often fails to enthuse more than a minority of the electorate. Few countries have managed to involve more than a small "elite" in active political work. It remains the preserve of a relatively small group, mainly men, usually drawn from the middle class. To most people the business of politics seems extremely complex and often unpleasant.

The public's perception of politics is often governed by what it sees of national politics, which can, indeed, appear complicated. In contrast most men and women have ideas about the way their local neighbourhood is run and are usually very outspoken about the rights and wrongs of the local council's decisions. In many countries the level of participation increases the smaller the unit of local government. Thus if the principle is to administer services at the lowest practicable level it encourages more local members of the public to become active in the local council processes. And, although local government service is an important end in itself, the realisation that they can cope with the local scene and, what is more, actually enjoy politics, makes some individuals go on to be involved with national politics.


In a discussion of local self-government it is important to define "efficiency" rather wider than by narrow economic factors. The appropriate size of authority for a particular service is, of course, important. A wider area is obviously required for policing than for housing; different levels of education can be carried out by different sizes of local authority. But factors such as accountability and involvement are more significant in determining a political structure than they perhaps need to be In industry. George Bernard Shaw put it well a century ago:

.... the balance sheet of a city's welfare cannot be stated in figures. counters of a more spiritual kind are needed, and some imagination and conscience to add them up, as well."7

B. Structure and Powers.

It is crucial to consider financial structures at the same time as service delivery areas. In Britain local government was re-organised separately from its financial powers. It has proved a permanent weakness in the system. The key principle is to ensure at each level of local government that the power to tax and the power to spend are in the same hands. In other words,

each local authority must have available to it a sufficient variety of financial resources – including government equalisation grants as of right where appropriate - to be able to determine its service priorities by a political decision as to what the electors will pay for. The ultimate sanction on spending decisions should be the ballot box rather than government diktat or a lack of opportunities to tax people, land or goods.

Central government usually likes to have a neat, uniform structure for local government, but it is rare for the social and physical circumstances of a country to lend themselves to a common local government structure. Just as the cities and provinces of Korea are of widely differing sizes so they may well need to have a number of different types of local council. The more the system Is flexible to cope with the considerable variety of needs the better.

The statutory legal framework within which local government works needs to be carefully considered. In Britain local government is the creature of central government and, in the absence of a written constitution, exists only under powers set down in detail by Parliament. A local council therefore, under this doctrine of ultra vires has to find a specific statute to enable it to undertake any new service. Most other systems work under intra vires ie the local council can do anything not forbidden by Parliament. The forbidden Items usually include the obvious things such as foreign affairs, as well as determining what if any law courts can be instituted.


Britain exists under a unified constitutional structure, as does France, whereas the Federal Republic of Germany is, as its name indicates, a federation of regional parliaments. The benefits of a federation are that the powers exercised by each level are carefully defined so that the concentration of power centrally is minimised. Lord Acton, the nineteenth century English Liberal philosopher expressed it thus:

Of all checks on democracy, federation has been the most efficacious and the most congenial .... The federal system limits and restrains the sovereign power by dividing it and by assigning to government only certain defined rights. It is the only method of curbing not only the majority but the power of the whole people.8

Determination of Boundaries

Although the tradition has been to determine the appropriate local government boundaries on the various units' capacity to deliver a ·set of services - education, housing, transport, police, health, welfare, land use planning etc - structures based experimentally on recognisable communities are currently under way. This entails a small central specialist "core" of service specialists feeding into a structure of neighbourhood councils as they determine their preferred priorities.

Whatever method is used to determine boundaries and powers there are advantages in establishing a permanent Commission of lawyers, officials etc - not politicians - at arm's length to consider boundary disputes, to hear evidence and to recommend alterations if it finds the case for alteration proved.

The Executive and the Legislature

Whatever the formal structure human nature will determine that elected members of like mind on any council will form into groups, and, by extension, the largest group will assume

responsibility for the direction of policy. it is important, therefore, to consider in advance what structure is needed at each local government level to distinguish between the executive and the legislature. For instance, should the controlling group which forms the executive establish a "Cabinet" which formally employs the officials, or is the staff to be employed by the whole council, with access to individual officers available to all members of the council?

Integral to such a decision is the status of elected members and what is reasonably expected of them. For instance, will their workload, including formal meetings, constituency work, dealing with electors and groups, be such as to require them to take significant time off their normal work? If so, some method of recompense will be required appropriate to that workload. It will also involve decisions on the servicing of members, including secretarial services, research and information work etc.

The Open Society

Public access to files and correspondence is growing in importance as technology increases its capacity to intrude into the individual's private life. Rules as to limits of secrecy are required, with the back up of a neutral "Ombudsman" able to investigate allegations of maladministration.

C. Local Self-Government and Political Parties

National versus Local

Political parties tend to operate on a hierarchical principle with local groups feeding into regional committees, and regional committees feeding into a national executive, with this structure often replicating itself in different subject areas such as policy, strategy, organisation etc. Inevitably the existence of active and often powerful local government representatives produces a tension between the different levels. Individuals exercising power in their own area do not take kindly to being directed from above. The parties need to determine the powers of local committees. For instance, can the party committee for a local authority area determine its own election manifesto without higher approval? What party system should there be to deal with disciplinary problems including appeals, at the lower levels?

