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As parliament procrastinates, it’s time to devolve

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  • Picture of Ed Cox
    Ed Cox
  • Deliberative democracy
  • Devolution

Signs of the democratic challenges facing many nations have been around for years but in Britain, we enter the new year with people’s trust in parliamentary democracy at rock bottom.

In the RSA’s recent Future of Britain poll, we found that just 22 per cent of those surveyed believe our democracy is in a healthy state. With nearly four out of five of us feeling dissatisfied with our democratic lot, what could be done in 2019 to restore faith in the foundations of our nation?

First of all, we have to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Theresa May’s ongoing difficulties passing Brexit legislation may lie superficially in the parliamentary arithmetic but the divisions within her party have laid bare the machinations of a political elite whose primary logic appears to put personal advantage before what is best for the country. Not that the Opposition appears any more virtuous as it dithers in order to calculate and gain the greatest party political advantage. What we are witnessing is the collective failure of a national two-party system where neither of the main political parties is any longer deeply connected to the people it was originally created to represent and so puts short-term tactics ahead of strategic national interest. Indeed, Brexit has exposed fundamental problems with the whole notion of parliamentary representation in an increasingly diverse and multi-faceted society. Who can claim to speak for someone in a society where the politics of identity seem more contested than ever and where the political challenges of the day seem more and more complex?

There are options though for those willing to look past the end of their party political noses. There’s no lack of self-confidence amongst the general public. Our poll shows that 69 per cent feel that citizens’ themselves should be more powerful and 60 percent believe citizens have the best ideas for change – double the number who think that political parties, politicians or charities have the answers we need.

Picking up on this, at the RSA we have been speaking up for the possibilities of deliberative democracy. Countries like Ireland, Australia and Canada have used citizens juries and assemblies to great effect, not only for constitutional matters but in order to tackle issues such as social care and access to specialist drug therapies. Typically, such deliberative processes involve the random selection of ordinary citizens thereby overcoming the problems of political elitism, they weigh evidence from all sides of a problem, and they complement parliamentary processes by making recommendations to those more established forms of decision-making. Government has recognised their potential by commissioning deliberative experiments in local government which will take place in the year ahead, but we will be campaigning to make sure that government itself commissions a high profile national Citizens’ Assembly to demonstrate the potential of this method as a ‘gateway reform’ for our democratic predicament.

Improving central government decision-making addresses only part of the problem. In the UK - and in England in particular - the problems of parliamentary democracy matter all the more because so much decision-making is so centralised. Unlike, most modern nations, over the past four decades we have witnessed the decimation of local and regional government. At a time when decision-making has needed to become all the more agile, successive governments have incapacitated the very institutions necessary to provide local leadership. The public knows this. In our polling, 44 per cent of those surveyed said they thought local councils should have more powers – an increase of 5 percentage points since the last time the question was asked in 2012 - and only 17 per cent thought they should have fewer. Furthermore, Matthew Taylor’s suggestion that there should be an independent commission, sponsored by local government, to forensically inquire into the political and policy failings of central government has garnered significant support.

The problem is that polling has proved fairly ineffective in ascertaining what forms of governance might best suit a more decentralised Britain.

It is certainly the case that once established metro mayors prove to be more popular in practice than in theory and that their popularity grows as they build their responsibilities including their ‘soft powers’ to convene and cajole. It would be hard to imagine London now letting go of its mayor and the same could be said in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool even after their mayors have yet to complete their first terms in office. But the need for more devolved and agile governance lies beyond the big cities too. County councils look enviously at those city regions who are already taking issues such as transport, skills and health and social care into their own hands and although they may need to explore different forms of democratic accountability and enhancement, they too would benefit from greater freedoms and flexibilities. And in England, the need for some kind of regional governance at a scale that can compete globally is increasingly apparent.

Interestingly, our polling shows that the enthusiasm for an English parliament has fallen from 30 per cent in 2012 to just 20 per cent in our most recent survey. While issues of regional culture and identity remain contested, both London and Scotland prove there are significant productivity benefits from being able to develop regional industrial strategies at scale which maximise economic opportunities and galvanise regional infrastructure and planning. The RSA will explore this argument in more depth during the year ahead.

Government has long-promised a proper devolution ‘framework’ to build on the piecemeal and partial approach taken by George Osborne when devolution was last on the agenda.  Some four years later, 2019 presents the perfect opportunity for a post-Brexit settlement with local government and a return to a more regional or federal approach in England that can unlock the potential to seize any ‘dividend’ that may be on offer. The nation’s parliamentary problems are unlikely to abate even if we can find a way through our departure from the EU, it is much more likely that the coming months will provide further evidence of our shaky democratic foundations. It is time our political imagination was more properly stirred so that we might embrace the more radical and long-term changes a more deliberative and devolved democratic settlement could bring.

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  • If a new nation were to emerge on the international stage and say "we will have a bicameral system with a lower house elected on a first-past-the-post system, which risks disenfranchising millions of people, and an upper house completely appointed with a few religious leaders and a bunch of aristocrats thrown in for good measure" it would rightly be ridiculed. But that is what we have in the UK. The Electoral Reform Society has long been campaigning for Proportional Representation to make every vote count, and surely that reform would go a long way to restoring people's faith in representative democracy.  (Before anyone claims that the Lords is an independent reforming chamber made up of experts, please read this report by the Electoral Reform Society: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/house-of-lords-fact-vs-fiction/)

    We also have an unfinished and very lopsided system of devolution in the UK, with no separate assembly or parliament for the largest of our four nations, while the multiplicity of different types of local authority perhaps share only one thing in common - they are being starved of the cash they need to pay for the services they are required to provide.

    Overall, it's a mess, and it's failing. A deliberative approach to democracy in which more people have a say and where decisions are taken at the lowest practical level sounds like an alternative worth investigating, and it's absolutely right that the RSA should be helping to shape the debate on the future governance of this country.

  • Apparently, there are "fundamental problems with the whole notion of parliamentary representation".

    And there is "a political elite whose primary logic appears to put personal advantage before what is best for the country".

    Sorry this is dangerous, offensive and misleading redtop drivel. Will RSA descend ever further into agit-propery while its constitution officially obliges its people to support detachment and analysis? Looks like it. 

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