What is Westminster Government for?

Being in favour of subsidiarity is like being against sin: easy to agree with the general principle, but harder to agree on the details.

Subsidiarity, for anybody still blissfully unaware of this grotesque piece of jargon, is the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest level of government at which they can be efficiently taken and implemented. Subsidiarity in relations between nation states and the EU was enshrined in EU law by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty:

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.

So what should be done where?

The principle of subidiarity is often invoked to assert the rights of the governments of nation states.  But the  more I think about this, the less I can see a role for a Westminster Government if the principle of subsidiarity is strictly applied.

I think of myself as a Londoner, and as a European.  This may be unusual, but I do not feel that I have more in common with the people of Barrow or Bath than the people of Barcelona.  Most public services should be delivered by government at a lower level than Westminster – services such as education, transport and health are much too centralized.  But for external relations, such as defence and security and international economics,  Europe would be stronger and more effective in the world community if we took those decisions collectively as Europeans.

Here is my initial suggestion for a division of labour. Comments welcome, as ever.

Best done by local or regional government

  • education policy and management of schools
  • delivery of health services
  • delivery of social services (care for the elderly etc)
  • oversight and funding of police, fire services, ambulance
  • local transport
  • local environment issues (eg protection of areas of natural beauty)
  • sport, culture etc
  • court and prison administration
  • tax collection
  • welfare payments

Best done by the Westminster Government

  • ?

Best done at the European level

  • defence policy
  • foreign policy
  • trade policy
  • competition policy
  • monetary policy
  • fiscal redistribution
  • border security, immigration and customs
  • regulation of financial services, food safety, drugs etc
  • cross border environment issues (eg climate change)
  • criminal justice, human rights
  • international development policy

One issue I find difficult to place is the decision on the overall level and the total amount of spending that a community wants to impose on itself.  My instinct is that this should primarily be a local decision, with a European-wide "solidarity levy" to enable redistribution from rich regions to poor regions.

Come to think of it, this system would not be very far from the federal system in place in the United States.

5 thoughts on “What is Westminster Government for?”

  1. Owen,
    Before we look at this “shopping list” it’s important to examine methods of making the local level more attractive to the electorate. My local council, The People’s Republic of North Tyneside Council struggles to reach 15% turn-out at its local elections. Unless this is improved, decision making at this level will have little legitimacy.And no, I’m not one who believes that with more power would go an concurrent increase in turn-out.

  2. Owen, that list is straight from the EU playbook. The “Europe of Regions”.

    Pan European monetary policy? What, compulsory membership of the euro?

    Trade policy? Why should we need a trade policy at all? I thought you were a free trader?

    Fiscal redistribution? What about those of us who don’t think that should happen at all? Even between regions within a country?

    Criminal law? How are you going to deal with the differences between habeus corpus, jury trial, the presumption of innocence etc etc (ooops, forgot, Charlie and Tony are taking care of that already).

    Sport and culture best done by regional or local Govt? You mean you actually want such things to be directed by Government? What is this, a playback of socialist realism?

    Local transport? Why not by the bus company?

    Owen replies: I agree that many that many of these things should be done little or not at all (eg free trade). You might take the view that others (eg fiscal redistribution) should not be done and I think it should. The question is, at what level of government should we decide what, if anything, we are going to do about these things and – to the extent we decide we want them – which layer of government should carry out those wishes?

  3. Owen, you’ve almost described the situation in Scotland post-devolution, except the European-level decisions are made at Westminster.

    On the positive side, devolution has led a Lab-Lib coalition government to abandon key New Labour policies. The Executive have introduced free personal care for the elderly, have avoided university top-up fees and will introduce a smoking ban in 2006, all different directions or more quickly than in England.

    In addition, Scotland already has a different legal and education system from the rest of the UK (thus answering part of Tim’s response above).

    Unfortunately, government at this level does suffer from disadvantages – such as the poor quality of MSPs, runaway spending (£500m Parliament building) and the continuing desire to do things differently just because they are Scottish.

    For example, the Scottish NHS is not participating in the NHS “National” Programme for IT and is developing its own systems. The Patients Record Systems will be different in Scotland and England – imagine the problems for people moving between or visiting these countries.

    One thing you don’t mention is economic development, and which level is most appropriate for this. Where should economic development support (subsidies, start-up costs etc) be provided from and administered? Remote rural regions of the UK still get a raw deal because the relative wealth of the SE corner of the UK means that EU funds are unavailable. Maybe this is an argument for a larger EU pot delivered to more discrete regions rather than to nation states?

    Owen replies: John: great to hear from you. Yes, I had Scotland in the back of my mind as I wrote this. I think that economic development support should be split – paid for at EU-wide level, prioritized and administered locally. (No role for Westminster, needless to say).

    Perhaps some of the weaknesses of regional government that you mention will change over time – and would be improved if the dead hand of Westminster could be leavened somewhat?

  4. “So in answer to Owen’s question: What is Westminster Government For? my answer is simple: nothing.”

    Here’s my full post:


    Owen replies: Thanks Anthony. I pretty much agree with this, and you present an interesting idea, which I had not considered before, that some government activities are inherently location-based and some are not.

    I agree with you that the former should be delivered locally. But I do not think it follows that those services or activities that are location-independent (eg rules of criminal justice) should be delivered at a supra-national level. There is a trade-off between the returns to scale of providing these activities of government for many communities at once, and the loss of representativeness and accountability that this might entail.

  5. Maybe we need to face up to the fact that, post-devolution and post-Maastricht, Westminster is in effect England’s regional government?

    Leave aside the fact that Westminster also looks after the tertiary level issues (foreign relations, defence etc), overlook the West Lothian Question, and you have a government looking after local/regional issues for the 50m residents of England.

    50m people seems to be a large population for “local/regional” government, but there doesn’t seem to be popular support for a lower level of government within the English regions (the Northeast Referendum being the main evidence). Is this the only way of managing the gravitational pull of London and the SE, meaning that issues concerning the SE issues will always dominate Cornwall or Manchester?

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