Although our political backgrounds are fairly distant it still grieves me to challenge my fellow-Brechiner, Arthur Bell, and a host of other impassioned SR contributors, on the virtue of small burghs but I will. 
Kenneth Roy is right.  Many Scots live in small towns.  I come from Brechin but have lived for the past twenty years in Linlithgow: fine places but the fault of municipal government is not that is insufficiently local.  As an educationalist, I look back fondly to Lothian Region.  The Regions were too large for any local faction to dominate.  A degree of fairness across schools was the result.  The Regions were also efficient, using the economies of scale to keep the centre relatively small but to push expenditure to the chalk-face.  Perhaps most impressive was the fact that councillors set the authority’s strategy but left daily management to the schools.  The division between the political and the professional was clear.  Some public services, both for reasons of efficiency and reasons of fairness and impartiality, are far better managed on a large scale
We should recognise the social strengths of small towns, the cohesion and mutuality, the pride in place but it is also essential to recognise their small-mindedness.  I recall as a young boy, reading an illustrated history.  My grandmother, in her late-70s, asked what I was reading and what was the illustration.  “It’s about Ramsay MacDonald,” I replied, “and the first Labour Government.”
“Aye well,” said my ancient granny, “there’ll be a puckle o’ Brechin lads in that photo.  There were aye a lot o’ strong Labour fowk in Brechin.”  There were no Brechiners in that 1923 Cabinet.  My grandmother’s sense of the relationship of her small town to the bigger picture, was seriously askew.  That parochialism was also the basis of an enormous conservatism in Scottish small town politics: the objection to industrial developments which would have altered the old ways, the reluctance to allocate houses to ‘incomers’, the bloated pride in the wearing of ermine-trimmed gowns and the baubles of power, and an odd joy at the distribution of a retributive justice by the Baillies.
It was also a system dominated, in the small burghs, by the ‘Independents’ and ‘Progressives’, local businessmen (social conservatives by nature and Conservatives by national inclination) whose overwhelming urge was to keep down the rates whatever the cost in terms of poor services.  The Burgh system was also however counterbalanced by the Counties.  With the possible exception of the mining counties, municipal politics there were even more reactionary, dominated by the acre-ocracy and, in parts of the Highlands and Islands, by Sabbatarian theocrats.
The pre-1974 settlement was a mess.  Small town politics, including in the Labour heartlands, meant small minded politics.  In many of the Scottish councils, housing until 1974 was still allocated personally by councillors. In one area of a central Scottish county council, it was known that keys to a council house were secured by sending your wife to visit the local councillor.  At least one District Council, led by a prominent Orangeman whose allocations appeared to reflect his sectarianism, sought to maintain councillor allocation of houses even after reorganisation.  In the county council already mentioned, when appointing a Depute Headteacher to a school, the local councillor, an insurance agent, appeared on the doorsteps of the candidates before the interview to attempt to sell them insurance policies.  Petty corruption was one aspect of the burgh and county councils model.
The District and Regional model established in 1974, was confusing and never understood by the electorate.  It, in turn, was destroyed by a Tory government, determined to reduce Scottish Labour’s control of local government.  The result was a gerry-mandered system which sought to create a few Labour councils and a host of others which, on a strong anti-Labour swing might just elect some combination of anti-Labour parties.  It was blatant boundary-fixing which created geographically and socially absurd councils.  The massive South Lanarkshire, stretched from the south of Glasgow, including East Kilbride, to the boundaries of Peeblesshire and Dumfriesshire.  Its only rationale was that Forsyth believed it might just elect a non-Labour council.  There was no consistency.  Councils were created as small as Clackmananshire, because, again, the Tories believed it might return a non-Labour majority.  On the other hand the massive North Lanarkshire combined major elements of three counties precisely to corral as many Labour voters as possible into one authority and out of neighbouring ones which might vote differently.  The irony (as the recent settlement has proved) is that the Tories’ intended result could have been achieved on quite reasonable boundaries had they been willing to ditch the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Several things are clear.  Few councils comprise cohesive communities.  The link between the councillor and his or her base has been weakened but some services require coordination and strategic efficiency.  Before any major changes are made to the structures, questions require to be asked about which services are best delivered locally and which centrally.  Look at the Irish Republic: we might learn some lessons.
Local government finance requires review.  The revenue raised locally is so small that the link between councillors’ actions in spending and the electorate’s perceptions of how well they spend, has been broken.
The single transferable vote has ended single-party domination of Scottish councils.  That has not been matched by a mature response to the nature of the coalitions which political parties require to make if viable, stable local government is to develop.
Answering some of these questions would be more challenging and productive than dreams of a return to parochialism.
 
 
Alex. Wood was once a councillor but refused to wear an ermine-trimmed robe.
 
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 2 March 2010: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood213.html

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