A global view from the ethnic back yard

The combination of local government and foreign policy sounds odd, if not risible. In Britain it summons up memories of nuclear-free zones and concerts for Nicaragua - more about gesture than reality, even if the gestures were heartfelt.

But as the two examples which we present today show, local - that is to say, non- national - government is at the cutting edge of politics.

To an extent, this is a result of the revival of ethnic nationalism, which feeds moves for autonomy, as in Flanders, the Basque country or Catalonia. But there is more to it than that, as the case of Boston vs Brussels shows. Local government is taking up arms: to defend itself in a global economy; to assert the values which citizens feel their national governments ignore; and to follow that old nostrum of the Green movement: Think Global, Act Local.

Closer to home, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of England are taking the "Westminster Bypass", a route that lies through Brussels. That means negotiating for funds, but also lobbying for or against particular policies.

Central government is insufficiently flexible to represent regional views. This is not just a matter of bumptious local officials getting above themselves, it is the crumbling of the very idea of "national interest."

Traditional "high" foreign policy - military and security matters - remains the preserve of nation states. But "low" policy issues - trade, the environment, communications and so on - are increasingly taking centre stage. When guns are at stake, then Brixton or Bremen might not have much to say. When it's butter, then they do.

In this new world, city hall and corporations clash and co-operate with states and international organisations. It makes the world a much more complicated, unpredictable and multi-dimensional place.

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