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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear