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Tony Travers

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For a local politician Eliot Spitzer made headlines worldwide, says LGC's columnist.

Eliot Spitzer managed, from a standing start, to become a major British news item. The former governor of New York State was hardly a household name in this country until the United States federal tax authorities tripped across his fascinating private life. Yet he managed to achieve headlines across the full range of UK newspapers, from the FT to the tabloids.

His downfall, as we all now know, owed more to hypocrisy than to sex. Winning his position by use of a ‘moral leadership’ message was hardly compatible with his allegedly regular use of expensive prostitutes. For the British electorate, it is almost comforting to see another country being gripped by bedroom scandal.

We have become so accustomed to such things, it would be easy to imagine they only happened here.

What is rather more surprising is the level of global media coverage for a ‘local’ politician, albeit an American one. New York City certainly enjoys more than its fair share of British press coverage. But the wider state is largely rural and conservative. The average settlement is Smallville rather than Manhattan. Yet Mr Spitzer’s downfall commanded worldwide attention. How can this be?

The answer lies, once again, in the strength of the United States’ decentralised political culture. Eliot Spitzer was previously a public official who had overseen the prosecution of Wall Street crooks. In the light of the current global banking crisis, his efforts to improve the post-Enron financial markets in New York were prescient. Like many talented US lawyers, he had decided to run for elected office. Not only was he able to use his ‘local’ position to have a wider impact, but he was also able to move easily from the private to the public sector.

This would be a bit like the head of the Crown Prosecution Service or the Financial Services Authority moving directly to stand for election as governor of Yorkshire. There is no chance of something like that happening here. First, there is no such powerful office in any county or region (apart from the mayor of London), and anyway it would, in contemporary Britain, almost certainly be a position with no executive authority.

In this country, the only way to be involved in a major political power centre is to go to London. There you will find virtually all the country’s senior politicians, its most powerful media and pretty well everyone else who can help you get into politics. Britain’s political breeding ground is within the SW1 postal district. In the past, Scotland provided an alternative. It will do so less in future.

We really do need to revive and strengthen political power centres outside London. To achieve this, power and resource-raising powers would have to be devolved. Eliot Spitzer may not have been a brilliant example, but the system that allowed him power is so.

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