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CENTRE WATCH - DAVID CURRY SEES SOMETHING FAMILIAR IN CURRENT CENTRALISING TENDENCIES

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In Arthur Koestler's powerfully disturbing novel Darkness at Noon the ardently idealistic Communist Rubashov lies i...
In Arthur Koestler's powerfully disturbing novel Darkness at Noon the ardently idealistic Communist Rubashov lies in prison. He accepts that, whatever his fate, the party is always right. In the darkness of his cell he secretly draws the outline of the promised land - the Soviet Union. Although the book does not specify it, Rubashov is, of course, in prison in the Soviet Union and his probable fate is execution.

Sir Jeremy Beecham puts me in mind of Rubashov. New Labour, the end of Tory tyranny, partnership with government, farewell capping and CCT - verily a promised land in which local government would walk with a spring in its step, a song on its lips and freedom in its very being. And now here is Sir Jeremy fulminating against the Communist-style 'command economy' approach to local government from the new commissars of Blairite Britain.

Sir Jeremy is not in prison, though being a local government representative on the party's national executive must be a pretty good substitute. Nor, like other Labour veteran resistance heroes of the Tory years, is he in the House of Lords. I suspect he has not entirely lost the faith. He still addresses ministers as if they had unaccountably gone astray and will ultimately return to the path of righteousness.

But it must be increasingly clear that the promised land is as distant in reality as the sketch Rubashov penned.

Labour might keep telling local government how much it loves it, but it does not trust it. The first Local Government Bill introducing best value, and getting rid of 'crude and universal' capping and CCT, marked the high water mark of the post-election love-in. The second, with the we-have-ways-of-making-you-reform approach to structures, has bred growing disenchantment.

The real menace is off the legislative stage. It comes in the pregnant phrase 'front line first'. Education secretary David Blunkett, who has already set new standards in central prescription of policy, may beat the Tories to the effective abolition of local education authorities. Health secretary Alan Milburn talks of amputating social services from local government as if it were a done decision, if not yet a done deed. Some ministers see local government as an unnecessary and expensive intermediate bureaucracy.

So we see a pattern. Local government, armed with its new power to promote well-being, is increasingly described by government as being a good community leader, a promoter of sustainable development, and a combatter of social exclusion. But at the same time it is facing removal of specific responsibilities and told increasingly how to discharge the ones it retains. From the practical implementation of the policy on dispersal of asylum-seekers to performance-related pay to changes to the cycle of elections, the government lays down the law with Stalinist absolutism.

Rubashov certainly died with his faith undimmed. The party could only be right. Sir Jeremy, no doubt, hopes for paradise deferred rather than cancelled. Perhaps eventually his faith will grow weary. Over in Whitehall they are writing a different gospel.

By David Curry, Conservative MP for Skipton & Ripon.

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