I have pretty much always been an advocate of decentralising more power from Westminster and Whitehall.
My experience as a county councillor and then a Number Ten advisor tended to reinforce my views. But, in truth, it’s also good to have a simple way to criticise things that makes it sound like I’m on the side of the underdog.
For years my arguments have felt a bit tired and facile, but the other day, for no particular reason, I had a moment of revelation. Not only have I relied on weak arguments, but in doing so I have failed to articulate the slam dunk case for devolution.
Bad argument: being closer to the people means you make better decisions
Chief among the lazy arguments is that we should devolve power because those closer to the people make better decisions. I’m not saying this isn’t true, it’s just that it ignores evidence and common sense that points the other way. Put simply, lots of people who judge what to do by what they see in front of them are liable to suffer from limited knowledge, excessive subjectivity and tribal bias.
It’s all very well having local interpretation and local solutions of a social challenge – say, street homelessness. But, on the one hand, such phenomena tend to have common underlying causes as well as distinctive local expressions while, on the other, a wider lens can quickly show that some interventions seem to work much better than others.
What’s more, while national analysts can be reasonably dispassionate, local decision makers will tend to be biased in favour of the local solutions led by people they know. All in all, being close to a problem is as likely to impair judgement as to sharpen it.
Bad argument: Whitehall doesn't understand local circumstances
The converse argument is that national ministers and officials don’t understand local circumstances and are antagonistic to local discretion and difference. Again, while there is truth in this there is another side to the story.
Being able to look dispassionately across the country enables national observers to see and analyse patterns, including the ways that local factors affect problems and solutions.
Generally, Whitehall policy makers do think about the appropriate balance of central prescription and local discretion, partly in recognition of local difference, partly because they don’t always have the capacity to prescribe implementation in detail and partly because they don’t aspire to Nye Bevan’s idea of accountability, that the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar should reverberate around the Palace of Westminster.
Indeed, to be honest the biggest problem expressed to me by people involved in the hard graft of delivering outcomes – in areas ranging from NHS procurement to industrial strategy - is a severe lack of local capacity. We can blame that on austerity or the long-term effects of centralisation but in the short term it rather suggests we should be consolidating and centralising more not less.
Good argument: The impact of multiple national policies can only be understood locally
So local politicians and officers aren’t angels and national ministers and officials aren’t devils (although I might here make an exception for Chris Grayling).
Can I just say sorry for consistently and sometimes passionately arguing the reverse for most of my life?
But there is to my mind an irrefutable argument for decentralisation. It’s not about the relations between national and local but what goes on at the centre.
Those in charge of individual policies, strategies and even departments may try their best to get right the balance of central control and local discretion, but what they almost never even try to do is understand the consequence of multiple national policies, incentives and funding streams all landing in one place.
While I find national officials and ministers can usually hold up their end well when I accuse them or their teams being too centralising, I equally find when I start to explain how their policies might be clashing and conflicting with other stuff constantly emanating from the centre that they tend to close down the conversation as soon as possible.
While overlapping priorities and opposed interests unfold emerge locally too (they do in the medium sized organisation I run), in the end it is simply much more possible to convene local decision makers, to untangle what is going on, and to agree a better way of coordinating things.
As the world gets more complex and fast moving this argument (but not the other ones) gets even stronger.
The case for decentralising more power
So, there we are. The case for decentralising more power can and should be pursued with confidence, but it we should make it on the basis not of comforting prejudices but a single unbeatable argument.
In the rolling debate about how best to distribute power in the British state, we should turn our attention to the systemic problems of the centre.
The balance of power between people working together and old hierarchies is changing. Anthony Painter shows how and contends that we should start looking at society and politics in new ways.