An unexpected revolution in governance has begun in Britain, like a shot heard round the world. It is one that former colonials in America might want to track, perhaps even follow.
While perhaps a shaky alliance, the odd-fellow team of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg could easily survive for some time if only for one reason: Both men have a strong desire to decentralize power away from London (for Americans, substitute “Washington”) and toward local government and community groups.
Mr. Clegg, the Lib Dem, says Britain has the most centralized government in Europe (bar Malta), and he wants a “power revolution” that would be the biggest shake-up in the country’s democracy in 178 years. It would, he claims, “transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state.”
For his part, Mr. Cameron, a post-Thatcher Tory, ran on the promise of a “big society” whose core idea is that government should be a catalyst for revitalizing civic groups, entrepreneurs, community volunteers, and local officials to carry more of the burden that central bureaucracies do now.
Their conjoined ideas aren’t anti-government, as old Tories were, or the Reaganesque, government-is-the-problem Republicans. Rather they offer a different form of government, one that is closer to the people, less intrusive, and more reliant on private efforts.
This could easily be dismissed as a nostalgic attempt to recreate an idealized version of 19th-century life, when charities and churches dealt with society’s woes. Cameron’s big-society campaign pitch was, in fact, too vague for voters to give Conservatives enough seats in Parliament for a firm majority.
In the United States, too, President George H.W. Bush talked of a society powered by “a thousands points of light,” a concept that quickly went dark. And his son’s “compassionate conservatism” ended up mainly with two massive federal programs, the No Child Left Behind Act and an expensive drug program for Medicare.
Any top-down devolution of power can be difficult – simply because it is top down. But what Cameron and Clegg can build on are current trends toward localism, such as movements to use local food, local renewable energy such as wind, and even in a few places in the US, local currencies. And the United Kingdom has recently shed much government power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
But there is one compelling reason for Britain to throw more responsibility to the locals: The central government’s finances are on the rocks. It has little ability to spend more. A new austerity is needed, as in much of Europe (especially Greece). The welfare state needs help, and it can’t rely on more national taxes.
Britain’s debt is 12 percent of its GDP, and by the end of the year, could be the largest in Europe. To lower that would mean a revolution in the delivery of social services, or rather, as Cameron Conservatives see it, a change in the way citizens see their role in society.
Cameron wants to find ways for adults to join neighborhood groups that provide services. He plans to introduce a “national citizen service” for 16-year-olds. People would have more say over their police and local government (similar, for instance, to charter schools in the US). Such steps would develop local interdependence, more private giving, and social entrepreneurship.
This new coalition sees Britain’s fundamental problem as social: the atomization of society with many individuals lonely, and hungry for connections. In the past 40 years, the number of people living alone has nearly doubled. Like the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, many die alone.
This revolution-in-progress might even make sense to a former community organizer from Chicago.
But the Cameron-Clegg duo first needs to put more meat on the bones of their ideas.
Britain, which calls itself the cradle of democracy, may be ready for this experiment in a different kind of democracy.
The Yanks should be watching.