Elected Member versus Party

The elected councillor at any level acquires a different "agenda" to the party member and finds himself or herself with a number of responsibilities which are bound to be in conflict from time to time:

  • The councillor has a responsibility to his or her constituency, to represent individual constituents whatever their politics, and to deal with individual problems involving the local authority; it is worth considering what limits to this are legitimate;
  • The councillor has a responsibility to the whole local authority area, particularly for those subjects allocated as a specialist responsibility by the council or the party; this may involve problems of priorities which may be different to the party's own policy;
  • Where two or more parties are working together in coalition or in a more informal arrangement the problems of political compromise may be even more acute and may cause greater tension for relations with the party;
  • Councillor have a responsibility to the party that selects them and works to secure their election. Regular reporting back and acceptance of accountability - though not direction - is clearly important;

The party's key opportunity to judge the performance of its elected representatives comes when they come up for re-selection prior to the council's election. There needs to be an agreed system that is fair to both sides. It would be unfair capriciously to deselect a councillor simply because he or she has taken a different line to the party on some difficult issues, but it would be equally unfair for a councillor to assume automatic reselection If he or she has not done the job well or has consistently opposed party or council group policy.

Candidate selection poses other difficulties. The elected members of a local authority from each party have to work together as a team and the local party needs to consider the existing make up of that team when it is choosing candidates. Also the party's standard bearers need to be well anchored in the party's values more than knowing every policy detail.

The decisions on the dispensing of local patronage are important. Inevitably most local authorities have a number of positions at their disposal. These may include school board members, members of local charities, cultural committees etc and there are Invariably party members keen to fill such honorary positions. An agreed system of involving the local party committee is wise if the opportunity legitimately to oil the political wheels is to be taken!

The party must determine the procedure for drawing up its policy statement, or manifesto, for local elections. Clearly it is the candidates who have to defend and advocate it - as well as implementing it if elected. It ought not, therefore, to be dominated by existing councillors to the exclusion of new candidates. The healthy exercise of party democracy requires the involvement of the rest of the party locally in the debate on the manifesto, even if the voting is eventually confined to the candidates.


It is an iron rule of British politics that, if the local party does not eiect a leader, the local press will! Therefore it is important for the party to consider both the terms of reference for the leader's position and the method of election to it. For instance, is the party leader the same person as the leader of the elected council members? If not, the council group will require a "group leader" or equivalent so that there is a member with the responsibility for urgent decisions, for group discipline and pastoral care, and for speaking on behalf of the group at formal occasions.

Even if the party decides that the local leader shall be member of the council it is important to involve the ordinary party members in his orher election. It is also important in such circumstances for the leader to meet regularly with the top official of the local party. It is all too easy for the elected members to become out of touch with their local party and it is particularly important for the leader to have a relationship of trust and confidence with the local party. After all, elected members will come and go but, in theory at least, the party will go on for ever!

Co-operation with other Parties

If circumstances require electoral co-operation with another party or parties, or if there is the prospect of sharing power with other parties after the election, it is crucial that the problems involved are fully discussed privately within each party before agreements are made. Cross party alliances create immense philosophical and strategic problems for political parties, especially for those party members who hold particularly firm views on the party's integrity. Such members are often the most vocal and failure to explore the implications of cross party arrangements almost invariably causes problems for each party.


The exercise of power all too often brings with it the possibility of manipulation of the political processes for personal or party advantage. There may be very little financial corruption in evidence in local government but, from time to time, there is blatant political corruption. This can include the deliberate employment of party members in important council jobs; the blurring of the roles of elected member and paid official so that the councillor is involved in direct management, often with the availability of confidential information on individuals; the abuse of grant aid policy towards voluntary groups so that only those friendly to the party are assisted; the misuse of official literature so that party propaganda is published and circulated at public expense.

If there is state aid to political parties and to elected members particular care needs to be exercised by the parties to ensure that the money is used for legitimate purposes.


The further development of democratic structures and participation in Korea would no doubt benefit greatly from a elected local government system. The various provincial, city, county and village structures necessary for an initial move towards elected councils are in place so that unless there were overwhelming demands for new boundaries, the biggest problem in formulating a local government system can be avoided for some time. The processes required to develop local self-government are, however, always complicated and the parties may well wish to progress one tier at a time, perhaps starting with the special cities and the provinces. It is, however, from experience possible to develop elected neighbourhood councils, even without the upper tiers, particularly if there are already a number of voluntary committees in existence.


1. J Toulmin Smith, Government by Commission, 1849

2. Friederick Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chicago, 1944

3. William Thornhill, The Growth and Reform of English Local Government, London, 1971

4. Ioan Bowen Rees, Government by Community, London, 1971

5. J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power, New York, 1966

6. Bernard Crick, Socialist Values and Time, Fabian Society, 1966

7. George Bernard Shaw, The Commonsense of Municipal Trading, London, 1904

8. Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Essays in the History of Liberty, London, 1860