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  • Localism and Deliberative Democracy
  • John Parkinson (bio)


It is sometimes claimed that one of the most fruitful ways of deepening democracy is by "the proliferation of better minipublics", the extensive use of small-scale deliberative processes rather than wholesale reform of the public sphere.1 This article argues that there are reasons to be cautious about enthusiasm for the small scale. In particular, it argues that in a political context characterised by what in Britain is called "localism", certain kinds of minipublic can damage democracy by undermining the motivation to participate in politics more broadly.

When exploring the relationship bet-ween any political ideal and the real world, it is essential to keep three elements analytically distinct: theoretical statements of that ideal, the institutional designs that attempt to express that ideal, and the institutions in use in a given context. Otherwise it is impossible to tell whether issues identified in particular cases are to do with the theory itself, the fit between the theory and the institutional design, or the way in which the institution interacts with its context. In what follows, therefore, my aim is not to pour cold water on the call for more deliberative minipublics—far from it. Rather, I argue that that call should be made with more awareness of how minipublics interact with features of their context, sometimes with results that are quite the opposite of what their advocates would hope for.

The argument begins with a sketch of the outlines of localism in Britain. I then consider what happens when deliberative democratic ideals are applied in that localist context, drawing on the political theory of motivations, and illustrating with examples from British deliberative practice.

The new localism

Localism can be loosely defined as the view that policy is best when it operates at the level closest to the people it affects: to put it crudely, that devolution of power is good, centralisation bad. It fits with a long-standing tendency to equate centralisation with authoritarianism, decentralisation with democracy.2 Britain has a long localist tradition, with central government historically holding relatively few powers to deliver services directly to citizens, but rather being enmeshed in webs of interdependence with local agencies and non-governmental institutions in all sorts of areas like education, policing, housing, health and social services, areas that in many welfare regimes are under more direct control of central ministries.3

In its most recent incarnation, "the new localism" refers to at least two related but distinct sets of ideas. One version is best summed up by Pratchett, as follows:

It has two key features. Firstly, it recognises the importance of national standards and priorities as a driving force for public policy. Central government has a primary role to play in ensuring territorial justice, equity and the collective provision of public goods. In this respect, the centre can be expected to emphasise particular policy outcomes and to focus attention on particular priorities, especially where it has manifesto commitments to specified policies or outcomes… Secondly, however, the 'new localism' also recognises the primacy of the institutions of local governance in delivering public services on behalf of the centre, as well as wider arguments for locally sensitive policy implementation and community leadership. The advocates of the 'new localism', therefore, argue that diversity, choice and local difference should lie at the heart of policy developments.4

The advocates of this kind of localism have not promoted the complete devolution of power to local agencies. Phrases such as "earned autonomy" provide clues that power remains very much in the hands of central government which determines the grounds on which local agencies earn greater powers or not: as Pratchett puts it, there is rather more "freedom to" than "freedom from" under this kind of regime. This is for good reasons, according to its advocates. The idea is to attempt to overcome some of the common pathologies of decentralised government, particularly what is popularly called "the postcode lottery" in Britain, the idea that the quality and availability of public services depends on where you live rather than what you need.

This first kind of localism has dominated British centre-periphery relations for the last decade. With a new...


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pp. 23-29
Launched on MUSE
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