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Beyond the Westminster model

Patrick Diamond


New Labour lacked a theory of how to govern, resorting by default to the traditional Westminster model. This had unintended consequences, imperilling its social democratic project for Britain. 


One sure symptom of an ill-conducted state is the propensity of the people to resort to theories.

Edmund Burke (1981, 274)

We always demand from our civil servants a loyalty to the State, and that they should serve the government of the day, whatever its particular colour. This undertaking is carried out with exemplary loyalty. Any departure from this system would mean the adoption of a spoils system, and that would destroy our Civil Service.

Clement Attlee (1948)


The serious inquest into Labour’s 2010 defeat, among its worst since universal suffrage, has yet to gain momentum, leaving the impression of a party not yet willing to recognise the scale of its electoral plight. The intellectual frameworks that defined the orthodoxies of the last thirty years are unlikely to suffice. The old models of traditional and modernised social democracy cannot be dusted down and reconstructed anew given the changing realities of the post-crisis economy and the post-crisis state. Moreover, the challenge posed by an increasingly radical and audacious Coalition government means that Labour should not expect power to fall effortlessly into its lap four years from now. The party has to initiate a phase of profound rethinking rather than slipping by default into the politics of consolidation.

In the light of the 2008-9 financial crisis that swept across the world economy, it is inevitable that attention should focus on Labour’s model of political economy. The architects of New Labour believed that the Faustian pact with the global financial markets would generate the surplus necessary to revive Britain’s ailing public realm after two decades of neglect under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. At the same time, embracing financial capitalism would rejuvenate the British economy, leading to higher growth, employment, productivity, and living standards. This proposition was at the core of New Labour’s claim to reconcile economic efficiency with social justice in a climate irrevocably shaped by globalisation.

Not only has this strategy been severely compromised by the destruction of the neo-liberal growth model, leading to a permanent loss of capacity and output across most industrialised economies. It meant that New Labour’s governing strategy was ultimately too light-touch on markets and too heavy-handed in its use of the state. The government demanded a rate of return on its historic investment in public services which quickly descended into the indiscriminate imposition of audit, targets, micro-management and centralised control. Despite committing the largest sustained increase in public spending on health since the inception of the NHS in 1948, the culture of equity, service and citizenship that once prevailed in British national life seems to be further imperilled.

The purpose of this article is not to revisit that critique, but to focus on another aspect of Labour’s strategy, namely the procedures and practices by which the party governed after 1997, enshrined in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. This argument rests on two particular claims. First, that New Labour in government lacked a theory of government, and that transformative governments usually have a theory of how to govern, namely a form of statecraft. And, second, that the Labour administration resorted by default to governing through the traditional Westminster model. That is the Westminster model was the dominant tradition that shaped the views and behaviour of Labour in power (Richards, 2008). This produced many unintended consequences, imperilling its social democratic project for Britain.

The implications of this strategy are explored in the light of the party’s changing relationship with the British political tradition. The impact on the Labour government’s legacy after thirteen years in office is then assessed. The continuation of the Westminster model meant that the policy-making arena remained hermetically sealed within Whitehall, perpetuating traditional hierarchies and governing elites that cut across the development of a more social democratic culture. Wider bottom-up and participatory reform was rejected in favour of a governance strategy in which fifty years since the former Labour Minister Douglas Jay uttered the phrase, ‘the gentleman in Whitehall’ still knows best.

These arguments have to be considered against the backdrop of the weakness of democracy more generally, as the result of profound shifts in the structure of society which make the challenge of governing and political leadership far harder than in the past. Finally, the parameters of a new centre-left strategy, seeking to move decisively beyond the old Westminster model and shaped around a decentralised, citizen-centred form of governance, are briefly considered. Changing the form of the state and with it the nature of citizenship will make Labour’s governing objectives more realisable in the future. It also has the potential to transform the context in which British politics is conducted and in which Labour governments are compelled to operate.


British government and the Westminster model

The key feature of the Westminster model is untrammelled executive dominance, which ensures that the central institutions of British government are the machinery at the disposal of the parliamentary majority. This guarantees that political power and authority remain heavily concentrated at the core of the state. Governing is seen as a process conducted by a closed elite constrained by their concern for the public good, and within the framework of a balanced and self-adjusting constitution (Richards, 2008). Executive dominance is justified in order to achieve strong and decisive government, a core feature of the flexible and adaptive British political tradition which has endured since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Its attendant features are cabinet government and parliamentary sovereignty, both of which are underpinned by civil service neutrality and collective ministerial responsibility.

