Reading Anthony Barnett’s latest lament for the lack of an English civic nationalism or English based federalist movement here, I was struck by what seems to be the major gap in the thinking of many English based constitutional reformers and devolution “geeks”.
Despite what a vocal minority seems to think or at least claim, the creation of regional or national parliaments and assemblies within existing nationstates is not just about devolving power to a more local level – it is also about centralising power that was previously held at a more local level upwards to a regional one.
We can see a stark example of this in Scotland with the creation of a national police force answerable to the parliament and the abolition of the regional police authorities there. Of course in England and Wales the Tories unpopular scheme to democratise law enforcement with the creation of police and crime comissioners has in reality been about centralising power in the hands of individuals rather than fairly collegiate local police authorities.
People in England and elsewhere do not seem to be particularly interested in the creation of regional assemblies or an English parliament and to be honest I think it’s entirely rational and self interested (in a positive way) to feel like that. British MPs are already quite close to their voters – the average size of a British parliamentary constituency is currently between 60 – 70,000 people; what meaningnful difference would it make to our day to day lives to have an additional representative at the level of 25,000 for the sake of argument? Or we could end up with the ludicrous situation in London where constituency based assembly members cover massive areas where they are even further from the electorate.
However that is not to say that the current set up is adequate.
Instead I wonder if people would be more engaged if there was an attempt to hand power back to the local authorities, and even to hand new powers to them?
It could be that invigorated local councils may choose to pool some services (and the democratic oversight that comes with them) with neighbouring councils of course (as they do already in some areas for example the North London Waste Management Board), and that is of course fine if it makes economic sense.
This should be coupled with enabling people to engage with them in new, creative, and more democratic ways that do not require any constitutional or legislative changes, such as the creation of more parish and community councils at really local levels, and the use of participatory budgeting and more public meetings at accessible times.
Lastly however we need to approach it from a position not of bringing power closer to the people, but of supporting people to take the power for themselves to achieve the changes they actually want to see.
It’s no good us political geeks and weirdos articulating some amazing and detailed political programme, if people aren’t interested in it – if you have a vision it needs to be applicable to people’s self identified wants and needs, and that means listening.
And I would be willing to bet (based on experience) that if you go out and ask your neighbours what changes they would like to see in their day to day lives it will be issues relating in some way to the community in which they live and/or their work.