Devolution Is Good – Provided Its Done Right

Last night’s Invictus Games closing ceremony contained many moving scenes and one unique one. Can anyone recall a stadium full of people cheering spontaneously for a member of the Royal Family – or any UK politician?

Prince Harry saw something in America that he thought (rightly it turns out) could help wounded British servicemen. He didn’t have to do it (as 3rd, soon to be 4th, in line to the throne he does not have many formal obligations) but he did. In spite of the torrid relationship with the press which he has endured all his life through little fault of his own, he once again stuck his head above the parapet. Getting the whole show up and running in seven months could not be done without a huge team, all of whom he inspired to achieve the extraordinary through the force of his name, supported by his passion and sincerity. His speech at the end sought no personal credit.

Now imagine the same scenario with another privileged Etonian – David Cameron. For a start, he would deny that there was a problem, and if there was he would blame it successively on his predecessors, his ministers and his civil servants. He would set up a working party, the prime output of which would be publicity for him and his political associates. It would have been delivered late, at huge cost and with far less public support. There would be more TV coverage of the political shenanigans that there would have been of the competitors. Cameron’s closing speech would have been smoother and more polished. He would have mouthed banal platitudes and would either of sent everyone to sleep or got booed off the stage. To be fair, none of his political contemporaries would have fared any better.

As we watch the ambition of Salmond destroy harmony in Scotland on what is becoming obvious (even to the BBC) as a false prospectus with ludicrous assumptions we should ask ourselves what has gone wrong. The people whom we respect have no power; those with power have earned no respect. More importantly, how can we fix it so that we are ruled within a broad prospectus? A few suggestions, the first of which may surprise.

Devolution. Not in the Scottish sense of creating a £400M parliament to add more government rather an imposition of the principle of subsidiarity, doing stuff at the lowest possible level. Most of what central government does involves shuffling money to departments, who shuffle it to counties and then to the agencies that actually deliver the service. Yes, someone has to centrally collect the tax. But then most of it should go straight to the service. So a school would get paid a flat rate per pupil directly from government. Yes there may need to be some regional variation but the point is that it is far cheaper to send the money direct. There is no need for centralising bureaucracy – its only 10 million transactions. Central government should only do what only central government can do. I reckon that list is make the law (but enforce, most of it locally through the county constabularies), collect taxes (possibly not exclusively), foreign policy (which includes compliance with international agreements), wars and that’s about it. Everything else can be provided locally with funds collected from the centre. In the UK, for idiotic cultural reasons, in the first instance health would be included in the central government list. But one day we’ll realise that there are sound reasons why no other country runs a centralised, politicised, monolithic NHS.

Less Powerful Political Parties. At the moment political parties develop policies, select candidates and promote them at elections. The primary fault for the lousy MPs and County Councillors that we have lies with the parties that produce them. The development of policy is a farce, as everyone knows that socialism doesn’t work and the rest of the world works on free market capitalism. Instead we have the absurd proposition of parties seeking credit for “creating the conditions for growth” when their major contribution to economic progress is to not bankrupt the country (ha ha) and not to pass silly, unnecessary or expensive laws (tee hee). Under no circumstances should political parties be state funded – if the public don’t want to pay for them directly through subscription it is immoral to compel them through via taxation.

Better politicians. Why is it undemocratic to require politicians to have certain key skills? They are not allowed to be peers, members of the Royal family, members of the armed forces or insane. What is so wrong in asking them to demonstrate understanding of accounting, an ability to think logically and a proper sense of duty? These things could be shown by qualification or experience. Come to think of it, why do we not also set a minimum age? Say 40. While this may make politicians lack appeal to callow youths (including journalists) it might give us a wiser government. We would also be able to examine their adult past and identify tendencies to larceny and chicanery.

Fewer new peers. There is nothing less creditable than the elevation of failed MPs to become part of the government for the rest of their lives. While there are a few exceptions, most inhabitants of the Commons make bloody awful peers. Rather than letting the Prime Minister purchase political favours                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          we should establish a system of electing peers for life from the counties, directly. The number of peers per county would be set to balance population. They would have to meet the same criteria as MPs, with the added constraint that they should never have sought or received political office. The selection process to be run by Lords Lieutenant (Crown appointees rather than political ones).

On this basis, and this basis alone, I am all in favour of devolution. One of Mr Salmond’s (many) shortcomings is that he can’t see that more politicians is the cause of the problems of centralised power (in Westminster or anywhere else), not the solution.