For many people over the age of 60 the beginning of the end of the world as we knew it seems to have happened with the passing of the 1972 European Communities Act. That at least is the impression one might have picked up from ‘Sir’ Vince Cable on the Today programme this morning, answering for his comments made to some LibDem meeting about the older Brexit voting generation. The 1972 EC Act is now a dead letter of course, swept away by a ‘great repeal bill’ which will restore our once great nation’s place in the world. Shipbuilding, the huge furnaces of industry, bowler hats, mini skirts, long hot summers with ice cream, broadsheet newspapers and traditional royal weddings all now beckon. Make Great Britain Great Again.
But as we dismantle Ted Heath’s European legacy I wonder: are we going far enough? The full restoration of our glory might be incomplete if we don’t look again at his other great legislative innovation of 1972. Who remembers the Local Government Act? With the reforming zeal of an earlier day Tony Blair, Ted sought to blow away the fusty legacy of ancient institutions and create a cutting edge wizardry of modernity. Out went Rural and Urban District Councils and in came new all-powerful councils with streamlined new headquarters and letterheads with logos.
The revolution couldn’t come quickly enough. Who wanted a bunch of locals running their water supplies when new water authorities could bring efficiencies to bear which later would profit shareholders so much? Who dreamt that dreary town clerks could be supplanted by visionary chief executives? Who in their wildest dreams imagined that the world of Norman Pitkin could be supplanted by a world of high powered super charged (and super paid) blue sky thinkers? For us nostalgic ones, this Act had more obvious and immediate reverberations than some notion of ‘joining Europe.’
Local services existed long before anyone dreamt of seeing off de Gaulle and his infamous ‘nons.’ If we weren’t a country filled with shopkeepers we certainly were ticking by nicely with an army of patient, diligent local administrators who lived in our midst, remedying local ills all in good time whilst going about their duties in an eternally honoured British fashion, which is to say before formal complaints procedures were handled by call centres and endless tea breaks became a signifier of a decaying economy.
Brexit means Britain will be Great Britain again. That is, the type of Britain we over 60s can recall. And who better to imagine the new Britain of tomorrow? Certainly not the young voters who flocked to vote remain. What do they know of how things were in the 1950s and 1960s? What do they know of endless summers and a strata of government which cuddled you from cradle to grave? What do they know of a society which had only recently been freed from rationing, and still maintained public services which included the utilities we are now led to believe can only be provided by foreign, nationally owned corporations?
Perhaps Ted Heath was a supreme ironist. At the same time as he took us into Europe, signalling (so it is assumed) the end of our nation state, he dismantled the structure of local government, making it less local and hence more susceptible to dismemberment by central government – a thousand cuts, a thousand reforms (in the name of efficiency). And an end to the historic Ridings of Yorkshire, the advent of Humberside (deceased) and the abolition of Rutland. Can’t we have all those things back, to complete our journey into the New World?
As for the memory of Ted? He’s still fondly remembered in some parts.