Power junkies: How the heady cocktail of political centralisation is damaging UK democracy

Simon Parker, director of  the think tank for localism, NLGN, and nationally recognised expert on local government, shares his thoughts on how decentralisation could deliver us a wiser, less exhausted government and more engaged citizens that together could transform the UK political culture for the better…

Simon ParkerWe have grown used to the idea that politicians are impervious narcissists, endlessly grasping for power and immune to the pressures and doubts that assail ordinary mortals.

The past week has proven how wrong we are. From Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna pulling out of the Labour leadership race to an apparently confident and capable cabinet minister displaying a ruddy flush of embarrassment across the throat while being questioned by Andrew Marr, we have been reminded that politicians are human too, and if they seem otherwise it is often because we simply expect too much from them.

Dangerous substance

Political power is a dangerous substance. Literally addictive, it operates on the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by cocaine, and if you take too much it can result in massive egocentricity and imperviousness to risk. The problem for British politicians is that our over-centralised system of government mainlines power into their bloodstreams from day one.

They have to operate the most powerful central government in the developed world, controlling more 90 pence in every pound of tax and wielding power over everything from the frequency of council newsletters to hospital waiting times.

The weight of power and responsibility is huge, the working culture often crushing and the scope for a healthy personal life is often extremely limited. Being prime minister of Germany, Denmark or Australia is probably pretty hard going too, but at least huge swathes of social policy responsibilities are devolved to federal states or local government.

“we have created an inward-looking Westminster bubble…all the routes of power and influence in Britain lead straight back to parliament”

The natural consequence of giving national politicians so much power is that British politics has become an extremely high stakes game. Decisions taken through winner-takes-all processes of parliamentary decision making can instantly transform huge swathes of the education and benefit systems. No wonder we expect so much of our politicians, and no wonder the media pays so much attention to them. No wonder we have created an inward-looking Westminster bubble when all the routes of power and influence in Britain lead straight back to parliament.

This profoundly unhealthy approach to politics might be justifiable if it made us more equal and prosperous, but since Thatcher’s centralisations of the 1980s – many of which were enthusiastically entrenched under New Labour – the gap between rich and poor has widened and large parts of the country have been left behind economically.

Responsibility without power

The truth is that the power ministers have taken for themselves has done much more to create the illusion of control than its reality. As the former home secretary, David Blunkett, once put it, British politicians have responsibility without power. He neglected to mention the role that politicians themselves played in creating that situation.

We need to help our politicians kick their dangerous power habit and demand that they return power to the country’s cities and people. The result will be wiser government, more engaged citizens and a more realistic workload for exhausted secretaries of state. If we want ordinary, decent men and women to enter politics, then we have to transform a political culture that can bring out the power addict in the most modest of people.

Taking power back [FC]Taking Power Back publishes on 1st October 2015 however you can pre-order from our website here (RRP £14.99).

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