Wednesday, 14 April 2010

4. A Sovereign and Powerful Citizenry

In the localopolis pamphlet (pdf), Colin Copus argues that the authority of local government should come from the citizenry and not from central government.  As Colin points out, unlike many other countries where local government is established as a part of a national constitution, in the UK local government is a 'creature of statute' which has only as much responsibility as central government chooses to give it.  Instead, Colin argues, local government should draw its political authority upwards from the people.

This type of argument is not new of course.  Colin quotes Thomas Paine who said:

“A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution, is power without right”

Whilst Tom Paine was a 18th Century republican arguing against the divine right of monarchs rather than the authority of central government the comparison is still an interesting one.  Why can't we apply the principles of Tom Paine to UK local government?

In this version of local democracy local citizens have the ability to determine the size and shape of their local political institution and to set up new ones if they are unhappy with the existing arrangements. 

Crucially, local government is politically independent and this implies the need for a national constitution to protect this independence.

In practical terms this version of citizen controlled local government requires a mix of representative and direct democracy to make it work.  This starts with the referendum which establishes its constitution and it continues with further referenda as required.  In fact referenda would be needed for all important council decisions and could be instigated by the citizens. In his article Colin Copus also argues for recall elections, shorter terms in office and a limit on the number of consecutive terms in office to restrict the power of councillors.

Colin Copus sums up his argument as follows: 

"...a powerful alternative exists to current constitutional arrangements; an alternative resting on a sovereign and powerful citizenry, not sovereign political institutions. It is a model to which those calling themselves localists should give some thought as it provides a clear route by which localism can overturn the centralism inherent in a unitary state"

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