Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Evolving to localism

My last post on the relationship between my ideas of localism and the Campaign for an English Parliament have raised some interesting debate on the CEP site.

One commenter in particular asked a very pertinent question:
Do you really envisage having different income tax levels at community level, some communities levying council tax, others local income tax, tuition fees in some English universities not in others, free prescriptions charges in some areas, not in others etc? it would be chaotic and unmanageable.
This is prime facie a valid criticism, but it's actually based on a slight misconception of what I am proposing. It's understandable though in that I haven't yet set out my ideas for how we would get to the kind of decentralised state I'm after. So here they are now.

My theory is that power needs to reside at the lowest possible level - a level I have called community. This term is strongly suggestive of a very small unit - perhaps a village or a suburb. I picked the term because I felt that it was probably the size of administrative unit that might eventually be settled upon, but this is not necessarily the case.
A community could easily be a much larger unit - district, county or (heavens preserve us) region.

What I propose should happen is that powers over most areas of life should reside with communities, but that these powers should be allowed to be passed up to higher levels of government if this is what the community wants. Likewise powers can be taken back if they change their minds.

But, and here's the crux of the matter, I'm not proposing a revolution. The transitional arrangements would be all-important. On day one of the new constitution, the only thing that would change would be the tax system. Power to raise taxes would be passed to the initial set of communities - I assume for the sake of argument that these would be the ancient counties - but it would be assumed as an opening position that all of the other community powers had been passed upwards to national government. So on day one, pretty much everything stays the same. The administration of government and public services is largely unchanged. The NHS is still run from Whitehall, as are the schools and universities.

But underneath it all, power has been taken away from the centre, and a process of experimentation and devolution can begin. Communities can experiment with taking back responsibility for particular areas from the centre. They can try breaking themselves into smaller units if they think that might work. If they do work, fine. If not, then they can pass responsibility back upwards. But it's all evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

All the difficulties in delivering services when there are different systems in place may well be valid, but what I propose offers a chance for people to try to find a way round them. By way of an example it's not hard to imagine a country in which universities charge fees to students, and some communities choose to subsidise these fees while others choose to tax less and not subsidise. Could we get from where we are now to this kind of arrangement? I have no idea, but it is surely not unimaginable that the communities could agree among themselves to have the universities charge the full economic price of their education and let each community decide for itself how much to subsidise. We'll never find out unless we give people the chance to try.

To turn to the taxation side of the equation, I don't really accept the argument that you must have a single system and a single set of rates and allowances countrywide. Even in the UK at the moment, we have rates bills set locally. And while there is a single system for local taxes, this doesn't necessarily need to be the case, as shown in the US, where various states choose to levy sales, income and property taxes. My proposal therefore only needs a single definition of who is taxable where - based presumably on their main residence - in order to function properly.

I don't assume that I have the gift of foresight. I don't know what size a community should be or what powers it should retain. That's for others to find the answers to. But I do think we need a constitutional arrangement which allows them to look for those answers as best they can.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Devolution, but how far?

A couple of interesting things have turned up on the constitutional reform front. MatGB at Not Little England has put his finger on one of the most interesting questions of the debate, namely

How do you bring power as close as possible to the people, recognise the existence of England as a unit, and ensure that a Parliament of 80% of the population does not destabilise or undermine the British parliament?
Similar thoughts have been bothering me, particularly when visiting the Campaign for an English Parliament. I've been a sympathiser for the CEP's aims for a while now - I reckon in fact that the advent of an English Parliament would be good not only for the English but also for the Celtic fringe, in that the loss of their subsidies will force them to embrace business in the way that their brethren in Ireland have done.

How then to square this with the ideas that I have put forward here and at Liberty Central (and that MatGB seems to share) for devolution of power down to the lowest practicable levels? What is the point of an English Parliament if all the power resides at community level? It's hard to think of many areas of policy which would sit naturally at an England level were this kind of constitution to be enforced - sport perhaps, but not much else. Then again, I think we need to ask why there is a perceived need for an English Parliament at the moment. The obvious answer is that it is needed to correct the constitutional imbalance created by the government's botched devolution of power to Scotland and Wales. This has created national assemblies for the Celts and therefore we need a national assembly for the English too. On the face of it this is a perfectly valid argument, but underneath it all there is a question of how much of the need for Celtic devolution was in fact national in character, and how much was local - that is to say it was a reaction to overcentralisation of power in London. Having lived in Scotland during the latter years of Margaret Thatcher's term in office, my impressions were that the major objections to her leadership were that she was instituting policies that wouldn't have been chosen by the Scots rather than the fact that her supporters were mainly English.

