It’s about time we reform local government. Or is it?

'Yes Minister' explains the political economy of decentralization

The British satire show Yes Minister, popular in the early 1980s, was unique in its display of the inner-workings of government. In the short clip below, Sir Humphrey Appleby (the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Administrative Affairs) and Bernard Woolley (the Minister’s principal private secretary) discuss whether it is time to reform local government.

What follows is a two-minute lesson in the political economy of decentralization, highlighting why devolution reforms often fail, despite political leaders ‘talking the talk’ and widespread popular support for devolution reforms.

Watch the video below or on YouTube.

Bernhard: I think it’s about time we reform local government.

Humphery: Do you, Bernard? … Once you create genuinely democratic local communities, it won’t stop there. You see, once they get established they will insist on more power and the politicians will be too frightened to withhold them, so you’ll get regional government.

Bernhard: Would that matter? …

Humphery: If you have regional government they decide [subnational priorities at the subnational level] probably in a couple of meetings, complete amateurs!

Bernhard: It is their city.

Humphery: And what happens to us [, the central government bureaucracy] ?

Bernhard: Much less work.

Humphery: Yes, much less work. So little that Ministers might almost be able to do it on their own, so we have much less power.

Bernhard: Well, I don’t know whether I really want power.

Humphery: If the right people don’t have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it. Politicians, counselors, ordinary voters!

Bernhard: But aren’t they supposed to in a democracy?

Humphery: This is a British democracy! British democracy recognizes that you need a system to protect the important things of life and keep them out of the hands of the barbarians…. and we are that system.

Watch on YouTube: If the right people don’t have powerYes, Prime Minister, BBC Studios. Bernard and Humphery discuss the disasterous possibility of a local government scheme.