By Paddy Ashdown
Re-balancing the State in favour of the citizen
I have a radical thought and it is the following: the days of the classic nation state are over. We have to find a new balance between the power of the citizen and the power of the state. Hidden behind the economic crisis – the protests in Spain, France, Greece and all over the world – is a crisis that is ultimately more dangerous. It is the crisis of democracy itself.
The problem can best be expressed like this. We now what must be done to solve this economic crisis. But we do not know how to get the support of our people to do what must be done.
Everywhere in the world, the centre ground is in retreat and the demagogues are on the march. You can see it in Greece, France and Holland. You can see it in the rise of the Tea Party in the United States to the electoral gains made by UKIP in Britain. We are suffering from two simultaneous crises. One economic and on of confidence in our political system and above all in our political elites.
We need only to go back less than one hundred years to find another age dominated by the same ingredients and we do not need to be reminded what it led to. Whilst it is both tempting and justifiable to blame those who run the establishment – the politicians, the media and the bankers – it is not sufficient. Even if all the above behaved like paragons, we would still have a dangerously dysfunctional political system.
The classic Bagehot and Dicey nation state – the systemic model for our politics and government – is breaking down. It has become dysfunctional, out of date and no longer fit for purpose. It is indeed being torn apart before our eyes by two opposing forces.
One is the gathering of power which now lies in the global space, beyond the borders of the nation state; powers strong enough to affect the lives of citizens, alter the course of governments and make a mockery of electoral promises. But in this article, I will focus on the second force that is tearing at the current fabric of the State from the opposite dierection – from below.
Let’s consider the way ordinary citizens live their lives today. They are individually empowered. Individually able to shape their choices without intervention of officials, able to adopt what passtimes or practices they wish, and choose their acquaintances without constraints of geography and locality. They are empowerd by daily choice in the market, but disempowered in the poitical sytem which gvies them a false choice every four year and then ignores them in between.
Consider this disjuncture between the way ordinary people in advanced democracies live and the way they are governed. The market is in touch, listen and is attentive to their needs. But their government is a distant institution most of them know almost nothing about. It explains its decisions in language they do not understand; itis ignorant of – or worse actively ignores – their views; it, is out of touch, and seems to care chiefly for itself. In the day to day business of living – in the market, on the internet, in private life- the citizen is powerful. But in the day to day business of our politics they are more and more powerless.
This gulf is now so structurally deep that it cannot be bridged by little things like reforming Members’ Expenses, improving Government’s communication, simplifying voting, stopping bankers from being greedy or journalists from being irresponsible. All these are necessary but not sufficient.
The crisis of trust in politics will not be solved by tinkering at the top and making the establishment behave better. It can only be resolved by re-connecting the citizen with power. If we are to make our democracy work again, there has to be a substantial re-distribution of the powers of the nation state.
Pooling sovereignty with others on the international level is necessary to deliver what we want for our citizens. But we must go further and pass power downwards to create intermediary institutions between the citizen and the state; which brings power closer to the citizen, gives them a stake in the governance of their lives, provides them with closer contact, more involvement, greater control.
This is not about shrinking the state as many in the Conservative would wish. It is about re-balancing the state in favour of the individual. That is one of the crucial differences between us. This is, of course, not a new Liberal idea; it’s an old one. But it’s now more relevant than ever – more necessary than ever.
Why should our national Government interfere so much in our personal lives? Surely, it should be looking after things that are genuinely national – our defence, our foreign affairs, our macro-economic policies, our national planning and transport policies. Westminster did far less, it would do it far better.
The truth of the matter is that the great black hole of Westminster has sucked into itself so much of the power that ought to lie elsewhere, that it has made itself dysfunctional. It simply cannot efficiently manage the power it has accrued for itself. Which is one of the reasons why it makes more mistakes and is trusted less and less by those it serves
So, when it comes to those services which touch on the lives of ordinary citizens – health, education, welfare, social services – why should these not be delivered, within a national framework of universal entitlements and by institutions much closer to the citizens?
The Great Reform Act of 1832 is credited with saving Britain from the revolutions which soaked Europe in blood in 1848. Perhaps the time has come for another Great Reform Act – one that doesn’t merely shuffle the papers of local democracy and localism, but actually hand down power.
The problem with the Government’s localism agenda is that it merely shifts power from Whitehall to the Town Hall – we will never regenerate our democracy by simply transferring power from one bureaucracy, to another. Local Government will have to recognise that it is only one of the local structures through which the citizen has engagement and control.
We must think about creating a much wider network of systems of the sort which you can find in Switzerland and the United States, which put citizen’s choice back in charge of the services they depend on, such as health and education. And if this leads to differences in delivery between one area and another, so what? You cannot believe in local determination and object to people choosing to be different.
The argument over private and public ownership of services is a good example of re-distribution of power. Over the last forty years or so, ordinary citizens have been ripped off, abused and exploited by bad public institutions, as much if not more so than exploitative private ones. The fault lies almost always with lack of transparency, bad leadership and rotten structures rather than the public ownership versus private ownership argument. The key question is not, as we like to think, public or private. It is how is the citizen and the public interest best served. And that can be determined by asking three questions:
- Is the process completely transparent for all to see – from the drawing up of the contract to the delivery of the service?
- Does the citizen have choice, or is it a monopoly?
- How is quality measured?
Surely, if we are in favour of a mixed economy, we should also be in favour of a mixed system of public service delivery too. The more mixed the better. This means more imagination, brave experimentation and an eye for implementing best practice.
Whilst more forward looking commercial institutions are taking the ideas of openness and public deliberation seriously, why do so very few public one? Why are we killing off, for instance alternative ownership and control structures based on mutualism, when we should be promoting them?
I believe we are facing a most dangerous conjunction. An economic crisis against a background of a frightening collapse of trust in politics, government and maybe even in democracy itself. Tinkering at the edges; putting our house in order and improving behaviour at the top will not solve this.
If we won’t find the courage to give the citizen more stake in the decisions which affect their lives, there may be worse ahead.