Monday, 29 June 2015

Devolution and the Language of 'Power'



Politics is, or certainly should be, the business of trying to make the world a better place. People disagree about how best to do that, of course, but that is what it is all about - that is why people join political parties, go out campaigning, give their time and money to 'the cause', and ultimately become 'politicians' (or it certainly should be, and I think it mostly is).

However, that is quite clearly not the way it is seen by much of the wider public. There is a huge gulf of disconnect between people and 'politicians', and that is a disconnect that everyone involved in politics needs to be trying to address. It's by no means a simple issue, and there is no quick fix, but I do think we need to be better about the habitual, shorthand use of language that gives the wrong impression.

One thing that has long concerned my personally is the use of the word 'power'. It's something we hear a great deal of from politicians of all parties. In particular, it's a very common term used in the debate around devolution. I think it gives a very bad impression about how our elected representatives view their own position, and indeed may even be failing to remind some of our elected representatives what it is they have been elected to do (and how they should therefore act).

Now let me be clear on this. I am a Liberal. I do not believe that people are elected to 'wield power'. 'Power' only derives from, and entirely belongs to, 'the people' themselves, and they elect representatives merely to represent (the clue is in the name!), their interests and their opinions on how the country (or local area, or region) should best be administered and run. They do not, in my opinion, give them 'power' to use as they please, to serve themselves or to dominate and control the population. That is not the role of government, and that is not the role of politicians.

So let us stop using the language that suggests that it is. Instead of talking about 'power' and 'powers' all the time, taking 'power' from one set of politicians and giving it to another, devolving 'powers' from one institution to another, and so on, why don't we instead talk about 'responsibility' and 'responsibilities'.

To put it another way, let's look at a few definitions of the word 'Power' (from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com):
"The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way"
"The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events"
"Political or social authority or control, especially that exercised by a government"

That is all about control and authority, without reference to accountability.

Now let's consider the word 'Responsibility':
"The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone"
"The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something"
"A moral obligation to behave correctly towards or in respect of"

Isn't that a much better word to use to describe what elected members, democratic institutions and governments are there to do? Of course they have the ability to do things, but they are 'responsible' for them - they are 'accountable' and 'to blame' if they don't do it well enough, and they can even be said to have a 'moral obligation'.

This might seem like a minor point of semantics, but I think it is an important one. Political parties shouldn't be seeking 'power' to act as they please, they should be seeking to take 'responsibility' for doing things. This is what they should be saying to the people, and this is what they should be constantly reminding themselves about.

Now of course some political parties and politicians might see things differently - they might actually regard elections as being a way of 'gaining power' over the lives of the people, but that isn't the way that we, as Liberals, should be thinking (and I don't believe that that is the way that Liberals are actually thinking). So let us Liberals lead the way in using the appropriate language to remind ourselves, everyone in politics, and most importantly the electorate that we don't believe that politics is about 'power', but that we believe instead that it is about 'responsibility'.

Let's ditch the word 'power' from our political dictionary altogether - instead of 'devolving power' let's talk about 'devolving responsibility'. Instead of governments being 'in power', let's talk about them 'having responsibility'. It's only a few, short additional syllables, but I do think it's quite an important issue. We need politics to re-connect with people, and people to reconnect with politics, and and we're never going to do that while we give an impression that politics is all about politicians being 'powerful' instead of being 'responsible'. Of course, many people and politicians understand that it is really just a habit of political shorthand, but I think we really need to break that habit.

People are, quite rightly, never likely to trust a politician who they think believes that being elected gives them the 'power' to rule over them like some kind of feudal Lord, engaged in their own private games of furthering themselves within the system and looking out from the battlements of their castles over the 'plebs' below. They want, I believe, to know that politicians understand that they have merely been given (temporary) 'responsibility' to try to improve the world for everyone, because with responsibility comes accountability and moral obligation.

So let's stop talking of 'power' and 'powers', and start using more appropriate language, especially when it comes to the issue of devolution.

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