Thoughts on Decentralisation

Left-of-centre governments are frequently attacked for being overly centralised. But where should we as socialists draw the line? Scottish Greens supporter and writer Gabriel Neil opens up a debate on the issue and argues a decentralised democracy is best for working class communities.

The Anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin said in 2001, five years before his death, argued the "overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power". It's a message worth remembering. 

The left is very good at criticising capitalism. We write endless articles, books and speeches about how capitalism reduces people to statistics, numbers on a spreadsheet or interchangeable cogs in a corporate machine. Capitalism makes us work for other peoples profit with the threat of homelessness and starvation constantly at our backs. Distant corporations control our lives, demanding from on-high longer hours, less pay and no trouble from those pesky unions.

What the left isn't so good at is criticising the state, and that’s particularly true in Scotland. "The state" is a term often interchangeably used with the government and is strongly associated with left wing ideas. “They just want the state to control everything”, right wingers say. It’s an assumption worth challenging when in reality, the same distant, unaccountable power of corporations can and do flow through the state.

Granted, we live in a democracy and can influence such decisions to some extent, but other
countries demonstrate that this can be manipulated or repressed. We know there are those out there who’d be happy if people never got to vote at all – not just out-and-out fascists either. George Monbiot recently wrote in The Guardian about a group of American right-wing thinkers who want to see the end of democracy because they think it's incompatible with capitalism.

Some of these ideas are influencing the Tory party today. We know these people are good at getting into power. They play on people's prejudices and fears, turn poor people against each other, or just beat them into hopelessness with austerity so they don't vote at all. This gives them a blank cheque to get into power and effectively do what they want.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron promised the coalition he led would be the “greenest government ever”. Within a few years, he’d slashed funding for green energy to placate oil companies. To be blunt: centralisation means power is less accountable. 

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This isn’t just a UK phenomenon, though. The centralisation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service by the SNP government has caused huge problems. Local knowledge is gone, mistakes are made, and services have suffered. Communities no longer have as much of a say over their emergency services because their local councils no longer have power over them. Centralisation is inefficient.

How do we fight against this? Well for a start, we stop gifting politicians power based on one election. General elections, even ones that use more proportional voting systems, will never produce completely accurate results. People's voices will always get lost and no one political party represents everyone's opinions.

Labour and the SNP would have you believe simply voting them into central government is enough to make things better. But that doesn’t put power into the hands of ordinary working-class people; it’s trusting that the representatives we elect will use such power well, that a political elite can make decisions about our lives better than we ourselves can. 

The accountability argument might seem obvious, but governments can always accomplish more at a localised level. Granting power at this level by law would empower communities and drive power away from bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists in parliament. It's easier to physically protest power if it's literally down the road from you.

We should have smaller, more numerous local councils, more representatives per head, with real powers over local services and real abilities to raise taxes and borrow to invest. Such councils shouldn’t need to rely on central government for most of their funding. The voters should have power of recall, so anyone elected who isn't doing their job can be turfed out just as easily as they were voted in.

Councils should be enable community buyouts so that people can collectively own
the environment around them. Councils should be outside the control of central government, so even if Ruth Davidson hoodwinks enough people to give her power at Holyrood, the local services people rely on will still be in the hands of the people.

It’s a concern we as socialists don’t consider nearly enough. If we are serious about giving “power to the people” as the cliché goes, then we should care a lot more about where that power operates. By restricting political power to central government, we essentially put all our eggs in one basket and hope no bad ones get in.

Decentralisation means no one governs without consent. It means resistance becomes something you do on your doorstep, not something you others do for you at Westminster or Holyrood.

@GabrielNeil