One of the more amusing exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions occurred some years ago when a Conservative backbencher demanded to know whether the Prime Minister realised that the word “subsidiarity” had first appeared in a Vatican encyclical. For him this was proof positive of a papist conspiracy at the heart of Europe. Wasn’t the whole concept of the European Community based on a sinister plot brought to life by a Treaty made in Rome?
If it is true that Europe is heading towards the uniformity of a single state then the ugly word subsidiarity should be the unlikely rallying cry of those who oppose it. For in a nutshell subsidiarity is about decentralising decision making to the lowest possible tier of government. True subsidiarity requires less talk of a European super state and centralised power and more talk of a Europe of regions.
Benjamin Disraeli, who coined the phrase “centralisation is the death blow of democracy” would have concurred.
John Prescott’s announcement that people in the English regions will have the chance to hold a referendum on whether to establish regional assemblies is a welcome realisation that decision making in Britain and Europe has moved too far away from the people. What is less clear is whether the politicians will give the proposed new assemblies sufficient clout to make them more than talking shops. True subsidiarity requires a leap of faith and a willingness to let go.
And opponents will have genuine concerns. To prevent “over government”; one tier of local government would be abolished to make way for the new regional assemblies. Almost certainly this would mean the demise of the shire counties.
This could deepen the divide between rural and urban communities. Urban areas, with their “unitary” local councils have no county councils. Rural areas have district and county councils and undoubtedly have a deep affinity to their counties. If regional assemblies are not to become a divisive argument this issue will have to be adequately addressed.
The new assemblies would be responsible for economic development and regeneration, planning, transport, housing and culture. This could represent a significant shift in power away from central government. Each new regional parliament would take on responsibility for many important issues of social justice as well as religious and cultural concerns.
The new assemblies would be elected by proportional representation, headed by a first Minister and comprise of 25 to 30 members. The devil will be in the detail. The form of the election system will reveal how sincere the Government is about being willing to let go. It would be a travesty to use the closed party list system devised for the European elections – and which simply puts power into the hands of political cliques.
In areas like the north west there will be a broad welcome for decentralisation but Government beware: the referendum will be lost unless the people are persuaded of the opportunities that true subsidiarity could bring.