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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Paradoxes of Centralisation and Devolution

In a centralised system of government, people may end up feeling that the context of their daily lives is mismanaged or misunderstood simply because the System is too remote. It may indeed be physically remote - and very few countries manage to locate their capitals in the middle of their territory. It may also be remote because mediated through layers of bureaucracy: the centre gives orders to the next layer down which gives orders to the next layer down .. and so on. One weakness of this approach is that it is incompatible with any ideas of local initiative. The System ends up being staffed by people who only do what they are told, though not necessarily with any great enthusiasm. But such officials are more likely to be sacked for showing initiative than for showing laziness.

Occasionally, centralised systems try to solve the problem of what one might call "follow through" by appointing local representatives of the centre to monitor the work of local administrations: my guess is that this is one aspect of the French system of "Prefects". In the old Soviet Union, local party representatives also had the function of ensuring that local administrations implemented the central line.

Centralised systems are designed to hold together societies which might otherwise fragment and people are more likely to accept them if they feel that everyone in the society gets treated more or less the same way and gets more or less a fair share of whatever benefits are on offer. But the reality is, centralised systems often fail those tests. And so pressure builds up for devolution of power. That's what has happened in the UK over the past few decades. Westminster and Whitehall have lost credibility as effective policy makers and system managers and so those in favour of devolution have argued for local policy making and management.

The more devolution you get, the more you are likely to want. The centre seems not only increasingly remote but increasingly irrelevant. Why do we still have to give them money? It has quite often been theorised, but there are actually very few functioning federal systems where the centre occupies itself with little more than foreign affairs and defence against external enemies, issuing passports, managing borders, and so on. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, there were those like Gorbachev who pushed for a new federal structure of this "weak" kind. It didn't happen. Given a taste of power, local power chiefs decided to grab all the power.

So devolution designed to address the problem of a remote centre ends up making the centre even more remote and even less loved. Devolution sets up inexorable pressures for independence, real or de facto. In Scotland, the opponents of independence all want more devolution - what is called "devo max". And there are those, like Gordon Brown, who quite fancy a future as Chief of a devomax Scotland, both running its own affairs and  still sending MPs to Westminster to special plead the Scottish case and superannuated MPs to the London House of Lords to do the same.

A formula for catalysing the rather weak forces of English Nationalism.

1 comment:

  1. Devolution is expensive because it produces layers of government, but it creates jobs for the boys (and just occasionally girls), so everyone keeps quiet about the cost.