This view of British government has been increasingly challenged by an emphasis on the fragmentation of traditional governmental authority. It is widely assumed that power has shifted towards a range of actors outside the central state, both horizontally towards private corporations and civil society, and vertically towards the European Union and international institutions. More importantly, devolution and constitutional reform have established new territorial power centres outside the British state, and lifted the veil of secrecy by establishing a mandate for freedom of information. This has called into question the descriptive capacity of the Westminster model as a reflection of empirical reality, justifying the conceptual shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ in which a range of institutions, networks and actors are implicated in the process of governing (Bevir and Rhodes, 2004).

Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that the role and structure of government in Britain has shown remarkable consistency, despite deep changes in British society in the course of the twentieth century, as well as the emergence of collectivism after 1945. Responsible and decisive government is the norm, while the institutions and processes of Whitehall and Westminster have altered remarkably little. Politicians of all the established parties have viewed themselves as the arbiter of the national interest, effectively marginalising any substantive move towards participatory, bottom-up reform of British government.

Under New Labour after 1997, executive dominance grew more pronounced than ever. The rhetoric of modernising the British state and its institutions concealed the underlying commitment of the Blair and Brown governments towards the top-down, hierarchical nature of British public administration and the British political tradition. This underlines the struggle between two types of political project at the heart of the Labour Party itself: on the one hand, the determination by elites to seize power and control over the British parliamentary state; on the other hand, liberal constitutionalism and the concept of popular sovereignty alongside effective constitutional checks and balances, each of which were central to traditional conceptions of ethical socialism at the turn of the twentieth century (Beetham, 1994). The early anti-state tradition in Labour pointed to as much devolution as possible to give people in their localities power and responsibility, although the party has long been split on whether power ought to be centralised or devolved.


British government and the Labour tradition

This discussion of New Labour and the Westminster model raises another significant theme, namely why the Labour Party with its roots in the radical, dissenting tradition, has never sought to undertake participatory reform of the British state after achieving governmental office. This line of criticism of Labour’s acquiescence to the British governing tradition has a long lineage. It originates in the writings of the former Labour cabinet Minister, Richard Crossman and the parliamentarian, John Mackintosh, both of whom sought to address the deficiencies of the Wilson Government (1964-70). Similarly, the theoretician Ralph Miliband drew attention to Labour’s unwitting acceptance of the British parliamentary state which, in his view, remained umbilically attached to the interests of British capitalism (Miliband, 1972).

From representing a threat to the traditional British state in the early twentieth century, the party was gradually constitutionalised and incorporated within the British political tradition. The Attlee government in particular, still regarded as the pinnacle of Labour’s achievement in office, had explicitly sought to work within the established structures of the state. Attlee’s Ministers concentrated all their energies on using the existing state machinery to push through a programme of radical domestic reforms, grafting collectivism onto the liberal laissez-faire state that they had inherited from the early nineteenth century. The collectivist tradition in Labour was highly centralist, believing that universal public services and effective planning had to be delivered centrally and uniformly. This was matched by the commitment to the ideal of a national welfare state administered by a strong central state.

Many writers have seen this transformation towards an elite leadership rationale as inevitable and natural, reflecting the party’s growing maturity and recognition of the imperative of working within the structures of liberal democracy (Tant, 1993). Parliament and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty have played an enormous role in Labour’s thinking; Parliament has acted as the guarantor that Britain will remain a state based on liberty that can enact meaningful reforms, redress grievances, and accommodate new interests (Gamble, 2003). This may ignore the decisive role of parliamentary and labour movement politics, however, in which electoral success and prevailing economic conditions enable particular interests within the party to gain ascendency, especially the trade union dominated traditional ‘right’ in the 1950s and 1960s (Tant, 1993).

Mark Evans has suggested that: ‘the Labour Party’s traditional approach to the constitution rested on a centralist tradition in which strong executive government was viewed to be the key instrument of statecraft for achieving and promoting greater social equality’ (Evans, 2008, 3). Labour and Conservative governments conspired in a ‘High Tory’ approach to the constitution, stoutly opposing proposals for change. The result was that Labour came to be seen as a guarantor of the British constitutional tradition, determined to uphold the institutions of representative parliamentary government.


