Civic Virtue, Devolving Power and Empowering Citizens

Professor Andrew Peterson

This Position Paper has been shared by the Jubilee Centre ahead of the latest webinar in its Civic Virtue and the Common Good’ series, Civic Virtue, Devolving Power and Empowering Citizens.

A recording of this session, can be viewed below.

The first three of these webinars, chaired by Lord James O’Shaughnessy, can be viewed here.

For more information on the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues or the ‘Civic Virtues through Service to Others Project’ please visit the Centre website

The challenge for advocates of subsidiarity at this moment in time, then, is to identify, celebrate and extend those aspects of devolution that make democratic renewal and greater citizen participation truly possible, while at the same time ensuring that policies and structures are sensitive to the particular local needs of all citizens.

Common Good Politics, Community, and Local Decision Making

Though the current political climate is frequently cast as one of division and polarisation, there is evidence of a strong commitment to a politics of the common good in each of Britain’s main political parties. A common theme within the different manifestations of a common good politics today is the focus on subsidiarity and the systems and support structures that can enable communities to take a greater role in making decisions at local levels. Subsidiarity can be understood as the principle that decisions and actions should be taken at the viable level most immediate to citizens and localities. As well as being a principle concerned with the effectiveness of government, subsidiarity can also be understood as involving an a priori ethical commitment that power should be situated as close as possible to citizens in line with the dignity and integrity of individuals, families and communities. This ethical viewpoint includes the assumption that rather than being “granted” to localities, power should lie in the hands of localities unless there is good reason to cumulate it more centrally.

The Principle of Subsidiarity

…thoughts about active citizenship raise important questions about the requisite civic virtues required by citizens to take on a more participatory civic role within devolved systems of governance.

The principle of subsidiarity has been a significant focus of political debate and public policy in the United Kingdom over the last twenty five years, particular in terms of the associated idea that devolving powers to nations, regions and local communities can stimulate some form of democratic renewal. At times explicit, and at others implicit, within such discussions are questions about the relationship between citizens and levels of government, including how structures of governance, accountability and responsibility do, and can, involve citizens actively in the civic lives of their communities. In turn, thoughts about active citizenship raise important questions about the requisite civic virtues required by citizens to take on a more participatory civic role within devolved systems of governance.

Driven by a range of motives, a series of policies over recent years have redistributed and devolved powers within the United Kingdom. While some areas (such as Liverpool and Bristol) have witnessed notable adjustments in the structural operations of devolved power, in other areas (such as York and North Yorkshire) the decentralisation of power and responsibility is gathering pace, giving new expressions to regional attachments and identity.

Supporting Democratic Renewal

Alongside economic regeneration and growth, one important aim of devolution has been to provide national, regional and local communities with greater democratic decision-making powers – though there have been calls for even more powers to be devolved locally. Core dimensions of this goal of democratic renewal have been to promote ‘engagement and participation as part of a healthy democracy’ and to bring citizens ‘closer to the decision makers’. These democratic aims have often been predicated on the idea that decisions can be more responsive to the contextual needs of communities when decentralised into the hands of local leaders and the citizens they represent. When structured well and operating effectively, locating greater power and responsibility in the hands of citizens can bring citizens closer to public representatives and servants while also strengthening connections between citizens and their communities. For this to happen, however, citizens need to possess not only the opportunities to engage democratically but the virtues that enable such participation.

These democratic aims have often been predicated on the idea that decisions can be more responsive to the contextual needs of communities when decentralised into the hands of local leaders and the citizens they represent. When structured well and operating effectively, locating greater power and responsibility in the hands of citizens can bring citizens closer to public representatives and servants while also strengthening connections between citizens and their communities.

Yet, a number of democratic issues remain regarding the devolution of power and responsibility. First, it is not altogether clear that approaches taken to devolving power by different governments have been built on similar ‘visions of subsidiarity’. Indeed, the role and size of the state remains contested, as does the role and extent of citizenship within what remains a representative democracy. Crucially, given the collapse of devolution deals in some areas, the relationship between central government and local authorities can be problematic so far as shared visions of devolution are concerned. Second, and associated with the ongoing issue of the role and power of the centralised state, the democratic success of devolved power remains a matter of some consternation. That is, while democratic renewal operates as a key driver for devolution, it remains debatable whether devolving and decentralising power has actually increased the extent to which citizens are truly active agents in the democratic lives of their communities.

Third, current evidence presents a mixed picture of the relationship between institutions and citizens. While metro-mayors appear to have generally gained traction in terms of accountability and visibility, the government’s own Evaluation of Devolved Institutions identifies that ‘devolution policy in England has evolved in a fragmented way’, making devolution ‘appear confusing, ad hoc and asymmetrical to local stakeholders and the public’. Fourth, in the current political climate it remains unclear precisely how much priority will be placed on subsidiarity and devolution as a specific objective of government policy. Of most pertinence in this regard are the integration of devolution by the Johnson government into the wider Levelling Up agenda and ongoing concerns about whether the directions being taken will truly lead to the effective empowerment of communities.

Finding The Common Ground

The challenge for advocates of subsidiarity at this moment in time, then, is to identify, celebrate and extend those aspects of devolution that make democratic renewal and greater citizen participation truly possible, while at the same time ensuring that policies and structures are sensitive to the particular local needs of all citizens. Furthermore, if national political parties are serious about subsidiarity, they must find a way to connect the democratic potential of devolution to wider, substantive visions of what it means to be a citizen in the UK today, including which civic virtues are required to participate effectively in democratic life. Finding common ground about the importance of civic virtues and the common good is vital for the (re)building of the social fabric within communities, as well as for the restoration of a politics of the common good.

The questions that remain outstanding

  • How can the aim for subsidiarity be accommodated within a political system that has traditionally relied on a centralising state?
  • In reality, does devolution really empower citizens and at what levels is devolution most effective?
  • Does subsidiarity require a more participatory and virtuous citizenry and, if so, what processes and structures are essential to enabling active citizenship – including for young people?
  • What are the obstacles or barriers to greater devolution and how might these challenges be overcome?
  • What role does education have a role to play in cultivating local identity and locally-focussed civic mindedness in young children, as well as the civic virtues necessary for greater citizen involvement in local/regional government?

Civic Virtues Through Service to Others

This session draws upon previous, applied research of the Centre and its staff looking at the topics of service, social action, civic virtue, and the common good particularly in reference to young people and those that support them. This includes the ongoing Civic Virtues Through Service to Others project.

Further details, insights and publications can be found by visiting the project pages on the Jubilee Centre website.

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