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4 March 2015

This is the devolution moment: let’s seize it

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

By Drew Hemment

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.

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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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