Devolution, yes – passing the buck, no

A discussion at the RSA last week, ‘Making Local the Answer‘, confirmed for me something I have suspected for some time. It is the political class not the masses that are obsessed with devolving and decentralising as much as they possibly can. There is no popular movement threatening to storm Westminster or Whitehall. New Labour may be on its way out, but we are not likely to see the toppling of the mismanaging managerialists in favour of a new democratic politics any time soon.

The discussion also confirmed another suspicion of mine. The powers that be are in denial about their power and the duties that come with it. While their desire to hand over the reins might be genuine it is also rather worrying. They seem ever more anxious to involve us in this and encourage us to participate in that, but seem to have little idea themselves what can be done to address the crisis we and they find ourselves in. However much they like to see themselves as everyday folk just doing the right thing, it must have occurred to them by now that the general public couldn’t be more indifferent.

Speaking as a democrat and as somebody who works in local government, I nevertheless find myself at odds with what on the face of it is unobjectionable. Who could object to people ‘having their say’ or ‘taking control’? But why would the government want to hand over ‘power, leadership and accountability’, as John Denham, Communities and Local Government secretary put it, in the first place. For all that I supported his commitment to greater accountability and stronger local government, calling ‘unelected bureacrats’ to account, and expanding the remit of local scrutiny to the police, health and other public bodies – I couldn’t help but wonder what the government itself is going to do. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to ask him.

Ours may not be the most popular government in living memory but nonetheless it has a mandate of sorts. Which makes its eagerness to divest itself of the responsibilities that come with the assuming of office thoroughly anti-democratic in my view. By arguing for transferring matters of national and political concern – such as education, policing and health – to ‘the people’ he was, pardoxically, denying us the opportunity to interrogate our representatives more fully.

Yes, we need to move away from our stifling target culture, and find new ways to innovate and improve public services from the bottom-up, but we must also hold to account those who are ultimately responsible for governing public affairs. (They might not like to admit it but with the right to office comes the responsibility to govern.) We are not only living in testing times as the economy goes belly up, and we are also living through a period of great uncertainty. Our political leaders used to take their responsibilities much more seriously, and would relish the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to come up with solutions to the big problems of the day.

Sixty years ago the post-war Labour Government, riding on a wave of optimism following the defeat of fascism, was set on transforming society with the creation of the welfare state. It may not demand the kind of respect it once did, but it was a remarkable achievement nonetheless – nationalising the provision of housing, health, social security and education. Such an ambitious political project was only made possible because there was a sense of purpose and direction at the top of society, and a popular mandate to get things done.

Sadly, things couldn’t be more different today, and this is what lies behind ourleaders’ embrace of localism. Where there was once leadership, there is evasive politicking. The importance of strengthening local democracy, and engaging communities, can’t be ignored. But neither can the collapse of political conviction and democratic legitimacy which has given rise to the rhetoric that claims to champion it.

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