How can we go on calling this a democracy?: Centralisation of British government has weakened the energies of the people, says Vernon Bogdanor

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The Independent Online
IF ONE theme dominated the meeting organised by the Independent on its Manifesto for National Recovery, it was that our system of government is failing to mobilise the energies of the British people. Yet the remedies proposed - an independent central bank, rejigging the Treasury - were purely structural. Surely the Wilson/Heath years should have shown us how little is achieved just by shifting the institutional furniture.

The central paradox of modern British politics is that economic decline has not been accompanied by political upheaval. There have been but two major changes in the political system in the post-war years: the increasing geographical concentration of the main political parties, and the growing centralisation of government. Both have weakened the energies of the people as they have led to the exclusion of large sections of the population from political influence.

Since the mid-Fifties, there has been a process of cumulative electoral change in Britain, whereby the two major parties have gained support in their areas of strength: the Conservatives in the South, Labour in the industrial conurbations and Scotland. In 1951, when the Conservatives were returned with an overall majority of 17 - roughly similar to their 1992 majority of 21 - 119 of the 321 Conservative MPs came from north-west of the Severn/Wash line, compared with 70 out of 336 in 1992.

Moreover, Conservative representation in the industrial conurbations has been almost annihilated. Of the 54 constituencies within Birmingham, Bradford, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, the Conservatives hold five. Conversely, despite securing around 20 per cent of votes in the South, Labour holds just 10 seats outside Greater London.

The division between the Britain south of the Wash-Severn line and the Britain north of it corresponds roughly to that between consumers' and financial Britain, and industrial Britain; between the more prosperous areas and those that have suffered most from the economic policies of the Eighties. It is hardly surprising that finance fails to comprehend industry when the two are torn apart by our political system. It is hardly surprising that a Conservative government is out of touch with the concerns of mining areas when so few of its MPs represent mining constituencies.

The geographical polarisation of politics exacerbates our social divisions to an extent unmatched in any other West European democracy. It becomes nearly as impossible as it was in the Thirties for the victims of an economic policy to acquire the political leverage needed to promote the policies to secure economic recovery.

It is our primitive electoral system that allows a government, elected on just over two-fifths of the vote, and, with the support of voters in just one area, to exercise unchallenged power. The system excludes not just minorities, but the majority who preferred a government of a different colour. In no other West European democracy could a government be elected on so narrow an electoral or geographical base.

The electoral system makes it appear as if all the South-east outside London is Conservative, while all the large industrial conurbations comprise only Labour voters. In exaggerating the electoral disparity between North and South, the electoral system serves to emphasise the geographically uneven spread of social and economic advantage in Britain. It is hardly surprising that governments, elected on so narrow a base, have failed to mobilise the energies of the people for the radical changes needed to reverse Britain's long-term economic decline.

The growing and excessive centralisation of government in recent years has made the problem worse, in that those excluded from national power have also lost access to other, alternative, centres of power.

Belgium, France, Italy and Spain spent much of the Eighties decentralising power. We alone persist in assuming that all Britain's energy and all its creativity lie within the bounds of Westminster and Whitehall.

When he was Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd sought to summon into existence the 'active citizen' to supplement gaps in welfare provision and help to fight crime. Yet how can a political system that centralises and monopolises power produce active citizens? As John Stuart Mill understood, it is 'discussion and management of collective interests' that 'is the great school of public spirit'. Liberty, it is said, is power cut into pieces, not hoarded at the centre.

Britain's ills require radical constitutional change. This means asking awkward, dangerous questions. But until these questions are confronted, Britain will be unable to take heEr place as an advanced modern democracy, capable of resolving hTHER write errorer social and economic problems with confidence and vigour.

The author is Reader in Government, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Brasenose College.