The central challenge of our time is that we have a global economy that operates within a planet-wide ecology, yet we have no remotely adequate global governance mechanisms. The result is we are facing a huge climate emergency and a permanent loss of biodiversity. Action on that is grindingly slow and late. The richest people and corporations move their money around the world in offshore accounts and continue to accumulate an increasing proportion of the world’s wealth. The rest of us are left to try and fight off the damage caused when those shadowy figures buy their way to influence over those in power.
There is a crying need for stronger international controls over those who are determined to increase their own short-term profits regardless of the consequences for the rest of us humans and the rest of the species on the planet. Yet international agencies are unpopular. Neither the UN nor the EU has a great reputation for being in touch with the public that they are supposed to be trying to help. To many people they seem remote and even the best intended of their actions are often undermined by weak compromise, inconsistency, cynical deal making, broken commitments and a sea of bureaucracy.
The dangers of fake devolution
The way to resolve this tension is to ensure that as much decision making as possible remains local and that only the big decisions that really do have to be made globally or in international organisations like the EU are taken at that higher level. Genuine devolution is vital to the restoration of political trust.
Unfortunately, what we are getting in Britain is completely fake devolution and, whilst this is reaching new peaks of cynicism, it is a trend that has continued under both major political parties for decades.
Fake devolution functions like this:
- Central government strips away funding and powers from local government. Between 2009 and 2019 central government grants to local government went down by 37% with a cut in real term funding from £41bn to £26bn
- Central government offers local authorities the chance to bid against each other to get some of this money back in the form of temporary project funding. The vast majority of the money goes to the authorities that comply with central government wishes or are situated in the constituencies of powerful politicians. Much of it goes to the areas where the party in power wants to influence the next election so the national government largesse can be announced with a great fanfare of publicity. Several times.
- Central government offers local government the chance to have a few powers and a little bit of money back on condition that it gives over most of those powers to a mayor. Yorkshire is told by central government that it can’t have a single mayor for the county, for the sole reason that the Conservatives think they wouldn’t win the post. Central government also decides to make the mayoral contests first past the post, so that the Conservatives stand a chance of winning the expected election in 2024 for Mayor of North Yorkshire and York in the same way that they secured power in North Yorkshire with only 41% of the votes that gave them 52% of the seats.
- Local councils, for example Harrogate, are abolished and decisions affecting their communities are made remotely (30 miles away in Northallerton. Residents concerned about something like a local planning application have to travel miles to make their case to councillors that they didn’t elect and who don’t understand their community. For example, the current plan for the new, devolved North Yorkshire Council means that a planning decision that impacts on Ingleton could be made by councillors from Ripon, Richmondshire and Masham.
It is, of course, not particularly surprising that all the talk about devolution is actually just that. All talk. Because we have a government that specialises in doublespeak. They spent a long time lecturing us about the importance of financial responsibility, unavoidable austerity and care with public money. Then they trashed the economy with utterly irresponsible unfunded tax cuts.
They told us that we had to get Brexit done so we could have £350mn extra each week for the NHS. Then they left nurses to cope with 10% inflation on 3% pay rises and sounded surprised that so many of them quit the service and the queues in accident and emergency became horrendous and people were left to pull their own teeth out because there were no NHS dentists in their area.
They promised us strong and stable government. Then delivered wobbly chaos.
They told us we were all in it together during the pandemic. Then it turned out the health secretary was in a sexual relationship with his best friend’s wife, the chief political adviser fled London for no good reason, and the PM turned a blind eye to large social gatherings in his own home.
Finally, they told us we needed growth in the economy, before choking off any prospect of sustainable growth by driving up interest rates by giving away unfunded tax breaks. No wonder cynicism is now the dominant national political mood.
What is the solution?
It might be thought that the solution to all this is just to kick out the current shower and get in a central government administration run by a different political party. It isn’t. Or rather that is not a remotely adequate solution. We have to tackle the cynicism in politics and restore trust in politicians and that can’t be done from above.
What is needed is long and hard work within communities by people who are rooted in the localities that they serve. Focus group politics produces politicians who are scared to speak the truth in case it damages their polling numbers. Huge numbers of people are reporting that they think all politicians are the same. In one respect this could not be more false. We’ve just seen how much difference it makes even when one set of bad Conservative rulers is replaced with another. Getting rid of the entire party will be genuinely significant.
And how can this be achieved?
Nevertheless, those people who complain that politicians are all the same are on to something. Knowing your local representative and hearing them speak up for your needs restores trust. Having a professional politician dumped onto your area by a central party office and then listening to them refuse to answer a straight question destroys it.
This country needs genuine devolution and honest public representatives. Not people who are scared to speak the truth. That requires politicians who are prepared to do hours of legwork helping local communities and serious devolution of genuine power to help them fight for the needs of the people they serve.