Devolving Power from the Centre

Earlier this week the UK parliament voted that the secretary of state for health will have new powers to close any hospital in England, should he see fit. There are a couple of caveats attached. Firstly, the local people will apparently have ‘a say’ and the local commissioning boards of GPs will also have to agree. How much of ‘a say’ local people will really get is yet to be seen and how much pressure will be exerted on local commissioning boards to tow the party line we don’t yet know.

What this highlights yet again is the complete lack of joined up thinking that happens around healthcare and the wider economy. It also reveals how utterly disempowering central government really is. How can Westminster decide what the needs and wants of the city of Leeds are, for example? What do they know about the non-economic impacts of closing a hospital? I’m not arguing that all hospitals should stay open, and there’s a good chance that some may well need to close. But it cannot be a decision from on high. Nor can it be an isolated decision. It’s too complex for that.

I find great encouragement from the knowledge that there are several towns and cities in the UK where ‘a people’s assembly’ is emerging. There are some stunning examples of this in Nottingham, Leeds and London. Across a city such as these ones, there are webs of networks and interconnected relationships that represent thousands and thousands of people. I had the utter privilege recently of spending some time with John Battle, a recently retired MP from Leeds. He carries a wealth of wisdom in understanding how to engage people from across a city to participate in key decisions. He was explaining to me that in a people’s assembly, there are representatives from many groups across the city. Each person can speak on behalf of their group and report back to them for further discussion. It’s an incredible way of involving a huge proportion of a city in a discussion.

In Nottingham, for example, at the time of electing the new police commissioner, over 1200 people, representing a vast number of networks, gathered from across the city to have a facilitated conversation about what they would hope for from their new commissioner. They were then able to ask questions to the four candidates, and were able to set up a system of accountability for the eventually elected commissioner back to the people. The commissioner understood in no uncertain terms that he was there to serve the city and the city understood that it was there to partner together with the commissioner for the welfare of the communities living there.

A facilitated conversation gives voice to everybody and sets no-one up above another. Leadership becomes about facilitation rather than dominance and control. When we talk about closing a hospital or a maternity unit or a school in an area, it is often said (as in my previous blogs) that there are some very complex things to consider. This is absolutely true. The problem is that we don’t share the complexity, we leave the decisions to so-called experts (who are at best having a good guess), and then either make them heroes or scape-goats!

National budgeting doesn’t work when it comes to healthcare. Local budgeting in isolation doesn’t work either. It’s all well and good to campaign to keep a hospital open, but we do actually live in a world of finite resources and people and so if we keep the hospital, there may be other tough cuts to make. We have separated out huge aspects of budgeting that really belong together. That is why a people’s assembly in a town/city/region doing the complex task of participatory budgeting is a possible way forward. It isn’t actually that difficult to get people together and budgets aren’t that hard to understand. I know so many people who have extremely tight and complex budgets to manage when it comes to their own households and they do it with finesse. Multiplying the numbers up, ain’t that tricky.

When a town/city understands what it’s budget is for a year (or longer) and the people can decide what the priorities need to be I think the results could be amazing. Firstly, there might be genuine partnerships formed across cities to work in more innovative and creative ways. Secondly, there would be greater engagement and social responsibility. Thirdly, there would be less waste. Fourthly there would be emerging partnerships of gift (rather than competition) between cities for various resources.

Some argue that in such a situation, the most needy and therefore least empowered in a city could miss out. This happens currently in the national setting. For me, this is where leadership comes in. Leadership is not about riding into town to shut a hospital here, or rename a school into an academy there. Leadership is about emptying power out and reassuring all that they are already empowered. It is also about helping protect and promote those who could potentially be down trodden or forgotten. It is giving a voice to those who feel voiceless and oppressed by the dominant systems. For me that would mean promoting and protecting the needs of women (for whom there is still an incredible amount of injustice), children, asylum seekers and refugees, the marginalised poor and homeless, those with physical and mental health needs and prisoners.

Power needs to be devolved from the centre to the margins (just as Gordon Brown MP stated this week). And once the power is more regional it still needs to be continually emptied out so that communities find and serve one another, so that cities become gifts to one another and we find that the order of the house (economics) is the responsibility of all.

The Ring of Power

I’m currently reading Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings to my eldest son. We have just finished that part in ‘The Two Towers’ in which Gandalf has returned to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at the turning of the tide. He makes this awesome statement about Sauron the dark lord:

‘That we should wish to cast him down and have NOONE in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the ring (of power) itself has not entered into his darkest dream.’

There are still the stirrings of revolution in many nations. But revolution that is based on violence and only replaces one form of dominant power with another sort of hierarchical dominance is no revolution at all.

