At the beginning of his term as Prime Minister, David Cameron unveiled a program called the “Big Society.” The idea is to decentralize both legislative and tax authority from the central government and make them more local. Geographically, this plan goes beyond the states of the United Kingdom, and even beyond the county councils. The plan includes moving authority all the way to city leaders. This idea, known as “devolution,” is still on the minds of the English, and there appears to be an ongoing movement to make this idea a political reality. This is certainly an encouraging movement from a distributist perspective, but it faces some serious challenges.
In my article, Steps and Stumbles, I pointed out that Mr. Cameron seems to be advocating two positions that are ultimately incompatible. His continued support for being a part of the European Union works against his proposed plan to decentralize political authority. The EU "treaty" (which seems to effectively be a constitution) contains provisions that not only allow the central EU government to override laws of individual member states, but can even override more local laws within each state. How can “devolution” effectively take place in the UK as long as they are part of the European Union?
I don't mean to be discouraging, but this is a very important point from the distributist perspective. I have stated that distributism cannot be imposed from the top of society down to the public. The ideal would be that the public effects political change to enact subsidiarity in the political sphere. In other words, the change in political policy will follow the desire of citizens for change. However, as I tried to explain in an article on small government, the further removed the highest level of government is from the citizens who want change, the less chance there is to achieve that change. For the citizens of the UK, this change will be difficult enough to accomplish through their own parliament, it will be virtually impossible if they need to get approval of the EU parliament.
It seems to me that achieving devolution in the UK will be practically impossible unless they first leave the EU.
In the US, our government doesn't seem to have any real interest in devolution. This seems to be true for both of the major parties as a whole. Yes, there are movements advocating "state's rights," but the actual actions of both the major parties when in power reveal that they are very comfortable with a central government that overrides the idea of local authority. My point is that we are still arguing over the idea of states rights; we don't seem to be anywhere near discussing devolution to the local level. We seem to be further away from subsidiarity than our friends across the pond.
My goal here is not to discourage such movements, but to motivate us to encourage them. It is only by increasing the desire for decentralized authority among the population in general, by encouraging that desire to be translated into political action demanding decentralized authority and complaining when it doesn't get granted, by carrying that political action through to votes that will change the political landscape and eventually enact devolution, that it can have any hope to be achieved. I will also say that, due to differences between the constitutional structure of the US and that of the EU, it could be easier for people in the UK to achieve this than in the US. The UK has more than just two major parties that control the entire political environment. This gives the people more political choice and more political voice. The fact is that there is a rapidly growing movement in the UK to leave the EU. If it succeeds, it will have achieved the first major victory in the decentralization of authority and will have the political clout to carry the movement through to devolution of political powers.
Another important point to realize about the devolution movement is that not all who advocate it necessarily do so for reasons compatible with distributism. For the distributist, it is merely statutory recognition of the reality of political subsidiarity; it is a means for legally returning the political structure to be more in accord with its fundamental nature and reason for existence. We cannot assume that everyone advocating devolution in the UK, let alone those in other countries of the EU, have this in mind. There are undoubtedly some who would gladly leave power centralized at the level of their own state rather than devolve it further.
As distributists, I think we should do all we can to encourage and promote what these “core cities" are doing, and use this as an opportunity to further explain subsidiarity. There seems to be a general sentiment for decentralized government, at least to the state level, in the United States, but is there anything as concrete as this? Is there a substantial movement outside of distributism demanding that the local municipalities themselves should be politically empowered? There is a growing movement to support local economies, but where in the US is the movement to support the authority that should reside in the local municipal government?