The non-elected Lord Heseltine appeared on BBC radio recently, yet again urging us all to vote Yes in May’s mayoral referendum.
Heseltine and his pro-mayoral acolytes contend that to realise its full potential Birmingham needs a high profile figurehead, equipped with wide-ranging powers. He cited Alex Salmond, the driving force behind Scotland’s regeneration, as an example of such a politician. Yet Salmond was elected as SNP and Scottish Assembly leader by exactly the same mechanism used to select both Prime Minister David Cameron and Birmingham Council Leader Mike Whitby. Despite it’s popularity in Whitehall and proven success in Scotland, this is the very political system that Lord Heseltine and his Westminster colleagues are trying to force Birmingham into dismantling.
As a way of running a local authority it’s by no means perfect, the Committee system that operated until c2000 arguably worked better, and a refreshed version of that would make a good starting point. But there’s a more fundamental problem, which is that Britain (and particularly England) remains just about the most centralised state in Europe and successive governments have failed to relinquish power and decision-making from London to what they patronisingly term ‘the regions’ or ‘the provinces’.
No one doubts that the problem needs addressing. But it is not the gimmicks and political beauty contests that surround an elected mayor that Birmingham needs. It is not the gesture politics and easy sound bites that accompany the media savvy politicians and their spin doctors who dominate such a world that we require. Nor is it a West Midlands version of the increasingly asinine Ken and Boris show currently playing in London. It is democratically accountable political structures, representative of all strata of society, and given serious levels of devolved power akin to that enjoyed by London and large cities throughout Europe and North America, that Birmingham needs.