This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?
The burden of ministerial office is a heavy one – quite literally, because those red briefcases they carry around are lined with lead.
That might seem like overkill for a bit of paperwork, but the 19th century design intended that the ‘boxes’, as they’re referred to, should sink if lost overboard on an overseas visit. Any state secrets contained therein would thus be safely consigned to the depths.
The boxes, which cost the best part of a grand, are just as weighty today as they used to be. This might suggest that the documents they carry are of the utmost national importance. But while some of them are, others really aren’t.
A lot of them concern matters that central government shouldn’t be involved in at all – decisions of purely local significance and about relatively small sums of public money. There’s nothing wrong with looking after the pennies, of course – but it’s best to do it where you can see them being spent, which isn’t from a desk in Whitehall.
Nevertheless, choices that should be the business of people and places hundreds of miles away are made late into the night by Secretaries of State who have enough to worry about already.
The idea that power is over-centralised in this country is hardly an original one. It’s been a recurring theme of public debate for 20 years or more. These days everyone is a ‘localist’; no one claims to be a centralist. And yet the centralised micro-management of local matters continues day-in, day-out.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was supposed to put that right. And up to a point, it did. Through the groundbreaking City Deals programme – followed by the Growth Deals and Devolution Deals – more was done to decentralise power from London to England’s other cities than by all the other governments since the war put together.
It was an object lesson in good policy design. A named minister was put in charge and left in charge. He was supported by a small and dedicated team that was allowed to recruit from outside the civil service. And best of all, the process of decentralisation was itself decentralised. Instead of Whitehall unilaterally deciding on a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it package of devolved powers for all the cities, each city was allowed to negotiate its own bespoke deal.
By 2017 metropolitan areas across the nation had their own elected ‘metro mayors’ and combined authorities capable of directing millions, even billions, of pounds of investment. It went down well in the cities themselves, especially in the North of England which really took to the idea of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
So what did Theresa May do with this legacy when she became Prime Minister? She dropped the ball, of course. Despite promising “an economy that works for everyone” she forgot that means empowering every part of the country to take back control of its own economic development.
And, no, Brexit is not an excuse. People did not vote to repatriate power from Brussels only for it to get stuck in London.
A key moment came last year, when the introduction of a substantially revised railway timetable was botched so badly that services were disrupted for weeks. The North of England was one of the worst affected areas. Transport for the North – an agency formed to give Northerners as much control over transport as Transport for London gives to Londoners – should have led the response. Yet the fiasco demonstrated that the strategic decisions were still being made in London – ultimately by Chris Grayling’s Department for Transport.
And that’s the trouble with managing decentralisation from Whitehall. No matter how well designed the deal-making process, it ultimately depends on the continued approval and, even worse, the continued attention of a tiny circle of decision-makers in Downing Street.
It’s time to rethink localism. The real question isn’t ‘can local communities be trusted with more power?’ but ‘can central government be trusted to decentralise it?’ As the answer to that is obviously ‘no’ – here’s my modest proposal:
Instead of seeing what further powers might be prized from the grip of Whitehall and Westminster, let’s start from the position that our cities and shires should run absolutely everything. Yes, everything. So, no national taxes, only local taxes. No NHS, but Local Health Services. There’d be local security services too and local armies, local navies (in coastal counties anyway) and local nuclear deterrents (councils with ‘nuclear-free zones’ would have the option of unilaterally disarming themselves).
Have I gone completely mad? Quite possibly, but the point I’m making is than in allocating powers between different levels of government the burden of proof should be reversed: it should be for central government to convince local communities that it is best placed to take the lead on a particular issue – not the other way round. For instance, I dare say that most areas of the country would be willing to surrender their nukes to the Ministry of Defence (though Yorkshire and Essex may have other ideas). They probably wouldn’t want the bother of running their own currencies either – apart from Brighton-and-Hove, of course, where they could experiment with making pebbles legal tender.
Nevertheless, with all of the money and power, the cities and shires would be free to pool their resources in other ways. They could form local partnerships with one another and empower regional agencies. Or they could they could get really creative and do things like revive the Council of the North or set-up an English Parliament.
With new power structures emerging from the bottom-up, central government would do only what couldn’t be done more locally. It would therefore be much smaller than it is now. Grover Norquist, an advocate of low taxes in the US, said: “I don’t want to abolish government, I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Well, one doesn’t have to go that far. This is all about sharing-out, not shrinking, the state.
Still, taking an axe to Whitehall would be fun. Entire departments would be abolished and amalgamated. For instance, with different parts of the country sorting out their own local infrastructure investments, you’d only need Whitehall to do the national stuff – which, once we’d slaughtered white elephants like HS2, Heathrow expansion and nuclear new build, wouldn’t be much. We could could join-up transport, energy, communications, water and housing into a single department instead of the five we’ve got doing the job now.
With fewer government departments doing fewer things we’d need fewer ministers and fewer MPs. In 2010, David Cameron promised to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. It was a modest cut, but so far the Commons has wriggled out of it. Well, they’ve had their chance. After the shambles they’ve made of Brexit, radical surgery is required. America, a federal nation of 325 million people, has a lower house of 435 members. So, on a pro rata basis, a federalised UK would need 87 MPs. And seeing how the world’s most powerful nation gets by with just 100 Senators, we could cut down the House of Lords from 781 to, er, 20.
How much mischief could 107 Parliamentarians get up to? Quite a lot, actually, so we’d also need local government to write us a new constitution. The status quo, in which Parliament assumes that it has a monopoly on power – to be localised only at its discretion – cannot be allowed to stand. We need to look at the example of countries like Germany, Switzerland and the USA, whose written constitutions spell out that power resides at different levels of government, not just at the centre.
Unfortunately, we have to start from where we are. For radical localisation to happen, Parliament has to agree to it. So, on the principle that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, what hope can there be of change?
None at all – unless, of course, we stop voting for turkeys.
Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?