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Wednesday, 27 May 2009

A Radical Distribution of Power?


As the democratic crisis continues the political class have been reacting -some better than others. Undeniably, the Conservative leader David Cameron is top of the class, if such a thing is possible. Cameron, more than any other Westminster leader, has seized the agenda and consistently pushed the policy boundaries, displaying a ‘steely mixture of ruthlessness and opportunism’.

Yesterday’s speech at the Open University marked Cameron’s apogee where he set out his plans to reform the UK political system. Pointing out that the Tory scrutiny panel for MPs expenses was merely the beginning, he proposed that: the number of MPS should be cut; parliamentary terms fixed at four years; permit more free votes in the House; introduce a ‘right of initiative nationally’ where, with enough signatures, people can get their proposals debates in Parliament; and introduce further subsidiarity:

From the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy.

Generally it has been very well received with commentators praising its analytical precision and its ability to outline a narrative that chimes with the growing discontent. Certainly, Cameron’s ability to address both the short term and long term political problems is to be applauded. Indeed, he is accurate in arguing that the fundamental cause of this crisis is:

…the result of people's slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them.

Despite these reformist proclamations there is a deep tension permeating Cameron’s speech and it is this tension that strikes at the heart of his progressive Conservative philosophy. It is the need to rock the boat, but not too much; to tread carefully and cautiously, to usher in change but maintain order; introduce reforms but maintain tradition. It will be said that this is a problem for all politicians irrespective of their ideological compass. This is true but for Cameron the problem is far more entrenched as he looks to appease both the progressives and the traditionalists.

Listening to his speech the ideological friction between traditional and progressive Conservatism was audible. A ‘radical redistribution of power’ is urgently needed but electoral reform is off the table. Our politics are broken but so too is our society. Indeed to Cameron the two are inextricably linked in a causal relationship. There is mass ‘social breakdown’ (‘record violent crime, record teenage pregnancy’) because of the ‘leeching of power and control away from the individual and the community into the hands of the elite’. Put another way, centralising, power hungry political elites = a broken society.

David Cameron’s response, indeed all Westminster leaders, to the current political crisis regardless of the incisive oratory ultimately fail. They fail and thus lack authenticity because they are reacting. Would they have delivered ‘radical’ plans to reform our politics had the Telegraph not received details of MPs expenses?

Notwithstanding this, Cameron’s contribution is welcome and deservedly leads in the reformist sprint. Britain is on the precipice of significant democratic alteration. It remains to be seen whether progressive Conservatism is the model to deliver a new politics.

I doubt that it is. The larger question emanating from this crisis as the political class engage in an ‘I’m more transparent and progressive than you’ competition is whether or not they can be trusted to undertake a fundamental redesign of our democracy.

In all the reviews, speeches and commissions currently operating there is a vital component missing. Yes, people are the elephant in the room. A representative democratic solution to this crisis will not suffice. What we need now is a citizen-centred approach to deliver deep constitutional renewal.

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