Devolution in Britain
20 March, 2000 (Revised February, 2001)
Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. — Jesus, The Nazarene.
What we need in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, is not more professional politicians but fewer. As a profession, politicians have collectively earned themselves a reputation for corruption and sleaze at all levels of government from the local town or district council to the European Commission. This is obviously due in part to the self-serving materialistic motives of many seekers after political power: but even genuinely benevolent people are liable to corruption when power comes too easily. To my mind, the real villain of the piece is the political party which enables initially self-selected individuals to gain too much power too soon. So we find holders of high office (such as the Prime Minister) wielding great power over many things without having served the kind of apprenticeship Jesus recommended.
Genuine devolution implies turning the governmental pyramid on its head and making power percolate slowly upwards from the people through as many hierarchies of administration as may be necessary before reaching the top. Instead of pretending to run hospitals, schools, and home-helps from the centre, the 'top' would concern itself only with the defence of the realm and the role of final arbiter in matters of dispute at the next lower level. All less important matters would be settled as near as possible to the point in space-time at which they were seen to pose a problem. And if there were no problems, individuals could be left in peace to do whatever they pleased.
Somehow, people in Britain have got the idea that the main objective in a General Election is to appoint a Government. This is not the case. The outcome of every election is a representative of the voters in a constituency, not a straw for the pitchforks of Party whips. It is only through the Political party, a Machiavellian device for keeping professional politicians in power, that the people have been hoodwinked in this way. The Political Party is a highly refined means of ballot-rigging, designed to ensure that only individuals who have sacrificed their integrity for the sake of electoral advantage are admitted to the corridors of power. Despite the fact that neither of the major British parties has more than half-a-million members, they are able to sway the votes of many times their number. In general, genuinely independent candidates stand little chance of being elected at all, let alone of being 'returned' at subsequent elections. The Party system has been so successful that it has pervaded even the most local of elections with disastrous and divisive results because irrelevant and misleading squabbles arising from Party dogma obliterate genuine informed consideration of local issues.
At the lowest administrative level, e.g. the Ward or Parish, the local citizens should not have an electoral system imposed upon them from above. Instead, they should be free to elect their own representatives by whatever method they agree is most convenient. An almost infinite variety of local systems could then contribute to the pool of collective experience. It is likely that over time, electoral units all over the country would converge on fewer than half-a-dozen systems, all of which would have been well-tried by the public instead of being imposed by Party moguls for perceived Party advantage. Ideally, membership of any political party would disqualify any person from standing for election.
If representatives at intermediate levels of administration were elected only from among those who had earned their spurs at the lowest level, i.e. having been 'faithful over a few things', it would provide representatives at all levels with experience and opportunity to demonstrate their trustworthiness. We should then be less dependent on the 'advisory' services of 'professional' members of the Civil Service Association and the National Association of Local Government Officers who doubtless have their own axes to grind, even if they are supposedly politically neutral.
One of the problems with hierarchies is knowing where to stop, i.e. how to define the top of the pyramid. For many of the countries in the EU, this might seem to be the European Commission, a bunch of failed politicians whom their brethren at home have got out of the way by "kicking them upstairs". In the United Kingdom, we are still extremely fortunate in having the 'top' defined for us in the person of the Monarch. It is unfortunate that powers nominally exercised by the Monarch have surreptitiously been taken over by the a cabal of politicians — who have themselves become increasingly careless of the House of Commons in which Members of Parliament are supposed to represent their constituents and to whom Ministers of the Crown are supposed to be answerable.
One solution to this problem is to return the highest executive power to the Monarch. This would enable us to combine the well-tried merits of both the electoral and the hereditary principles. It would present no constitutional danger for two reasons:
Because this would enormously reduce the burden of considering legislation on relatively trivial matters, Members of Parliament could spend far more time with their families and constituents than they do now. And, instead of having the representatives of a victorious political Party strutting their bigoted stuff to the catcalls of the adherents of other parties, we should have a Parliament united in the interests of all the people. In practice, this would be rather like the United States system cleansed of Party factions and without the distasteful political business of having to elect a President every few years.
- The vast majority of administrative matters would be settled at lower levels in the administrative hierarchy.
- Our representatives in Parliament would together constitute Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition with the principal task of protecting the people's hard-won liberties against abuse of executive power.
The Monarch would, of course, be free to select advisers from among all the people in the world except those who were Members of Parliament; such advisers could well constitute a truly 're-formed' House of Lords. The people's representatives in the Commons would have no incentive to be unfaithful in anything; the more distinguished among them might even join the ranks of the most admired figures in the land.
Professional politicians will doubtless notice that such a truly devolved system would have far-reaching implications for taxation. Instead of the present system whereby taxes (and even the proceeds from the National Lottery) are collected centrally and then either squandered nonsensically or grudgingly doled out through successive layers of bureaucratic 'sticky fingers', the logic of the situation would require taxes to be collected locally, enabling local taxes to be raised and spent in ways which local people could see the sense of. Local people would have first call on the proceeds of taxation, but it would be up to the people's representatives at various levels to determine what proportions should be passed upwards to meet the commitments of higher levels in the hierarchy and justify their decisions to their electorates. This should result in a more efficient and equitable distribution than at present because, as what was left of the contents of the pot passed upwards, there would be fewer claimants upon them.
Local taxation and by-laws could also be used to limit abuse of power by large national and multinational commercial companies.
I am not optimistic that the suggestions in this essay will be implemented in a decade or so! But I trust the ideas expressed will ferment in the minds of readers and stimulate them into thinking about matters professional politicians would prefer to keep to themselves.