If then the need to localise power was in fact the important factor in the impulse to devolve power to the Celts, then the desire to devolve to an English Parliament is potentially thing to do. As Bondwoman points out in this piece at the Sharpener, an English Parliament governing a country of 50 million people would still be a very large, and probably very centralised, place. We should presumably conclude that more radical decentralisation is the answer.

If we imagine then that power is devolved to some lower level in England, where does that leave relations with Scotland? If Scotland retains the constitutional arrangements it has now, does that give it an advantage over an England in which power is much more widely dispersed? I would imagine that if ultimate power, and more specifically the power to raise taxes, resides with the UK government then such an arrangement would indeed place the English at a substantial disadvantage as the Scottish executive would be able to act as a powerful voice to influence UK government policy to the Scots' advantage.

However as Bondwoman notes in the same piece, the constitutional shambles will not be resolved without a significant measure of fiscal autonomy. The power to spend money needs to be matched by a power to raise tax. This kind of arrangement mirrors my own ideas on the shape of the constitutional settlement, where the tax-raising power resides at the lowest levels, with funds being passed up to the centre where necessary.

The answer then appears to me to be that there may in fact be no need for an English Parliament, because the constitutional imbalance can be righted and more local government delivered, without it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Top dog

It's always encouraging when you come out top in something. If you type "NHS Collapse" into Google, yours truly comes out top (out of over a million results returned).

That's made my day that has.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Another U-turn

The Telegraph reports that the government is going to start a scheme for children from deprived backgrounds to go to private schools.

I've got a great idea for a name. They could call it "The Assisted Places Scheme".

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Netvibes rocks

Via Chicken Yoghurt I have been introduced to the delights of Netvibes, which is a platform for integrating all your RSS feeds. It's much slicker than Bloglines and much more pleasing upon the eye. The "Wow" moment was when I realised that I could get a feed of my email into the site too, as well as my bookmarks, calendar and more. Suddenly it's gone from being a feed reader to a virtual desktop. Already I have switched my Firefox homepage over from Google (Google can be added as a module) and I no longer look at Google.

I say it again. Wow!

Any reservations? Well, it doesn't seem to recognise all my feeds. I get an error returned from, among others, Biased BBC, Blognor Regis and Liberal Review. Apart from that the whole thing is pretty fab.

More on virtual legislatures

Further to yesterday's posting and the idea of a virtual legislature, the liveblogging by the Save Parliament Blog of the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill debate in parliament was pretty instructive.

The debate was attended by tiny numbers of MPs and there was no meaningful consideration of the issues. Then at the touch of a button the lobby fodder MPs appear to vote through the government's measures without change.

It's impossible for anyone to follow what is going on from outside.

How much better then to follow through my idea of a virtual legislature where the debates can be had over a period of weeks, with objections and suggestions made both by legislators and members of the public (who more than likely are better informed about the implications than the legislators themselves). There is said to be concern among the ruling classes about disengagement from the political process. Here is a way to reengage people.

Which means it will be ignored.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Legitimate government

When I blogged about reorganising society from the bottom up, my main purpose in advocating a continuous process of devolution to progressively smaller communities was that in a highly devolved society it becomes relatively easy and cost-free to escape from tyranny to a better jurisdiction. But during my recent researches, I came across a philosophical justification for it too.

In his Restoring the Lost Constitution, Randy Barnett sets out what he believes to be the circumstances in which a government can bind its citizens in conscience as well as in fact. Essentially he argues that popular sovereignty as proclaimed in the US ("We the People") is a fiction since a constitution enacted 200 years ago and ratified by the states, rather than individuals, cannot bind today's citizens. Nor can any modern state bind its citizens in conscience since these states are too large to obtain unanimous consent.

He suggests therefore that by devolving power to much smaller units, unanimous consent can be reached and therefore true legitimacy can be obtained.

Now I have no idea how far the process of devolution I advocate could continue before the administrative units became too small, but if the process itself is in fact making government progressively more legitimate then this would suggest a relatively longer process. Only when the units became too small to support the functions they required (eg policing) would the brakes be applied.

One problem that this would throw up though is that if the administrative units become very small then representation in national government becomes tricky. I had envisaged each community sending a representative to the national legislature where they would act as a check on the centralising tendencies of the national government. But if these communities are very small this is clearly impractical. I'm almost tempted to bring back another idea I blogged on in a very throw-away fashion some months ago, which is to have a virtual House of Lords - basically a blog and a poll open to legislators only. Then you can have many more legislators because you no longer need them to assemble in one place.

It's an idea anyway. Thoughts anyone?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why do I bother?

