In a small but perfectly formed northern European country a political earthquake appears to be under way which will all but annihilate the established political parties from parliament. For the rest of the world the question would be ‘is Scotland an outlier or a harbinger?’ All politics is local and the precise combination of events moving the Scots in an unprecedented way will not be replicated anywhere else. Nevertheless there are a number of factors present in Scotland which also operate more or less powerfully in other liberal democracies in Europe and around the world. This would suggest that where those issues exist and are unaddressed then a Scottish-style meltdown of political establishments could well occur. The contention of this post is that most of these issues can conveniently be understood within the context of subsidiarity.
The standard definition of this concept is something like this: social problems should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution. This is normally considered in the context of political theories and as such to be a matter of minimal interest to ordinary people. However it can be recast to express a strongly held emotion. In positive terms: people desire to have a say over how their lives are run. In negative terms: people hate having distant strangers control their lives. The theory of subsidiarity was initially proposed by the Catholic Church as being something which not only made sense as a model of governance but, perhaps more importantly, was consonant with human nature a factor which political systems ignore at their peril. The idea of subsidiarity has been taken up by others, most notably the European Union, but in the process of adoption the human factor has been allowed to fall out of the equation.
A common experience reported across many Western Democracies is voter alienation or disengagement. This, in part, proceeds from a perception that the sources of power are remote from and disinterested in or hostile towards ordinary people. Most such countries have one or more political parties which could be described as ‘anti-system,’ that is, whether they are Right or Left, nationalist, regionalist, ethnic or confessional in nature they regard the current constitutional set-up as fundamentally unfit for purpose. In normal times these parties have limited support, even in crises over the past three or four decades they have not experienced huge growth. When crisis is combined with alienation, however, the potential for growth becomes huge. In Western Europe anti-system parties are having a boom time almost regardless of their primary philosophical orientation primarily because voters avidly tune in to ‘the system is broken‘ rhetoric since that chimes in with how they personally have experienced the impact of the system on their lives and communities.
Looking on Scotland as a test case it might be argued that it demonstrates the irrelevance of subsidiarity. The Scots were granted (or took for themselves) a measure of self-rule, known as devolution, in the late 1990’s. Since this brought power nearer the local level than previously you might think that it would reduce alienation rather than provoke it to the unprecedented levels which the current surge in support for the anti-system Scottish National Party (SNP) would suggest. The weakness of the devolution settlement, however, was that it was fairly arbitrary in dividing powers between the devolved Scottish government and the overarching United Kingdom one and that it made no provision for co-habitation when the governments in the respective capitals were of different political orientations. In a situation of economic crisis where the Scottish government was centre-left and the UK one centre-right you had a recipe for conflict where the demand to move all key decision-making powers from the remote to the local level so that flexible responses to regional issues could swiftly be made had an unassailable logic. More importantly it makes more sense to the alienated voters than does the logic of leaving power in the places that a) caused the crisis in the first place and b) that don’t care half so much about local interests as they do about corporate ones.
Broadly the same conflict is reflected across other jurisdictions with hostility being sometimes directed at national or federal governments and sometimes at international bodies such as the European Union. This is exacerbated by the perception that power anyway is increasingly being wielded by unaccountable, unelected people and organisations such as European Commissioners, Transnational CEO’s, financial speculators and foreign oligarchs each of whom is able to suborn remote politicians in a way they would find more difficult with local ones. This means, I think, that the surge in support for anti-system parties is primarily the political expression of the emotional content I earlier ascribed to subsidiarity ‘people hate having distant strangers control their lives.’
Again taking Scotland as a test case what does this mean for the party at the centre of the insurgency the SNP? It has a core support which is nationalist and effectively wedded to the idea of an independent Scotland more or less regardless of the economic effect this might have on the country. My late father was such a nationalist, he believed that the history and culture of Scotland was so unique and distinctive from that of the rest of the United Kingdom that it should separate from it. He believed that this could be done without adversely affecting Scottish living standards but that even if it did so then it would still be a price worth paying. Most of the new supporters who have flocked to the SNP banners don’t, I think, hold to that view. They take an instrumental view of political independence and of political union. They desire to live in a society which they have some say over and which delivers the outcomes they desire. The union with England might serve those purposes but, as it happens, it isn’t serving these purposes therefore it makes sense to end it or at least put it under so much strain that it morphs into something more user friendly.
Across Europe there are a number of political forces which seek to provide their own brand of subsidiarity- Syriza in Greece, the Front National in France the United Kingdom Independence Party in England and Wales and the SNP. Each of them has grown in recent years and each of them has, therefore seen the demographics of their support change, that is they attract instrumental supporters in large numbers as well as ideological ones. Given the sharp philosophical differences between all these organisations it cannot be the case that each of them is correct and has precisely the best answer to the problems thrown up by centralisation and the democratic deficit that it creates. The opportunity exists for other social forces who are not enthused by the anti-system parties to come up with solutions which promote subsidiarity and can win the instrumental voters away from the challengers. So far what they have tended to come up with instead is a reactive doomsaying ‘project fear’ which tells voters what they know not to be true i.e. that the current system works well.
I think that politics is too important to be left to politicians and voters deserve a better option than to choose between smashing the status quo or preserving it. Those parts of civic society which are not beholden to oligarchs or political parties need with some urgency to begin the dialogue about how best to make human societies more human friendly, which is all that subsidiarity is about. Governments are instruments and instrumental voters are wise to discern this but good instruments require to be well crafted and adapted to the people who play them. In a community like the United Kingdom or the European Union partial solutions are no solutions at all. These institutions exist for good reasons but they no longer provide good outcomes. The decision to end them or fundamentally reform them cannot be considered apart from the problems they exist to address. Election campaigns are not good mechanisms to consider all these issues constitutional conventions dominated by civic society not professional lobbyists or party hacks are better ones. And subsidiarity should be at the heart of everything they do
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