New Labour and governance

This established the parameters for New Labour’s approach to the state after 1997. Although New Labour was held to mark a breach with traditional social democracy, its novelty was always exaggerated (Fielding, 2002). By tending to neglect questions about the form of the state and concentrating on public service delivery despite a major programme of constitutional reform, the Blair and Brown governments unwittingly replicated their predecessors approach. The connection between democratic citizenship, public services and the reform of the British state was never clearly established, weakening New Labour’s claim to be resolutely focused on the revival of the public realm.

Of course, the party’s decision to largely accept the administrative settlement inherited from the previous Conservative government might appear a rational strategic choice. The Labour leadership had a vision of national modernisation underpinned by specific commitments such as independence for the Bank of England, a statutory National Minimum Wage, the reduction of waiting lists in the NHS, and achieving devolution in Scotland and Wales. The purpose was to demonstrate that Labour could act as a competent and responsible party of government, earning the electorate’s trust to contemplate more ambitious and far-reaching reforms of the British state.

It was also apparent that the party could not simply turn the clock back to the 1970s after the collapse of the post-war, social democratic corporatist compromise. Accepting the parameters of the governance model inherited from the Thatcher governments meant not only rejecting the post-war settlement. It implied that the theories of the new public management that had reshaped the state in the 1980s and 1990s had been tacitly accepted. Of course, Labour wanted to move beyond the new public management in that it sought to strengthen the capacities of the state and address fragmentation through ‘joining up’ government. It did so, however, by grafting these reforms onto administrative structures that had been largely inherited from the previous Conservative regime. As a result, the model of British government was substantially unaltered by the time Labour departed from office in 2010.

Labour Ministers had been understandably anxious to seize the levers of power after eighteen years in the wilderness of opposition. The new ministerial team had little or no knowledge of Whitehall and were not as closely tied to the cabinet government tradition that shaped the mind-set of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan. The structures and processes of central British government have endured historically because they appeared to offer very substantial power to the incumbent administration, enabling Ministers to initiate policy and introduce legislation unencumbered by lengthy parliamentary scrutiny. That constitutional reform requires an incumbent government to confront the implications of strong executive dominance is a significant paradox which has provided a formidable obstacle to radical political change in Britain.

This is not to denigrate the importance of Labour’s modernisation of the British state after 1997. Major reforms were initiated which changed some key relationships in British politics. The Blair and Brown Governments were the first Labour governments to return to the pre-1914 Liberal reforms, while incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law as entrenched constitutional provisions (Gamble, 2003). The Conservatives, traditionally hostile to all proposals for constitutional reform, have been forced to adapt and respond accepting many of the changes to Britain’s political institutions. At the same time, New Labour appeared distinctly unenthusiastic about the reforms, and the core structures of central British government were largely bypassed. Many of the traditional institutions and processes of the central British state were left intact.


Labour’s governing legacy

This article argues that Labour entered government in 1997 without a theory of government. It is legitimate to argue that modern governments do not require a theory of government. Rather politics proceeds through confusion, muddle and accident, with politicians sensibly remaining within the core governing tradition they inherit (Norton, 2000). There is a tradition of thinking about the state in Britain rooted in the Whig tradition of Walter Bagehot and Edmund Burke that remains highly suspicious of abstract and theoretical accounts of the state, preferring to stress the pragmatic and evolutionary character of political change. This has always informed the Tory view of British democracy, and increasingly influenced the social democratic view of the parliamentary state after 1945.

But if politicians aspire to be the agents of far-reaching change, statecraft needs to be accorded greater priority. There were some theoretical strands concerning the nature of contemporary governance on which New Labour was able to draw, notably the ‘reinventing government’ paradigm developed by the American Democrats in the early 1990s. This made the explicit distinction between steering and rowing in order to denote a shift from bureaucratic to strategic governance (Osbourne and Gaebler, 1990). In public services, for example, the purpose of government was to shift from direct provider to commissioner, re-casting the state’s role towards regulating standards among a plurality of service delivery agencies. At the same time, there was an increasing onus on ‘filling in’ the state, where the strategic centre of government sheds cumbersome functions in order to focus on the core task of steering the policy process. This approach increasingly influenced many Western European governments, including New Labour in the UK (Guy-Peters, 2000).

