Interdependency of devolution and progressive politics

John Osmond says that until the English take a cold, hard look at their own country and its place in the world, social democracy will continue to languish behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall

One year on from Labour’s defeat in the 2010 UK general election I’ve come across a first glimmer of some new thinking about the party’s future. Labour’s problem over the decades since I’ve been following its fortunes – and that is since the early 1960s! – is that it develops all kinds of progressive aspirations when in Opposition, only to see them corrupted by the blandishments of power and the pressure of events, once in office.

Looking back at the governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s who could not agree that, lacking the sheet anchor of comfortable majorities in the House of Commons,  they were simply blown off course by “events, dear boy”, as Harold Macmillan famously put it. In the case of Tony Blair’s more recent efforts, between 1997 and 2007, he threw away the advantage of substantial though reducing majorities in his three elections, by following dubious foreign adventures, most notably by accompanying George W. Bush into Iraq.

Why have Labour’s essential progressive social democratic instincts, so passionately articulated when in Opposition,  been so easily undermined when in power? Writing in the current issue of the social democracy journal Renewal, Patrick Diamond, a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and one-time Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, puts his finger on the beginnings of an answer. When in government he says Labour has always been captured by the Westminster way of exercising power. As he puts it, the key feature of the Westminster model of governance is untrammelled executive dominance, with a parliamentary majority handing the Prime Minister the sovereign powers of a monarch:

“This guarantees that political power and authority remain heavily concentrated at the core of the state. Governing is seen as a process conducted by a closed elite constrained by their concern for the public good, and within the framework of a balanced and self-adjusting constitution. Executive dominance is justified in order to achieve strong and decisive government, a core feature of the flexible and adaptive British political tradition which has endured since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.”

Of course, this is the opposite of a democratically responsive system where accountability is dependent on a much more decentralised view of how power should be distributed. Labour’s problem has always been that, since the days of Keir Hardie, it has never understood, let alone believed that delivery of its social democratic project, dependent as it is on robust civic institutions across the whole of the Britain and not just in Whitehall, is intertwined with the decentralisation of power.

Oh, you might say, didn’t Labour achieve that with devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, very early on in the last Labour government? Yes, it did but only to a very limited extent. As far as Whitehall is concerned, it still operates within a sealed system of executive sovereign power in which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – fobbed of with their block grants – can be forgotten about. In the much larger English polity, devolution has never registered. As Diamond puts it:

“Despite devolution and the creation of several ‘policy laboratories’ within the UK, Whitehall has not yet developed any systematic processes for monitoring policy innovation across Scotland, Wales and England.”

And it has never been under any pressure from Labour to do so either. Indeed, in the main Labour has been half-hearted about devolution anyway. It was only because he inherited a cast iron commitment from John Smith that Tony Blair implemented it in the first place. In his memoirs, published last year, he said he regretted it. As far as Gordon Brown was concerned, he certainly was a committed devolutionist in his earlier Red Paper on Scotland incarnation, but by the time he became Prime Minister, in the dog days of the last government, devolution just got in the way of his ill-fated attempts to argue for a renewal of Britishness.

Labour needs to understand that for social democracy to work in Britain, we can’t depend on running experiments north of Hadrian’s Wall or west of Offa’s Dyke. It has to be made to work in England as well. Patrick Diamond gets this, up to a point. As he puts it:

“What is required is a culture of disciplined pluralism in which locally elected, democratically accountable authorities are able to innovate and experiment freely within a highly flexible regulatory framework unencumbered by constant interference from Ministers in Whitehall.”

For this to happen, he says, there must be a root and branch reform of the way local government is funded, so that local authorities are responsible for raising and spending most of their money.

This would go some way to dealing with the problem. But there’s a lot more that Diamond doesn’t touch on, and that concerns the behaviour of Britain abroad.  Gwyn Alf Williams used to say that “We won’t get rid of the bomb until we get rid of Britain!” Why does a government under such financial stress refuse the £25 to £35 billion saving it would make by ditching the Trident so-called nuclear deterrent? Because it still believes that without it Britain wouldn’t be able to throw its weight around in the world: in Afghanistan and Iraq yesterday and today, in Tripoli today…

All these are fundamental questions about, essentially England’s identity and England’s place in the world. Diamond’s article is useful because it demonstrates  some cracks are beginning to open up in the Whitehall monster. The trouble is that he fails to couch his argument in terms of England. He’s still fixated with Britain, which prevents him seeing the wood for the trees. Until the eyes of the English are opened up to take a cold, hard look at their own country and the reality of its place in the world, the progressive cause of social democracy will continue to languish behind Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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