2003 October 30 Thursday
Mark Steyn On The Tories And The British Democracy Deficit

Mark Steyn argues the British Consevative Party should come out in favor of decentralization.

Conservatism should be committed to as decentralised a politics as possible. If my town has lousy policing, it’s no skin off my neighbours 15 miles down the road. Conversely, if my town hits on a good idea, my neighbours are happy to borrow it. Decentralisation is the best way to ensure a dynamic political culture, full of low-key field studies. That’s one reason why every good idea Britain’s law-and-order monopoly takes up was started in a local American jurisdiction (the ‘broken window’ theory) and every bad idea was cooked up by the national Home Office bureaucracy (the gun ban).

Decentralisation is also the best way to get new politicians in. London’s Euroleft conventional wisdom disdains not only the rude unlovely electorate at large but also any representatives chosen from without the full-time political class. As the Guardian sniffed, ‘Putting Arnie in charge of the world’s fifth largest economy is like making Benny Hill Chancellor of the Exchequer: quirky but unreal — and not very funny.’ Get a grip, lads. Benny Hill would have made a terrific chancellor. Judging from his frugal lifestyle, he was certainly a fiscal conservative. Unlike British Leyland, he was hugely successful in overseas markets. More to the point, given the people who did become chancellor in his day, how good would he have to be? If it was 1976 and we had a choice between Benny Hill and Denis Healey at the Treasury, I know who I’d take a flier on.

The new Tory leader (Iain Duncan Smith is on the way out) could do his party enormous good if he was to embrace and promote very vigorously the creation of many more lower level elected offices. The national level of Parliament in Britain has too much power and the power that is seeping away to Brussels is making the democracy deficit in Britain even worse. The Tories also ought to make as a central plank of their platform (and do the Brits use "plank" and "platform" as is done in American politics?) the replacement of the appointed and hereditary members of the House of Lords with directly elected members. The Tories could clearly and positively differentiate themselves in the minds of British voters if they came out for more democracy and less centralized power. Says Steyn:

I love the responsiveness of US politics, and the best way to find genuinely British Conservative voices is to introduce American-style localisation. British Conservatism will never have the gun nuts, anti-abortionists, Wall Street types and Christian fundamentalists who make Republican gatherings look like the result of a dating agency run by sadists, but, at a time when Labour, Liberals, Brussels and the media are ossifying into a closed shop of the likeminded, the Tories should be able to recruit far more widely than they do.

Steyn's thinking here is close to my own in a previous post Will Republicans Follow Tories Into Marginal Status? where I argued:

The Republicans have a number of advantages over the Tories. First off, the design of the US constitution allows greater opportunity for two parties to each exercise some power. The larger amount of power in state governments allows Republicans to demonstrate at least parts of their agenda in some states just as is the case with the Democrats as well. Given the regional differences in political leanings in the United States there are always areas where each party gets to be in power. The government of the UK is quite a bit more centralized with little devolved power to lower levels of government in the Conservative heartlands in England proper. The US constitution therefore provides greater room to allow a party that is not in control nationally to still show that it is capable of ruling. Also, with the constitutionally mandated split between the two elected houses of Congress and the elected President the voters can vote to split power at the national level between parties in the US, again allowing each party a better chance of staying viable.

As Steyn points out, the US system has the additional advantage of providing a great deal more latitude for experimentation by elected leaders at the lower levels. So the US produces more policy innovations.

Concentrated mainly in the Western states there is an additional mechanism for policy innovation: state level voter referendums. Politically incorrect policy proposals that elected politicians of both parties find reason to torpedo can be pushed thru via direct voting by the electorate. Though in some cases such as with California's Proposition 187 on the issue of illegal immigrants the elites conspire to defeat the very direct expression of the will of the electorate. Still, the referendum mechanism has produced a lot of policy changes and has forced politicians to accept the will of the voters on a number of issues where they were disinclined to do so. The Tories in Britain could also embrace the requirement for national referendums on constitutional issues as a permanent requirement going forward. The Tories could also advocate the creation of a referendum mechanism at lower levels as well. The local voting on bond issues in the United States is another manifestation of the movement of power more directly to the hands of the voters.

One big argument for direct voting is that elected leaders are chosen to decide too many issues. A person voting Labour into office in Britain over, say, health care or education, also has to accept Labour's decisions on the House of Lords or the ceding of British sovereignty to the EU. The sheer number of decisions made by each level of government today really exceeds what conventional representative democracy can handle well. This leads to poor voter decision-making.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 30 10:57 AM  Politics Anglosphere


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