Nonetheless, the absence of an explicitly defined governing theory meant that Labour rapidly drifted back towards the Westminster model. Evans suggests that while New Labour did initiate some radical constitutional reforms, it operated a strategy of containment in defence of the constitutional status quo: ‘any reform that threatened the ability of government at the centre to steer a New Labour course was diluted in its radicalism so it could no longer pose a threat’ (Evans, 2008, 8). This meant that the party implicitly adopted central tenets of the Westminster system by default, without considering the implications for its wider strategies of modernisation and reform. That led to a series of unintended consequences which weakened Labour’s capacity to realise its ambitions in office. The paradox was that for New Labour ‘delivery’ was all, but the systems and mechanisms on which delivery depends cannot be separated from the form and function of the British state itself.

The first consequence of defaulting to the Westminster model was that Labour’s claim to have initiated a new politics in Britain was increasingly compromised. The spiral of declining trust, fuelled by the negative cycle of expectations created by what politicians promise and what they are able to deliver, could not be halted. Although the evidence is contentious, it appears that there was greater trust in government in earlier periods in the 1950s and 1960s, and that British citizens find their politicians increasingly untrustworthy.

The weakness of democratic politics cannot be related solely to the continuance of the Westminster model. Nonetheless, it arguably produces spill over effects that are corrosive of legitimacy and trust. This includes, in particular, the dramatic decline in trust towards the information that is provided by governmental bodies. According to a MORI survey in 2005, 68 per cent think that official figures are changed to support politicians’ arguments; 59 per cent believe that government uses such figures dishonestly; and 58 per cent think that these figures are politically manipulated (Stoker, 2004).

This suggests that lack of sustained engagement with political institutions and the political system created by the top-down, hierarchical culture in which British government operates may have further weakened the attachment of citizens to formal political structures. In part, it helps to explain why significant constitutional reforms since 1997 have failed to halt the decline of trust in British political life. This is particularly damaging for social democratic parties who have tended to rely on collective forms of decision-making in order to build consensus for programmes that will strengthen the public interest, and expand the distribution of public goods.

The second implication of acquiescing to the Westminster model was that Labour inevitably found the task of delivery in government much harder. It did not sufficiently appreciate that the changing role of the state from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’-wiring requires new institutions and processes. ‘Hard-wiring’ refers to the supply of basic services such as utilities, and the provision of key infrastructure from roads and airports to schools and hospitals. This is the traditional social democratic conception of the state’s role. On the other hand, ‘soft-wiring’ refers to the achievement of particular outcomes such as healthier communities, narrowing inequalities in the early years, delivering new sources of economic growth, and so on (Stoker, 2004).

‘Soft-wiring’ requires different forms of organisation and accountability, shifting the pattern of engagement beyond traditional political institutions. The range of activities in which government and public services are engaged has expanded dramatically over the last thirty years, and it may not be possible for accountability to be captured easily within the existing boundaries of the nation-state. Indeed it is very difficult to envisage how these changes can be incorporated within the existing Westminster model. Progress in key areas, notably the alleviation of social exclusion and poverty, was significantly impeded after 1997 as a result of the failure to think more expansively about the form and structure of the state.

Thirdly, by remaining within the parameters of the Westminster model, Labour has found it far harder to resolve key challenges, such as the rise of complexity in industrialised societies, which weaken the foundations of participative democracy. These are complex debates which allude to the increasing importance of science and technology. This means that politicians are forced to rely more and more on the judgement of experts, narrowing the scope for deliberation between democratically elected representatives and citizens (Gamble, 2008).

The new public management reforms introduced in the 1980s and 1990s involved the transfer of power away from Ministers and civil servants in government departments towards non-departmental public bodies and agencies. This did not break up the hermetically sealed policy arenas of Whitehall and Westminster, however. While agencies take responsibility for delivery and operational issues, government departments are able to maintain their grip over the policy process, making it far harder for citizens to assess where decisions in Britain are really made. In government, Labour was reluctant to confront the implications of this system of accountability for the future of democratic politics in Britain.

At the same time, deferring to the Westminster model meant that Labour remained attached to an outdated notion of indivisible sovereignty which impeded its acceptance of the need to work within the European Union, while actively participating in the development of new forms of cosmopolitan and transnational governance. In 1997, New Labour had pledged to put Britain at the heart of Europe, but this had quickly dissipated by the second term as the Government rejected the prospects of UK entry to the Euro. It then fought a rear-guard action over the European constitutional treaty in 2004 to prevent British sovereignty being diminished.