One of my clients, a manufacturer, is suffering from production difficulties and has asked some of the employees to work overtime do make up the shortfalls. They're offering double time. Unfortunately, if the employees do this they will lose their tax credits next year, so they are refusing. This may end up shafting the whole business.

Gordon Brown really is a complete bloody moron.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Quote of the day

You vote to abolish Habeas Corpus and the Magna Carta, then you apologise for screwing your secretary?

Harry Hutton on John Prescott

Liberal England: John Stuart Mill: Who should run schools?

Liberal England: John Stuart Mill: Who should run schools?

Jonathan Sheppard notes that John Stuart Mill recognised that the state should not be involved in providing education, restricting themselves to funding school fees for the poor.

At the last election the Tory education policy was the only one liberal enough to recognise this. The failure of the Lib Dems to adopt a similar policy is shameful. Quite how they can call themselves "Liberal" is beyond me.

Update: Jonathan Calder, the author of the linked article asks in the comments who Jonathan Sheppard is? Damned if I know, but apologies are probably due to both of them.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Power Inquiry and the Constitution

It's all gone quiet over at Liberty Central. The flow of postings has dried up, and visitors to the forums and wiki are few and far between. Unity has indicated that the site will move to a new home shortly which may mean that a relaunch will bring about a revival. We'll have to wait and see.

There's still plenty going on on the constitutional reform front though. This review of the Power Inquiry conference by Davide Simonetti is very interesting. It's encouraging that there seems to be a level of agreement among the opposition parties that something needs to be done, even if they don't seem to know precisely what.

Voter apathy is a constant complaint of politicians and commenters, but nobody seems to put their finger on exactly why this is happening. "People don't feel their votes count" we are told, without anyone getting to the bottom of why this should be so. For what it's worth, my theory is that there is so little to choose between the three main parties that voters are not presented with a meaningful choice. The underlying reason for this is that the parties all have policies developed in focus groups which target a very small number of swing voters. Since they all develop policy in this way they all quite reasonably reach the identical conclusion that a small measure of marketisation in the public services will make this special group happy.

The methods used by the political machines is not going to change in the near future, at least not while they continue to deliver power. Fortunately the Power Inquiry seems to have hit the nail on the head in terms of a solution.

They make the following proposals;
  • We have to redistribute power from the executive, from Downing Street to Parliament.
  • We have to restore Cabinet Government.
  • We have to have a redistribution of power from the central to the local.
The last of these points is the important one, because this is the way to reengage the public in the political process. If decisions about your life, or your public services are taken locally then you are much more likely to feel that you can influence them. But, more importantly, if radically different decisions are made in different parts of the country then people can vote with their feet and live in a part of the country with a political system that is to their taste. This sort of decentralisation is both an enabler of an active civil society and a bulwark against the kind of creeping authoritarianism that we have endured under the Labour government. Unfortunately I doubt if anyone has the courage to devolve healthcare, welfareand education to local government, and the political courage to allow local government to raise its own taxes is surely no longer a feature of our political class.

Even were politicians to pluck up their courage and put in place a constitution that devolved power as radically as this, it would still remain to be seen how these powers could be kept devolved. The lesson of the American constitution is that even quite narrowly defined powers can, in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and quiescent judges, be extended far beyond the meaning of the text. With hindsight, we can draw two lessons from the US.

Firstly, the Seventeenth amendment, allowing for the direct election of senators, was a mistake. Before this amendment the Senators were chosen by the state legislators. This effectively gave local government a voice in central government, and allowed the senate to block the centralising tendencies of the Washington machine. The campaign to Elect the Lords may therefore be misguided: fine, do away with the power of the Prime Minister to choose peers, but let the elections not be direct. We place far too much faith in directly elected politicians - a surprising failing on our part when we have such bitter experiences of them. Indirect elections, while superficially "less democratic" will be a better defence against centralisation and the authoritarianism that will follow it.

Secondly, a UK constitution needs to proscribe even further than the US Constitution, the powers of central government. The Commerce clause allowing Congress to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" has over the years been extended to cover not only inter-state trade, but intra-state trade, manufacturing (which is not commerce), and has now reached the risible stage where Congress has claimed a right to prevent someone growing marijuana in their back garden for their own use (apparently because it might effect the market for drugs). If we are going to frame a Constitution that is going to be effective and which is going to last, we have to be alert to this threat. There is no form of words which Central government cannot wriggle their way out of. The only solution is to devolve pretty much everything.

Reform of the constitution will only work if it is radical. The question we must ask is: "Who are the remaining radicals in British political life who will take on the task of reform?"