Time to resuscitate our democracy
by Will Shortt
7/07/09 Subsidiarity might not sound sexy, but it’s exactly what democracy in Britain needs, says Will Shortt.
We are in a political crisis. British democracy needs resuscitating. People are not voting. They do not trust their MPs. But our democracy was built on crises. The Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the 1911 Parliament Act, were all the products of crises. Now is the time for Parliament to reform again.
We need a law of ‘subsidiarity’: a law that enshrines the rights and powers of local councils. Subsidiarity is the principle that nothing should be done by a larger, more complex organisation when it can be done by a smaller and simpler organisation.
David Cameron recently told the Guardian that a Conservative government would “redistribute power to neighbourhoods and local government”. But it is easy to advocate a redistribution of power when you have little to distribute. The problem with decentralisation is that power must be driven from the centre, by the centre. It is unsurprising that the opposition party is promising to devolve, whereas the governing party is making no such promises; for once political parties assume power, they have a tendency to see redistribution as counter-productive.
The Tories can lecture the electorate over the Prime Minister’s centralist, ‘Stalinist’ tendencies; yet Gordon Brown is not the first of our leaders to overuse – or, indeed, abuse – executive power. Thatcher’s poll tax was a grotesque exploitation of a small parliamentary majority that further sought to subordinate local government and empower the all-knowing policy gurus in Number 10.
Thatcher and Major both fought tirelessly for subsidiarity to be a fundamental principle of EU law. They knew it was the essential prerequisite to ensuring that the British government could do its job without unnecessary intervention from Brussels. So let us fight for subsidiarity on behalf of our public authorities outside Westminster. Only then shall we see a Britain inhabited by empowered individuals who feel that their democratically elected public servants wake and work to serve them.
The old system of checks and balances is flawed. The system has failed to adapt. A law of subsidiarity would be a welcome move beyond the current populist rhetoric to create a constitutional protection for local and regional government. It would put an end to a politics that insists on patronising, top-down public policy making.