This zero-sum approach was arguably counterproductive in facing up to the realities of increasing international interdependence, from human security to climate change. Labour in government was increasingly reluctant to accept the authority of global institutions, and preferred to rely on traditional diplomatic alliances, notably the Anglo-American special relationship. In Iraq, the British government explicitly rejected the authority of the United Nations in joining a ‘coalition of the willing’ with America to defeat Saddam Hussein. This reflected a particular view of the nature of sovereignty, and the capacity of the British state to project itself as a great power in the world (Gamble, 2003).


The future of governance reform

This article argues the case for a decentralised, citizen-centered form of governance. It suggests that past efforts at reform have been hampered by the refusal to think seriously about the role and purpose of the state, notably the structure of government itself. There has also been a tendency to treat as off limits important constitutional arguments such as the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, and the impact of executive dominance on the British system of government. This was not just a feature of the Labour Party traditionally: New Labour was equally complicit in that acquiescence to the Westminster model and the British political tradition.

Considering the future of governance reform also means reflecting on the institutional constraints within the British political system. British government has historically exhibited a high degree of path dependency with long periods of stability and continuity. Hirschman (1991) casts light on this by showing how opponents of change in all political contexts frame their arguments to claim that reforms will jeopardise valued elements of the existing system; that reforms will inevitably be futile; and that reforms will fail to achieve their stated intentions. It is clear that neither accident nor evolution can be relied upon to achieve the necessary reforms of British government and the British state. What is needed is the conscious redesign of existing institutions through alliances and coalitions of support for change, informed by a set of guiding principles based on greater decentralisation and pluralism.

In the concluding section of this article, three particular areas are briefly explored in order to go beyond the Westminster model: the scope for reform of the civil service at the centre; the role of local government and relations between the centre and the local level; and the prospects for opening-up the policy process itself beyond traditional elite actors at the core of the state.


Civil service reform

Traditionally, reform of the Whitehall civil service has barely been a priority for Labour governments who were largely content to steer the existing machinery of the state to achieve their political objectives. At the same time important thinking was initiated by centre-left institutes such as the Fabian Society, culminating in the Fulton report under the Wilson government in the late 1960s (Richards, 2008). This focused on the amateurish, closed and secretive realm of Whitehall, which was seen as increasingly isolated from the real economy and society as a whole.

The constitutional conventions that govern the civil service and public administration in Britain are increasingly anachronistic, and the relationship between Ministers and civil servants is particularly ill-defined. Many of the government’s weaknesses can be traced to the confused lines of accountability that have since emerged. The attempt to modernise the civil service in the 1990s focused on too many ‘second order’ issues, such as lack of innovation and the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in government.

Instead, reforms need to focus on the way in which Whitehall is held to account (Lodge and Rogers, 2006). Labour ought to seriously consider reformulating the doctrine of ministerial responsibility as Lodge and Rogers recommend, making politicians clearly responsible for policy, and civil servants for well-defined operational matters. This would markedly improve government performance, and more sharply defined responsibilities would help to open up the policymaking arena rather than allowing Ministers and senior officials to conspire in their dominance and control of the policy process. The danger of reforms that allow politicians to simply appoint and dismiss senior civil servants who can then be held accountable is that untrammelled executive power within the British system of government would be further strengthened.

At the same time, there is a strong case for reforming the departmental structure of British government which has grown too large and unwieldy. This prevents the development of genuinely holistic, ‘joined up’ government creating too many disparate departmental interests. In particular, the Treasury itself requires fundamental reform. The function of managing the public finances needs to be separated both from the task of improving the underlying growth rate of the British economy, and the design of social policy. The dominance of the Treasury view has long curtailed the realisation of social democratic aspirations in British politics.


Centre-local relations

The British state has always been highly centralised, and that trend grew significantly worse under the Thatcher governments. Labour’s constitutional reforms, particularly devolution, have begun to reverse that trend, but have not yet been extended to local government. This is not a simple process, however, and the emphasis has to be on striking the right balance between central control and local initiative. Redefining relations between the centre and the local level is crucial to moving beyond the Westminster model.

There are two particular challenges in relation to local government that Labour has to address in the next few years. The first is the importance of local initiative and experimentation, not only in responding to the demands of local electorates, but in forging new social democratic strategies and models. What is required in John Kay’s terms is a culture of disciplined pluralism in which locally elected, democratically accountable authorities are able to innovate and experiment freely within a high flexible regulatory framework unencumbered by constant interference from Ministers in Whitehall (Kay, 2003). This must include a far greater tolerance of ‘failed experiments’ and a willingness to accept risk-taking behaviours by local decision-makers and political actors.