Kenarchy is about the emptying out of power. It comes from an understanding that the politics of Jesus were about emptying out power and utterly transforming it. Leadership is not only to be kenotic (that is poured out for others), it is to be kenarchic (that is emptied out) so that we begin to understand that the lowest place is the highest place. We begin to understand that level playing fields are the order of the day. We are not looking for new political parties, but a new politics, that is a new way of relating to one another. We are not looking for new economic regulations, but a new economics. We are not searching for peace maintained through violence but a genuine love of one another, including the love of our ‘enemies’ that transforms how we live together as humanity.

William T Cavanaugh gives a radical reinterpretation of the christian eucharist in the light of this. We live in a divided world in which the ‘powers’ crush and break the multitude. When Jesus breaks bread and gives it away, he is not looking to form an exclusive club. He is, rather inviting us to partake of this kind of givenness, to embrace brokenness in the face of violence and to find that this way of life-poured-out-love finds hope in resurrection. As we eat the bread, we receive life, we become life and we give life as we share with others. The bread is given and is available to all who will receive it. Our barriers are broken down, our borders and our flags lose their relevance. We become part of this trans-local body that only exists to bring life, love and peace. There is no politics (way of doing life) that is more radical than this.

The nation state project holds power at the centre. It uses the components of money, law and control through violence to do this. I believe that as we build relationally in our localities we can find new ways of being. This is happening on a vast scale already and many stories are emerging of alternative ways of being that provide a different narrative to the dominant (economic and political) one of our day.

The Myth of the Nation State

Here begins a mini series, which will take a few blogs to get to where I want to go, but please bear with me, as I give some background to where my thoughts are currently!

I had until fairly recently misunderstood what is meant by a myth. I thought it to be a story which lacks truth. This can be the case but is only one of its meanings. It can also describe “a traditional/legendary story which may or may not have a factual basis and is used to explain some part of life.” Or it can refer to “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social norm.”

If we are going to reimagine the future, we must become more aware of some of the myths we believe to be true and question their basis for having shaped our thinking. I have recently been reading a book entitled ‘Theopolitical Imagination’ by a chap called William T Cavanaugh. It is deeply challenging. Cavanaugh argues that all politics is a practice of our imagination. The state itself, he argues doesn’t actually exist. It exists only in our imaginations. What actually exists are things like buildings, tax forms, border patrols and aeroplanes. “What mobilises these into a project called ‘nation-state’ is a disciplined imagination of a community occupying a particular space with a common conception of time, a common history and a common destiny of salvation from peril’. Our belief in this myth is so strong that a young man (or woman) from a rural village can become convinced that he/she must travel to another part of the world to kill people he/she knows nothing about. (Think on that for a minute or two). We have become reliant on the state for our provision and protection.

The nation state, as we know it, is relatively young, having only found its place in history within the last four hundred years. Cavanaugh argues that the myth was born out of the context of the ‘religious wars’ in Europe (in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries) to ‘save us’ from the ill effects of religion and enable us to live peacefully. The hope being that the borders and flags to which we would give our allegiance would save us from the divisions that plague us. Yet this has not been the case. The borders and flags in fact deepened our sense of the ‘other’ and created barriers where previously there had been less. Cavanaugh would argue that it was the ‘spirit of empire’ that used religion as an excuse for the wars, that was the real culprit. Mitchell would argue, however, that it was a complicit agreement between Church and Imperial powers that lead to the vast blood shed in the 30 years war that in turn gave way to the enlightenment and the creation of the nation state. What’s the point? The point is that the nation state is not our saviour. It is built on exactly the same foundations of empire and employs the same currencies – money, law and violence.

If you don’t believe me, then witness the economic threat of Westminster towards Scotland, or see how much clout the banks and huge corporations play in their lobbying power of government and ability to run the show. Or think about those who are held in the state of exception in our eleven detention centres around the UK alone (plenty of examples in other countries) where law is put aside to maintain the status quo, revealing the true foundation of ‘the law’. Or have you noticed how we now talk of those who die in war as being ‘martyrs’? I am not saying that we shouldn’t remember the lives of those who were given so appallingly in war, but let us also clearly see the undergirding message that strengthens the myth of the nation state. “War brings peace”. ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’…. it is sweet and right to die for one’s country…….

The nation-state project is both waning and failing. But the myth which perpetuates it is incredibly strong and acts as a huge barrier to our imagination of anything different. Peace will not come through a remodelled version of empire. True nationhood will not be recovered whilst configured as states. But there is a hope rising of something different, of new ways of being. Sometimes we have to tear down some mindsets in order to think in new ways……