Bus Lane Strategy

Tristram Hunt

It’s unlikely that Sidney Webb features in Tony Blair’s pantheon of political heroes. It would, in fact, be difficult to think of a less likely match for Tony and Cherie than Sidney and Beatrice. Yet, after almost a century, the Webbs’ thinking about local government – their disdain for civic initiative and zeal for state uniformity – still appears to influence Labour Party policy.

Their tortuous history of English local government, published in 1906, is full of complaints about local autonomy. ‘It does not seem to have occurred to the framers or supporters of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835,’ they wrote, ‘to make the slightest beginning of any supervision, inspection, audit or control of the Municipal Corporations by a central authority.’ Beatrice Webb had intimate knowledge of Joseph Chamberlain’s achievements in Birmingham, yet she and Sidney went on to lament the failure of the ‘enthusiastic Democrats of the time’ to provide ‘any of the appropriate administrative machinery, for audit and inspection’ and to ‘comply with national requirements’. Annoyingly, councils were answerable only to the wishes of the local electorate.

In fact, the absence of national standardisation was one reason Victorian local government achieved so much. Life expectancy was hauled back from the low levels of the 1840s; cultural institutions – city museums and galleries – that are still in existence today were founded; architecture of unrivalled eclecticism was encouraged; and much was done to promote the interests of the newly enfranchised working class. Sidney Webb chafed at the untidiness of municipal autonomy, but he was aware of the potential of civic government. He recognised that the Victorian burgher may have seen himself as the arch-opponent of collectivism – ‘“Socialism, Sir?” he’d say: “Don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, Sir, individual self-help, that’s what made our city what it is”’ – but that didn’t stop him walking ‘along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and, seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market that he is too early to meet his children from the municipal school’, retiring to the ‘municipal reading-room by the municipal art gallery, museum and library’.

Webb’s description isn’t quite fair, however: the Victorians thought that the spirit of local self-government, not individualism, had made Britain what it was. The Victorian civic elite was taught by the Romantic histories of Hallam, Lingard and Turner to see the free-roaming, self-governing Saxon tribes as their antecedents. Having endured the tyranny of the rapacious Normans and the absolutism of the Stuarts, in the Victorian era the Saxon witenagemot mystically rose again in the form of city council chambers. Civic self-government became a symbol of British identity. ‘On the other side of the Channel, Paris is France, but no such rule applies with us,’ the Birmingham Daily Press explained. ‘Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and other towns must be asked their opinion’ before London makes any decisions. In Gaskell’s North and South, it’s only when the spectre of centralisation is raised that the sturdily ineloquent mill-owner Mr Thornton can rise to the rhetorical level of Margaret Hale:

I belong to Teutonic blood; it is little mingled in this part of England to what it is in others; we retain much of their language; we retain more of their spirit . . . We hate to have laws made for us at a distance. We wish people would allow us to right ourselves, instead of continually meddling, with their imperfect legislation. We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralisation.

When Lord Morpeth sought to expand the role of the state in the 1848 Public Health Act, he was abused for undermining Britain’s Saxon constitution. The ‘mental imbecility which is everywhere produced in the masses’ when one man in Whitehall is made responsible for the governance of millions seemed to the Economist ‘far greater evil than the perpetuation of bad smells, and generation of partial diseases’. Smells and diseases were fine, as long as they were the ‘consequence of non-interference by authorities with the dwellings of the multitude’.

Happily for the Economist, the Saxon spirit survived Morpeth and his ‘Prussian’ reforms. By the late 1850s, the state was in retreat as newly incorporated municipalities raised rates, levied taxes and sanctioned loans to fund improvements. Generous private subscriptions and a penny on the rates paid for town halls, museums, libraries, baths and parks. The 1867 Reform Act quickened the civic spirit by enfranchising leaseholders, thereby easing the stranglehold of the rate-paying ‘shopocracy’ over local government. The voluntarism of the mid-Victorian city slowly gave way to the municipalism of the later 19th century.

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