The second challenge relates to the enduring issue of local authority finance in England and Wales. At its starkest, too much revenue in the UK is raised centrally and distributed locally, denuding local areas of proper democratic control and exacerbating the controlling tendencies of the centre. At the same time, the structure of Council Tax remains deeply regressive because those on lower incomes spend a larger proportion of their income on the tax than those on higher incomes. According to the New Policy Institute, the amount of Council Tax paid by people in the bottom fifth of the distribution is 5.5 per cent, compared to 3.5 per cent for the middle fifth, and 2 per cent for the top fifth (Kenway, 2006). Britain needs a progressive local taxation system which restores the autonomy of local government after decades of centralisation in Whitehall and Westminster, as well as increasing the disposable income of poorer citizens.


Opening up the policy process

Neither civil service reform nor greater local democratic control is sufficient to move beyond the Westminster model in empowering actors outside the core of the state. Whitehall historically has failed to look beyond itself: too often policy-making is done behind closed doors, with little attempt to engage external bodies or capitalise on outside expertise. Sue Goss has described the ‘invisible hierarchy’ which shapes the way that Whitehall views policy experts in the rest of the public sector and beyond. The default position is always to be closed and secretive, and the gulf between those who design policy and those who deliver it at ‘street-level’ has grown wider since the 1980s (Goss, 2005).

A crucial challenge for Labour is to think how in government it should break down barriers within public services, where professionals offer a rich source of ideas, innovation and expertise. Staff that work in Job Centre Plus, for example, should be involved in the development of welfare-to-work policy not treated merely as the delivery arm of the central state. At the same time, despite devolution and the creation of several ‘policy laboratories’ within the UK, Whitehall has not yet developed any systematic processes for monitoring policy innovation across Scotland, Wales and England.

The Whitehall centre also remains generally weak at deliberative public engagement, where it has much to learn from the imaginative use of new democratic processes by local government and local public services. Consultation processes tend to be ‘safety first’ focusing on client groups and particular professional interests. Few resources have ever been committed to analyzing what the public really thinks, particularly at a time where the UK population has become increasingly complex and diverse. Labour ought to consider placing a ‘duty to involve’ on government departments and public bodies, specifying how the public might access deliberative policy processes where significant new legislation and changes to service provision are proposed.



The argument of this article is that future Labour governments will only realise their strategic agenda by revisiting the basic premises of the Westminster model. The next phase of constitutional reform in Britain has to incorporate participatory initiatives that will make British government more bottom-up, responsive to the needs of citizens and local civic communities. That means confronting potential conflicts such as executive dominance and the existing constitutional relationship between Ministers and civil servants at the core of the British state, as well as strengthening local government and opening up the policy-making arena.

Changing the form of the state and the nature of citizenship will transform the context within which Labour governments govern in the future. The prize is potentially great because the claim of the Conservative Party that Labour is about consolidating the monolithic and centralising bureaucratic state will no longer appear credible. The initiative regarding the progressive reform of the British state and its institutions will once again rest with the Labour Party, as it did early in the twentieth century. It accords with the eloquent vision of participatory democracy espoused by the former Labour cabinet Minister, Richard Crossman over forty years ago:

I’m afraid very few members of the cabinet believe in participation. I learnt the philosophy from Tawney and Lindsay who taught me that social democracy consists of giving people a chance to decide for themselves – that’s the essence of it. This philosophy is extremely unpopular, I find, with most members of the cabinet … The notion of creating the extra burden of a live and articulate public opinion able to criticise actively and make its own choices is something which most socialist politicians keenly resent. (Crossman, 1966, 247)

The Blair and Brown governments did challenge some of the key features of the old centralised command state, undertaking a radical programme of devolution and constitutional reform. At the same time, core actors at the centre of government were able to maintain and consolidate their grip over the policy process. In other words, the key policy-making agents still remained within the core executive. This prevented the emergence of more deliberative and participatory approaches that go beyond the Westminster model. Only if that mould is decisively broken can a more pluralist and decentralised polity in Britain emerge, one which is better suited to the realisation of core social democratic values rooted in social justice, solidarity and the equal worth of all.


I am grateful to Professor David Richards (Sheffield University), Professor Mike Kenny (Sheffield University) and Professor Andrew Gamble (Cambridge University) for discussions that have closely informed the development of key ideas in this article.



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