The independence referendum and its consequences have thrown the British constitution into a period of flux. (Photo: Getty)
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This is the devolution moment: let's seize it

The independence referendum in Scotland has created the opportunity to revitalise British democracy

It is rare to chance upon a moment to change things, a window to do things differently. Devolution could be so much more than a recalibration between political elites in regional and national government. It can be an opportunity to renew civic culture and local democracy in the UK.

Scotland has lit the torch in these isles, while fires in Greece and Catalonia light up the horizon. The wave of devolution is breaking on other nations, regions and cities in the UK, and Westminster is promoting a "northern powerhouse" to rebalance the economy of an island dominated by its capital city.

Recent years have seen the rise of new political movements claiming autonomy around the globe. Crisis often inspires change, it galvanised Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain to make a new politics, channeling the power of protest into something positive and new. In Scotland it was strain along an ancient fault line that unleashed a very contemporary call for change. As an official observer at the Dundee count, the city that gave the loudest YES to independence, I felt the power and optimism of that moment first hand.

In contrast, the debate around devolution in northern English cities has been a tepid affair. The economic and cultural distance from the Thames delta still raises passions in the North. But couched in economic terms devolution isn't capturing the cultural imagination. There is no grassroots political mobilisation to match the maneuvering on the political stage.

The FutureEverything festival set out last week to stretch the imagination about what is possible, to question how far power can be shifted to the edges, and how we can rethink and upgrade the relationship between citizen and city, as well as between city and state. A session on democracy and devolution focused on the opportunity for civic innovation to build wider and deeper citizen participation in governance and public life. The conference brought together representatives from Podemos in Spain and the Yes campaign in Scotland, alongside civic innovators and city makers from Mexico City, Barcelona and Helsinki presenting stories and case studies from around the world.

FutureEverything is an art and innovation organisation born twenty years ago with the vision of working to realise a more participatory society and culture. For twenty years, one of the core themes of FutureEverything has been how to use new platforms and tools to transform democracy and promote strong civic participation. The wave of global protest movements in the last four years has crystallised in new ways to engage people in politics and in new mechanics of decision making.

The promise of radical democracy heard in these movements goes beyond a vote once every four years to citizens claiming a say in governance and public life every day. This is a vision of democracy that promotes difference alongside freedom and equality, and seeks ways to maintain an openness to different views and voices.

This has coincided with the emergence of a new participatory culture, enabled by these new digital platforms and tools. People everywhere are doing it for themselves, more connected, more empowered, than ever before. Mobile networks have fostered different kinds of collaboration, enabling swift and spontaneous organisation or protest across loosely connected groups. The political possibilities of such connectivity are extraordinary.

At the same time the negative consequences of a massively networked world have come to the surface with the Snowdon revelations and the centralisation of information, influence and value in the hands of Google, Apple and Facebook. This begs serious questions about the implications for citizenship and democracy. Many individuals are more empowered, but inequality is growing at an alarming pace, and ever more people are disenfranchised.

We urgently need our democratic institutions to evolve to be able to manage the multifaceted conflicts, tensions and contradictions in a digital age. Hand in hand there has to be a new civics of the Internet to empower people in the face of centralisation, stacks and surveillance.

Manchester is today a laboratory of democracy. Its political leaders are on a roll, brilliantly brokering a new settlement for the city, ahead even of Scotland. Some (only slightly tongue in cheek) proclaim it the capital of England, with London on another orbit of global cities along with New York and Shanghai.

A trend we can expect is for cities to claim greater political agency and autonomy, if as Dan Hill claims the city is 'the organising principle of humanity'. Manchester is in this sense a laboratory for the rise of the 'city polis'. This is a question of democracy that is intensely local and global.

In the northern English cities levels of political engagement are a pressing concern. There is a stark gulf between 84.5 per cent participation in the Scottish referendum and 13.5 per cent participation in the election of a new Greater Manchester Police Commissioner. With the introduction of Mayors in northern English cities becoming a reality, widespread participation in the democratic process will be vital if they are to have legitimacy.

Civic culture is an easy target for funding cuts. But it is the lifeblood of a vibrant city, and is something cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle have in spades. Every city has their graph of doom showing an increasing fiscal gap. This leads to calls on civic society and social innovators for help.

For Gabriella Gomez-Mont, director of Mexico City's Laboratorio para la Ciudad, citizenship is a creative act, one where citizens become co-creators of the city. Government then becomes more of a catalyst and enabler than simply a provider of services. Solutions grow out of local communities and can scale one city to another.

On the first day of the festival, Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council since 1996 and one of the architects of these changes, took the stage at FutureEverything to say the city is on the cusp of change, and to call for ideas and imagination. The following day, before the debate on the future of democracy at FutureEverything, George Osborne borrowed a festival stage to announce the devolution of the £6bn health and social care budget to Manchester.

There will need to be convincing answers to the challenges devolution poses, such as preserving a viable and 'national' NHS, and the democratic deficit in the process itself.

We face a window of opportunity to renew civic culture in the UK. We all will have failed if we do not grasp it.


Drew Hemment is Founder and CEO of FutureEverything, and a Dundee Fellow at University of Dundee.



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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt