The Wrong Sort Of Government

For the best part of 50 years I have listened to politicians who are outside of government telling us that the politicians inside government are misguided/incompetent/useless/corrupt/driving the country to wrack and ruin (select as many options as are applicable).

And the politicians who are in government never tire of telling us how the country will descend into chaos if we are careless enough to let those who are not in government get their hands on the levers of power.

Over the course of those 50 years some of these politicians have succeeded in doing some useful things but the general trend, across the political spectrum, has been one of abject failure.

My local newspaper – the West Highland Free Press – runs a weekly column that revisits news from its archive that was printed 35 years ago. It is striking how many of these historic stories chime with those which are being reported in the same newspaper 35 years later. Potholes in the roads, unaffordable housing, failing ferry services, crumbling schools, fuel poverty: all of these (and more) appear to be perennial, as does the lack of political action to sort them out.

The phenomenon of long-term chronic failure extends beyond the north-western seaboard of Scotland. At a national level we still have public services that are under-resourced, endemic postcode poverty, a taxation system that penalises productive activity, private cartels that milk essential services for all they can get, public bureaucracy that is infuriatingly obstructive, and swathes of the population with inadequate and precarious incomes. Internationally we still have war, famine and accelerating environmental damage, all of which are interconnected and all of which present an existential threat to our place on the planet.

The politics of the last 50 years have done nothing of any substance to address any of these problems in any definitive way. There has been no attempt by any of the major political movements to understand the root causes of our problems, local and global, never mind describe the systemic changes that are required to solve them.

Instead we have political parties which are almost indistinguishable in their acceptance of the ways in which politics and economics are done. None of them question the validity of our crude attempt at democracy, which so obviously favours an elite at the apex of the pyramid of power at the expense of the rest of us. All of our political parties appear to believe the lie that economics is limited by finance rather than physics, which means they get stuck in stupid arguments about who’s going to pay rather than working out how to get useful things done.

This wrong-headed consensus on the fundamentals of political economy means that our politicians have very little room for manoeuvre when trying to distinguish themselves from their opponents in the competition for power. Which means that they all trade heavily on patronising paternalism: we are the only ones that know what’s best for you; everyone else will give you the wrong sort of government.

The Right tells us that free-market capitalism is what we need and they are chaps to manage it on our behalf, which includes keeping the captains of industry well-fed and the loathsome left-wingers at bay.

The Left tells us that socialism is what’s best for us, and they will organise everything for us, which includes the destruction of the evil capitalist system.

The Centre tells us that a reasonable compromise between Right and Left is what we need and that they are exactly the right people to find the exact point of balance around which we can gratefully congregate in the shelter of their overwhelming reasonableness.

And the Nationalists tell us that nothing can work properly until it is enclosed within some imaginary geographical line that was scratched onto a map in some distant heroic past, and that they, the guardians of nation will magically make all good things happen within the borders of this special land.

Note that, as well as being firmly welded to dysfunctional democratic and financial systems, our political leaders of all colours share the belief that the business of government is to dictate and enact policy upon the population: we know best; our ministers shall decide, and so it shall be done.

The ridiculous, arrogant, hubristic idiocy of this belief is manifest in the 50 years of failure that I have witnessed. The idea that a handful of individuals sitting on a seat of government can decide and direct detailed policy that effectively addresses the very different needs and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of communities is ludicrous. No matter how talented and well-meaning said individuals are they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Abu Dhabi of doing what we, in all our extensive variety, need to be done.

Regardless of who is in power, diktat from above means that we always get the wrong sort of government.

Our system of government is essentially still feudal. Instead of hereditary barons calling the shots and enforcing them by sword and cannon we have a hierarchy of overlords who are periodically shuffled about by election rather than war. It’s an improvement – a very rudimentary form of democracy – but our governments’ hopeless responses to pandemic and climate change have highlighted just how foolish we are to rely on the mediocre talents of a few self-appointed leaders, and how desperately we are need of something better.

The proper business of government is empowerment of communities to do for themselves the things that they need to be done. Potholes, health services, education, housing, transport, social care, etc., etc. – the decisions required to make all of these work properly should be made within local communities. Likewise, the resources required to implement these decisions should be controlled and deployed locally.

The job of central government should be the provision and maintenance of systems of decision-making and finance that communities can use to deliver the things that we need for our collective security and comfort at local, regional, national, and international levels.

The right sort of government is one that allows policies to grow out of our communities, and facilitates the development and adoption of these policies for the common good: government that serves the needs of the people.

Instead we have government from on high that dictates policy according to the whims of ministers and their acolytes, which inevitably ends in failure. This is, unarguably, the wrong sort of government.

16 thoughts on “The Wrong Sort Of Government

  1. What can we add. At the root of the problem lies in the very opening picture, house of commons.

    Scotland, particularly rural, is a plaything of absent landlords mostly aristocracy whose families appropriated land from the clan and forced their departure. Thye have been fashioned to suit the sporting estates with little care for the people as the aristos and the friends drop in for their soirees.

    It is also a Scotland’s place in the UK. A forced union in the first place and treated as a resource-rich province but receiving little attention from London other than basic minimum to retain control and “ownership”.

    London Controls 70% of attributed costs of the nation, much of which is simply overhead allocations. Of declared income of £65b the block grant is £30b. A grant, gift or our own monies. Not all income is apportioned to our account which is also loaded with massive overhead charges from London.

    Nothing can or will change until Westminster’s hold is eviscerated. Scotland must free itself from London’s clutches. Holyrood are much closer and held to closer account that the English gov which is utterly unaccountable to Scotland.

    • Holyrood has failed in equal measure to Westminster. Most of the failures that appear in the WHFP of 35 years ago and today are within the remit of Holyrood. It is the model that is at fault, not the location of the model.

  2. What you are arguing for is really just a question of scale, decisions and policies created locally by community, but as the perception of what is community gets larger, the hierarchical top down power structure begins to evolve. Community council leads to regional government leads to national etc, what you are suggesting is the bigger the forum the more top down and un related the policies will be. Where do we draw the boundary of community decision making Uig, Portree, Inverness, Edinburgh, London, Brussels…

    Ironically you seem to be anti nationalism, which I understand as a dogma and point of view, but its one advantage is that of scale, it is a smaller forum and therefore closer to accountability and then what people might wish for…discuss!. Ironically Europe which was / is an incredibly bold experiment whilst perhaps bordering on federalism created a forum which could keep the lid on extremism and by having homogenous rules, ensured that minorities could have a voice (the bigger the forum the bigger the minority voice) It also helped keep peace of sorts. As popularism and extremism rears its ugly head, peace looks more fragile.

    Perhaps the ideal is a group of small countries or even regions, within a federal large forum. Empowerment of small communities is a fine wish but the cynic in me would suggest that small community forums suffer from the same issues as large government, just on a small scale, there are agendas and desires for power, dogmas and selfishness with cronyism and nepotism.

    I think you are correct in that adversarial party politics is a poor way to run a country, but the problem is not government and its style, it is unfortunately humanity itself There is a catch 22 situation that the majority of people actually want to be told what to do, and the people that want to do the telling by definition will be the wrong sort to do it.

    It is all about dogma and power, and I suspect that exists at all levels of government, from parish to international.

    • “It is all about dogma and power, and I suspect that exists at all levels of government, from parish to international.”

      You got that well-defined. Community Councils can be every bit as difficult to deal with as can local activists.

      But getting rid of Westminster would be a very good start. The Eu does allow huge variability of localized initiatives, it’s overall standards they wish to ensure.

    • Scale is the wrong word. Granularity is more accurate.

      Think of democracy as a picture that’s made up from pixels. In its current form each pixel is the size of a parliamentary constituency, and the only ones that are lit up are those whose elected representatives are at the apex of government. The rest are grey. The overall effect is a grey screen with some blotches of colour.

      I’m arguing for a much higher resolution version of democracy where each community is a constituency and every elected representative has an equal amount of power – all of the pixels are illuminated. Decisions are made locally and resourced locally for local matters. Where issues are bigger than local, communities collaborate to whatever extent is geographically appropriate, but the representation on these broader screens is always empowered from the local level. Every pixel on the screen is always fully lit.

      There is no irony in my antipathy to nationalism. The low-res blotches of Holyrood are no more illuminating than those of Westminster. The indy movement has never described anything that comes close to what I’ve outlined in the previous paragraph. It is already within the power of Holyrood to reform democracy in Scotland in this way but the nationalist administration has done the very opposite, relentlessly dragging power towards the centre.

      • Governance will always require compromise, it can never be all things to all people, I agree that it could be more colourful and perhaps a higher resolution with decision making more local, but compromises will still be required, and in that case there will be disappointed people., There will always be for instance decisions like replacements,ent hips versus heart bypasses, because in any utopia, there will never be enough infrastructure to allow every operation. Even at a local level there will be those who shout louder and get their own way. Who is to say that decisions locally will be more appropriate, and dare I say compassionate. A civilised society should be judged on how it supports people at the bottom of the pile (as well as the arts but that is another discussion) If decisions were made (say) in Portree or Broadford, would the drug users and those who have made ‘wrong’ decisions in their life really be looked after. Would we teach philosophy in he schools and educate a generation to think and question..Call me cynical but I think in reality we would see very little change, the rich would get richer, the poor would remain poor and the environment would remain defiled.And then there are the decisions that would have to be made on a larger granular scale. Imagine a rail service that had different gauges because of local dogma (perhaps a farfetched example but you get my drift) Who would look at the big picture, who would make decisions about big things, and what about the effect of a decision in one pixel, that effects many other pixels (say like water usage in Australia with the farms using the water further up stream and ruining things down stream) The world is in fact great for a reason, because compromise makes that colour. There has to be a body somewhere making sensible rules for all especially when asking how human and environmental rights fit in. Of course we need local decision making, but we need people overseeing a big picture, and we need some kind of compassionate dogma to keep the sort of people away from power who stand in from of lifeboats who are trying to rescue people in peril in the English Channel..(for instance)

  3. No, more granular decision-making would not be perfect but it would certainly be a lot more responsive and would tend to deliver more useful outcomes at every level. The granularity will provide more opportunity for thoughtful compassion to have a say, counterbalancing the shouty ideologues.

    I don’t understand why you think there would be no-one making decisions for the bigger picture. These would be handled by representatives and appointees, informed by our communities, debating and deciding on what is best for the common good on each issue. There is far more chance of things being done in reasonable ways that have majority support than the current system where a tiny clique who have been placed in power by a minority of the population follow their own narrow bias on every issue in order to keep their paymasters and voter base on side..

    • Representatives and appointees, informed by our communities debating and deciding on what is best for the common good for each issue” I think that you have just reinvented the system that we have now – the issue is not really the system but the apathy of all those involved, from the electorate to the elected. What is best for the common good is a quagmire in we have to ask what is a common good, what is best for one individual or community (say form of land management, sea fisheries management, environmental impact) – who makes the decision between a sea eagle and a lamb, between the creel fishing and the trawling. A representative can be as informed as you want, they will eventually have to make hard unpopular decisions – often the common good is not commonly popular (look at the decisions that had to be made for covid and will have to be made for climate change). As I have made mention, most people want an easy life with big decisions made for them, the rise of the right wing popularist politician I think indicates that a bottom up style of governance will be as floored as a top down. It its easy to look at examples of community empowement in small local areas (often rural) when on the whole they are effectively single issue (the running of an estate, the provision of a needed local facility etc) but the requirement for community is much bigger (connectivity infrastructure etc) As soon as these issues are raised then the informed representatives and appointees will need to slide into compromise and grey. The issue is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, There was a famous JFK quote (I think) saying something like “I don’t ask what can my country do for me, but what can I do for my country” We have developed a generation of entitlement which is ironic as the governance has been increasingly from a capitalist thacherite style dogma (from the left as much as the right) as opposed to a more broadly socialist attitude, and also includes looking after oneself before others. This is the problem, not the form of government but the attitude of society.

