Trusting in devolution

London mayoral candidates say they will work with boroughs and local governments, but they

Take the time to glance through the main Mayoral candidates’ manifestos and a phrase you are likely to come across is ‘I will work with the boroughs to…”.

To London’s local councils, this is of course preferable to: “I will force the boroughs…”, but does it really mean anything? Despite the large portfolio of “strategic” powers enjoyed by the office of the Mayor of London, it is quite difficult to get much done in London without working with the boroughs in some way.

London’s borough councils are there to represent the needs of their local communities, and from time to time, these needs will be at odds with how a mayor might think the capital should work. The real test of the office of the Mayor of London is what happens on these occasions: should the mayor dismiss the views of local people and press ahead with his plans, or is there another way?

The leaders of London’s local authorities believe that there is, and London Councils recently released a new prospectus for government in the capital: Trusting devolution. Timed to coincide with the Mayoral campaign, this important document sets out how the biggest challenges facing the capital can be successfully addressed by putting local communities at the centre of developing policy.

A change in emphasis is needed in London government. We need to refocus government from a centralised approach that can all too easily ignore local views to one that embraces London’s unique diversity and puts local communities at the centre of decision-making.

It is fair to say that all the main political parties now make a case for devolution, and for local people and their representatives to have a far greater say in how their local area is managed. The wide consensus is that government in the UK is too centralised, too removed from local people to respond effectively to their concerns.

Anyone who lives in or has visited London will know that the capital is a diverse place – not only in terms of its population but also in terms of the range of areas it comprises. As Trusting devolution makes clear, London is not a top-down, one-size-fits-all city, so we should not attempt to govern it as such.

Instead, we need to develop local answers for local needs – and be bold in developing solutions that are tailored to what local communities want. We have set out five areas – ranging from the impact of poverty through to crime – where we think a more locally driven approach could bring about huge improvements for Londoners.

Underpinning this is a desire to reconnect Londoners with this city’s governance. Local people need to believe that they can make a difference, and ensuring they are involved in developing the solutions to the problems facing their local area will reinvigorate democracy in the capital.

The office of the Mayor of London is undoubtedly about leadership – but what does strong leadership for London look like? Is it imposing your will across the capital’s communities, or is it instead having the confidence to let go of power, to give local people the freedom they need to rise to local challenges?

London needs a Mayor that recognises its diversity, its plurality – and most importantly, one that is happy to respond to what local people need – even if it differs from their singular vision for the city. London’s next Mayor needs to ask how he or she can put London’s communities back at the centre of this city’s government. The answer lies in Trusting devolution.

Councillor Merrick Cockell is the London Councils Chairman

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State