The Paradox of Localism: Exploring rhetoric and reform promoting the devolution of power, from 1964 to 2017

Change log
Peacock, Sophia Ulrika  ORCID logo

The Localism Act 2011 is one of many reforms over the past few decades aimed at English local government and its service delivery areas, with the expressed aim to empower citizens and oversee democratic renewal. However, localism has been marked by two fundamental contradictions. Firstly, despite stated intentions of mainstream political parties to localise power, centralisation is widely perceived to be increasing. Secondly, and in relation to this, localism has often emerged as a centrally led agenda rather than through a bottom-up process. Therefore, this thesis problematises the political context of periodic localism. It asks: what are the political motivations and pressures that result in decentralist / localist rhetoric and reform?

This thesis explores the uses of localism in relation to two political discourses of governments and political parties: on the one hand, discourse that seeks to legitimise and justify government policy, and on the other hand, discourse that seeks to popularise and delegitimatize policies and ideas. Focusing on two types of discourses – one associated with government communicative discourse, and one associated with mainly communicative discourse observed during election campaigns and most commonly amongst opposition parties, this thesis suggests that legitimacy and populism both offer useful frames for understanding how localism is used and operationalised in the political sphere. The empirical and analytical core can be found in chapters four, five and six, which offers both a historical and contemporary perspective based on qualitative research (interviews and documentary analysis). Chapter four outlines my empirical observations on the Localism Act, discussing where the Act can be situated in a history of decentralising reform, how the government and parliament interpreted localism during the Bill stages, and the strategies central government used to implement it. Chapter five widens the perspective, exploring the link between centralisation (in the form of top-down interventions) and localist rhetoric and policy, from the 1960s onwards, by distinguishing between ‘strategic’ (means) and ‘normative’ (ends) localism as expressed in both rhetoric and reform. Chapter six explores the extent to which localism forms part of populist messaging as well as a party-political campaign strategy, outlining the dynamic between opposition party versus government rhetoric on localism. My main conclusion is that localism is first and foremost a government and / or party-political strategy, which explains why localism often remains a poorly implemented policy idea.

Allmendinger, Philip
MacDonald, Kelvin
Localism, Decentralisation, Devolution, Communicative discourse, Party politics, Government policy, Public Policy
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Fully funded by the Economic and Social Research Council