      • What we have now is nothing like “representatives and appointees, informed by our communities debating and deciding what is best for the common good.” We have government by diktat from the centre by a tiny group of people, most of which results in less than favourable outcomes. On Skye, for example, the resourcing – capital and revenue – of most of our common goods over the last 50 years has ranged from barely adequate to chronically sub-standard (ferries, schools, roads, hospitals, sports, arts). The reasons for that have got nothing to do with apathy or squabbling personalities. It has everything to do with the lack of focus/interest/will of remote controllers of policy and finance.

        I have spent the last decade or so working on community-based projects and have been nothing but impressed by the quality of strategic thinking, decision-making and selflessness of the people with whom I have collaborated. What is lacking are the resources to back up this capacity for conceiving and delivering useful stuff. The holders of power – those who dictate policy and control resources – are too remote, too wrapped-up in the business of getting and holding power, too distracted by whatever lobby is bending their ear or twisting their arm to provide the level of competent support that is required.

        I don’t share your cynicism about the “attitude of society”. There are legions of good, capable, talented people who will step forward and participate in collaborative activities for the common good if they know that they will be able to do so within a system that facilitates rather than obstructs.

        Where can these people go now? They can join a community trust and spend years battling to persuade the remote power-holders to allow them to provide something that everyone agrees will be of benefit to the community. Or they can join a political party and spend years climbing up the hierarchy to get a crack at being elected, and then spend years in opposition with no power to do anything for anyone, and then, if very lucky, get elected to government and be appointed a minister for a few short years during which time every decision is measured by the party as to how it will affect the chances of re-election.

        If we want things to improve, we need more people being empowered, and for that we need a better system.

        • Hard to argue against Malcolm’s last point. It’s a common issue. Aberdeen suffers the same over the past 50 years. Apparently oil-rich so per capita given by Scot gov much less than to the central belt. Skye, Lewis, Harris are all very remote from Edinburgh even more so from Westminster who now seeks to impose their will across Scotland in defiance of devolution. This is not going to change and any funding from Westminster will have nasty political undertones serving centralized LOnddon Gov control objectives.

          However highland Council has a great deal of leeway and in a position to set priorities. The question may be is it Highland Council where the problem lies rather than Holyrood. Council officers run tram line obedience to rules interpreted by themselves in ways that are often a mystery to the outside world. Planning one such.

          As an analyst at heart, best understand just what the issues and problems are and what causes them. Often obdurance at a local level is just as bad as detachment of distant decision-makers.

          • There is doubtless obdurance at council level, which can be hard to overcome, but the main constraints on local authorities doing stuff come from central government, which dictates policy and controls funding. This is certainly the case in Scotland where councils have become, more or less, executive departments of Holyrood.

            I’m proposing that this power dynamic needs to be inverted in order to get better decisions and better outcomes from decisions for a greater proportion of the population. If local executives were empowered by local representatives, rather than central government ministers and civil servants, they might feel more able to be more creative and helpful than is currently the case.

            • councils interpret policy and there are many ways policy can be interpreted and implemented. Councillors are local people and most often so too are council officers. Council officers do want they want and cite their “interpretation” to suit. They are a law unto themselves as we see in Aberdeen.

