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The Scouring of the Shires


A map, created in the 1570s by Christopher Saxton, shows some of the United Kingdom's shires.

When he was a boy, Christopher Saxton was apprenticed to the vicar of Dewsbury, John Rudd, to learn how to make maps. (The Science Timeline contains a surprising number of vicars who made useful technological contributions.) Rudd taught Saxton how to survey land and to use trigonometry to work out distances. Unlike boys today, trapped in classes that they hate, Saxton enjoyed learning and working outdoors. In 1573 he was hired to map Elizabeth I's kingdom.

Carrying his surveying equipment with him, and helped by locals, Saxton covered the whole of England. He created and published more than 30 maps depicting the whole country and every shire with its streams and rivers, parks and forests, settlements and notable buildings.

For a thousand years the shires were the basis of local government and were answerable to local people. Sanitation and roads and lighting were handled locally; schools were locally organized. Everything was handled by local county people responsible to each other. If something went wrong, it was easy to see why, decide accountability and fix it. Sports clubs, businesses, societies, regiments, and farmers' unions were all based on the shires. They were and they are part of Britain's cultural inheritance.

No surprise, then, that the government has tried to destroy them, and take decision-making out of local hands and into its own centralizing talons. Tolkien was afraid of this. In a terrifying vision in the Lord of the Rings he called it the 'Scouring of the Shire'.

Efficiency and reasonable taxes, democracy and and freedom flourish when local government is run locally according to the principles of justice and equity. That is why we support the mission of the shires and their human scale. That is why we ask, are we going to be forever at the mercy of a national government that does not remember or respect the fundamental principles of freedom, local rule and competence?

Note: Some of this information appeared in a post published last year.