Centralisation Versus Democratic Reform
The air was crisp and the sun had set long before. I could feel the road beneath my feet as it jarred my knees. And with every step I ran further into the country. My breath pooled in the air in front of me as I reflected on the day’s events. As an eighteen year old living in university and suffering from a mild dose of melancholy, I was in no mood to return home the same way I’d just run.
Eventually I did decide to return. But it was cold and there were no street lights, so I had little idea of where I was. Foolishly, I decided to cut across to the coast and work my way back that way. I didn’t realise how far I’d come, and with the cliffs to my left, and sea to my right, I thought home was just around the corner. Alas, it was not.
The sea came in fast, and a storm picked up. I couldn’t turn around. By the time my senses kicked in and I realised what I’d done I’d gone too far. The only way I could go was forwards, and I had to simply hope for the best.
I was forced into a run, and then eventually to swim. But each time I passed a new turn in the cliffs I saw a new stretch of water ahead. Amazingly, I was still managing to pity myself. But I had at least realised my predicament. I remember thinking ‘I could die here… tonight.’ But still, there was little I could do at that point. Returning would have been too far.
So I kept going, until the waves were so fierce that I was being smashed against the rocks with every wave. And it was then that I arrived at a new set of rocks. They lay directly ahead of me. Sharp and jagged teeth jutted out of the ocean bed. My eyes widened in fright. I didn’t want to risk being thrown against them. And beyond them was a new expanse of water yet again. I began to lose hope.
But I couldn’t lose hope. There was too much I had yet to do in life. So I turned to climbing the cliffs. At first it was easy and I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. But as I reached the top it began to level off. And as it did so there were no more handholds.
Buffeted by the wind and the rain, and with blood dripping down each of my hands I shouted at the top of my lungs “HELP!!” But out there, with the roar of the wind and waves carrying my voice away, my efforts were folly.
The rocks on which I was hanging suddenly came loose under my weight. I felt myself falling back as if in slow motion. There was no time to climb back down; only to jump.
With all my might I leapt up, trying to grasp something onto which I could trust my weight. I was fifty feet in the air, and all I was able to grasp was soil… which came loose in my hands. Thus I fell towards the rocks below.
Looking back on this experience I can’t help but compare it to where politicians stand today: at the top of a cliff with nowhere to go, and no one to help them. Under successive governments over the past few decades, and particularly since Thatcher, the UK government has been centralising power in the hands of those few who stand nearest to the top of the cliff. And all the while the winds have been picking up. For people have been growing more and more disillusioned by politics.
Even as far back as 1986 Members of Cabinet were walking out, complaining about the demise of collective Cabinet Government. And Blair continued the trend. It has worsened relations between central and local government, created a schism between different regions, hurt accountability, and focussed such power at the top that jobs have simply had to be ignored. Worse yet this centralisation has occurred across many states around the world. Just as governments copied each other in piling up their debts, so too did they copy each other in undermining democracy, and making government more conservative.
I was lucky with my experience. When I fell, I fell on the other side of those jagged rocks. So despite losing a shoe and my glasses, I was able to swim on to safety. But our governments may not be so lucky. And so instead of prevaricating and postponing the inevitable, it is time that this trend of centralisation is reversed now with a series of democratic reforms.
Those standing at the top of the political hierarchy today are in the dark. They’re lonely, their hair is fast going grey, and the systems they head are in serious need of democratic reform. What lies before them without this reform is all too likely to be a fifty foot drop and a stormy sea to embrace them. Even if they can get away as I did, the state of the economy today means that being hospitalised again won’t go down well!
In other words centralisation is the antithesis of democracy. And what’s more, the assumption that it is somehow more efficient than a decentralised system is misguided. Centralising tasks that initially belonged to two people into the hands of one is bound to result in prioritisation, and perhaps even neglect. Centralisation in government, by furthering the divide between state and people, results in extreme prioritisation.
The UK has responded to this extreme prioritisation with an explosion in the number of single issue parties and independent candidates. It’s believed that if this centralised way of doing things is the only way then the only solution must be to fragment. But that’s simply not true. There are three options: keep the system as it is; encourage fragmentation; or decentralise and enact democratic reforms.
A certain degree of fragmentation could work, but only if the entire political and electoral system was geared towards this. Many large democracies, such as India, the US and the UK use ‘First Past The Post’ electoral systems, in which fragmented parties effectively stand for the exclusion of those people who don’t have an interest in their ‘issue’. If person X was elected in constituency Y specifically in order to represent those 20% of people who care about issue Z, then who would represent the other 80%? Thus to allow single issue parties to exist, while not harming democracy in any way, decentralisation and democratic reform must be practised.
We have a party system in the UK, because it’s recognised that you need lots of people working together at the national level (more independence at the local level would be preferable) in order to get things done. But on the same principle we should also recognise that there is a limit to what any one person can achieve by themselves. Simply put, if you focus too much power in the hands of the executive then they will start to miss things, even if they don’t mean to. This is why I term what we have at present ‘extreme prioritisation’. It’s creating a system in which the executive is climbing further and further up the cliff-face, and giving themselves much further to fall. The clear alternative is democratic reform, which is far more decentralised, far more inclusive, and thus far more effective.