Home / David W. Cooney / Steps and Stumbles


Two years ago, I wrote about a potentially exciting movement supported by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. This was branded as the “Big Society,” and it promised that the central government was going to distribute political authority from itself to the local level. It consisted of several programs to assist local councils in taking on additional responsibilities that were currently being handled at the central level. The idea was that the common citizen, working with local government, would be capable of dealing with local issues and would no longer be dependent on the central government to deal with every problem. If it could be handled at a local level, the local level would be empowered to handle it. This was not a fully distributist plan, but it had the potential to be a step in that direction.

Of course, in the initial stages, this would still involve the central government. After all, that’s where the tax money was still going. Did the plan include moving the taxation to the local level for those services it assumed? I don’t know. The local councils would likely need assistance in setting up their resources to take on their new responsibilities; they didn’t have the processes ready because they didn’t have the ability to do the things they would soon be doing. These transitional considerations are reasonable and to be expected. We should expect the same thing if we ever get the chance to actually implement Distributism. It is a necessary process if such a transfer of authority is to proceed in a peaceful manner without causing unnecessary disruption of needed services.

The intervening years have shown that what I described as a potential step in the right direction has actually been a stumble backward. Mr. Cameron’s government may have started some initiatives to increase local authority, but that has been along side his unwavering support of the European Union. The reason this is a stumble backward from the point of view of Distributism is that the EU’s policies are binding on member states, and these policies not only override the national policies of these states, but even more local laws. Mr. Cameron is supporting a greater consolidation of political authority even further away from the common citizens of the UK than it has been when consolidated at Whitehall. How can this not be seen as contradicting the entire Big Society initiative? If the EU gains the level of control it seems intent on getting, not only will the UK government be reduced to nothing more than a subservient branch of the EU government, but the policies of the EU government are clearly ones that will ultimately revoke any power the UK has transferred back to the local councils.

Is there still hope for UK distributists, or those citizens who, while they may not be distributists, are in favor of a government structure that is more in line with subsidiarity? Is there hope for those who are in favor of the ideas of the Big Society and who don’t want to surrender British sovereignty to an EU federal government? It appears that distributists in the UK are in a similar position to those of us in the USA. There is no truly distributist party, and the “major” parties are all advocating different ways of moving further away from representing us.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is not distributist, but some of their policies appear to be more compatible with Distributism than the three major parties in the UK. They are leaders in the movement to leave the European Union, trying to show the citizens in their country how the EU leaders are taking more and more control over the laws that effect their every day lives, and in fact are trying to form a federal government complete with its own flag, national anthem, and military. UKIP has also made statements about the power of big business to manipulate government to its own advantage, and the importance of a strong local economy based on small, local businesses. They also advocate more local control over public services currently controlled by the central government. In this, UKIP does not argue that government has no involvement, but that centralized control is both inefficient and ineffective. It would be interesting to see how the party would react to ideas like local guilds, especially if enough local leaders within the party advocated for it.

Another interesting development in the UK is the Blue Labour movement within the Labour Party. Blue Labour is disillusioned with the way that their achievements of the past have resulted in heavy-handed state control and a break-up of the community dynamic which was the foundation of the Labour movement. Blue Labour advocates “mutuals, co-operatives and friendly societies, the creation of local banks and a new system of worker representation on company boards.” The real question is how successfully that movement can shift the direction of the Labour Party overall. Unlike UKIP, which is a relatively new party which is growing rapidly, Labour is an established party with an entrenched leadership, and that is not easy to change. After all, even the electoral success of the Tea Party movement failed to significantly change the positions of the Republican leaders.

The more immediate question is whether these movements will have enough support to prevent even more power from being transferred from their great country to the EU. Can they keep the authority at Whitehall, let alone bring it closer to home? If not, it will be much more difficult to regain political autonomy for the UK, and therefore much more difficult to implement justice, solidarity, and subsidiarity in the land of Chesterton and Belloc.

Let’s keep them in our prayers.

Nota Bene: The Distributist Review does not endorse any political party or candidate. Because of this, we remain free to praise good policies and criticize bad policies as we encounter them, even when they are from the same party or candidate.


About the author: David W. Cooney


David W. Cooney serves on the Editorial Board of The Distributist Review. His articles have appeared in Gilbert Magazine and he has also contributed to The Hound of Distributism, a book of various authors. Originally from Southern California, he now lives with his wife and two children in Western Washington state where he works as a network administrator.


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  1. Many people in the UK would like to see a redistribution of power to local communities, but the devil is in the detail. It was the Conservative Government in the 80s who centralised much of local government, largely as a response to the takeover of most city councils by the radical left. Labour have moved on to some extent since then, but the same people are still there. We saw this last week when members of UKIP in Rotheram had their kids taken away for being members of a ‘racist’ party. Hands up who wants to give Rotherham council more power? Meanwhile, in the countryside, localism seems to mean the power to stifle development. No-one wants to see wind farms everywhere, but how much Green Belt Land do we need?

  2. David,

    You make some very good points. Localizing authority would not, by itself, resolve the problems of these abuses. It would, however, make it easier for the local community to address and correct them. I wonder how quickly the Labour Party officials would have reacted to the issue had the local election not been in the immediate future?

    In addition to localizing authority, we have to minimize the influence of party politics, and re-establish a true subsidiarity – under which the council would not have had the authority to remove that child without a criminal charge.

    No system is perfect, and the transition from what we have, to what should be, will be difficult due to the fact that we all have to adjust the way we perceive government (http://distributistreview.com/mag/2012/10/utopia/), but that is no reason not to move toward what will ultimately be better.

  3. David Madeley, why do you think that these UK city councils tend to be taken over by the “radical left”? Is it because so few people vote for them that extreme factions can take over, or is it due to another reason?

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  5. There is a feeling among some who were initially intrigued by the language of the Big Society that, whatever its theoretical merits, the idea has already failed.

    The reason is that it has been seen as a ideological fig leaf for the austerity agenda, which is the dominant story in UK politics as present.

    Interesting to note that 18 months ago the Archbishop of Westminster was warning the government of this very danger.