              There is I fear no solution for no matter what one person says another will take issue often with the flimsiest of evidence. At the same time resistant to initiatives not of their own making. Policies are blamed for not delivering what the speaker wants whilst it may well deliver for someone else. Who is to say what is right for the locale. Usually the loudest or most pushy voice but it’s not pc to say so. Often the sage advice will come from the quiet ones who have studied the issue intimately. They are seldom listened to,

              Scot Gov does try very hard to set evidence-based policies, unlike London who set ideological policies.

              Who is contributing to the data?

            • As for funding, £69b is declared raised in tax by London (mush we believe/know is hidden) £30b is paid as a “grant” a gift of our own money handed over very very grudgingly. The remainder of Overhead charges to our account is managed by London 70%. So let’s whine less about Scot Gov and address the funding and control from London. Note only 8.4% of historic and current oil revenues from Scottish Water’s is recognized as Scottish Income.

        • I agree that our representatives and appointees are arguably not doing the job, but would still maintain that it not the system that is completely at fault, but the way it is used. It could be tidied up (no sleaze by more accountability, perhaps more levels and a more democratic way of voting Less FPTP more PR, which in turn creates coalition government which hopefully creates more consensus and less adversary, etc etc) It isa bit like blaming the bicycle for not being able to get up the steep hill, rather than the fitness of the rider, although tinkering may help – better gears, lighter frame smoother tyres, it is still the same thing – a bicycle What you suggest I maintain is not radically different to what we have, perhaps more layers are required, and yes perhaps more autonomy closer to what you call granular level. I do agree there are loads of dedicated community minded people out there working on the community projects, but I might suggest they are unique, most people are too busy/lazy/apathetic/not interested etc (loads of valid reasons) to get involved – and yes partly because it is a thankless task. It is easier to think strategically when it is a small dare I say simple community project with a relatively simple aim, I am by no way denigrating the skills and talents of these people, but it is easier to get involved with a ‘project’ when it is close to home and often with a personal interest, but when the strategy becomes larger, and more complicated, with greyer consequences, then the talented people fall by the wayside, or get embroiled with compromise and dogma. I am not entirely cynical about society, for most of the reasons you suggest, but how come people (for instance) are happier to work their socks for a charity they are interested in, than change society (government, taxation etc) to make that charity unnecessary – I remember seeing a comment about a country (was it Germany ?) saying something like “we don’t do charity we pay taxes” It is I think that people like ownership and a direct visual consequence of their actions – so better to work locally to build a pier or village hall or community shop (or food bank) than get involved politically with the system to make these initiatives part of a ‘council’ democratic society.. I think Malcolm we are in reality arguing for very similar things, (as ever the answer tends to be in the middle) But I still maintain the bicycle needs tweaked and serviced, not thrown away.,

  4. Well written Malcolm!
    I think there is a bigger (and more sinister) picture to all of this, and that is the role of mega-corporations. These corporations span national boundaries and are largely unaccountable to anyone. They however yield immense power, both over the minds of the consumers they trap through their marketing and through their influence on our political systems which they need to be dysfunctional for they to thrive.

    It is utterly extraordinary and disgusting for example, that Amazon have pledged to make their business carbon-neutral by 2040. NO! I say. You could do it in a matter of weeks. Just do it. If you actually care about the environment and your customers, just do it now.

    So the big issue for me is how we deal with the unstoppable march of commerce in the form of mega-corporations who spin the lie that continuous growth is necessary and who prop up corrupt governments, perpetuate inequality and refuse to address the environmental impact of their actions.
    This comes back to the core of your proposition – the solution must come from the people, the communities, who must stop entertaining whatever it is that is hoodwinking us, be it inept politicians or unscrupulous companies.

    Our challenge is how to start a movement that will achieve this without ending up being a politician!

    • I agree. Multi-national corporate objectives do not, generally, align with those of their customers and certainly not with the objective of universal sustainable prosperity. Changing the system of democracy will not change that, but it will give communities more agency to make better purchasing decisions.

      For the multi-nationals (and most of the rest of the producer-consumer economy) I’m certain that we need something like the sustainability tax that I propose elsewhere on my blog.

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